This essay is adapted from a presentation I gave with Crystal Boson and Greg Stumpo at the Poetry Festival at Round Top, Texas in 2010.
No writer is an island.
At least, no writer should be an island.
We read work by other poets or fiction writers or historians or whatever, take inspiration from them, and synthesize what we find best in them into our own voices. There’s more than that, however. There’s a need, whether you feel it or not, to bounce ideas off living, breathing people. Great works of literature almost always have fingerprints besides the author’s on them. The question is, to whom should you turn?
There are three friends every writer needs.
First of all, you need a cheerleader. The world of writing and publishing is not very forgiving, and unless you’re very lucky, you’ll stumble more often than you’ll soar. Rejection can come in any guise, from the generic form letter to a booing member of the audience, and can be coldly impersonal or bitterly specific. Your cheerleader is there to hold you up when you don’t want to go on. Your cheerleader reads your latest short story and falls in love with the characters, reads your new poem and asks to forward it to friends. When you get your twentieth rejection letter that month, after waiting nine months for this particular journal to respond, your cheerleader takes you out for coffee, maybe to the local open mic, and reminds you afterwards how much better you are than everybody else who read. Your cheerleader makes you feel good about your writing.
Secondly, you need an informed critic. This friend understands your work, perhaps better than you do. This friend points out every single metaphor and why each does or does not advance your poem’s overall motif. This friend acts out scenes from your play with you. The informed critic suggests appropriate journals and presses to you. The informed critic is your synaesthetic, telling you what your verbs taste like, what color your plot is. The informed critic shows you your own work through a strange mirror, allowing you to understand it in new ways. The informed critic doesn’t hold back when your new poem is not up to snuff but is not cruel in letting you know. This friend holds you up by making you a better writer.
Lastly, you need a non-writer. This friend hasn’t studied Marxist Theory, hasn’t kept up with the latest collections of poetry put out by Graywolf or Ugly Duckling Presse, hasn’t written a story since that exercise back in sophomore year of high school (and it wasn’t very good, even for high school). The non-writer keeps you honest. You don’t have to aim for the lowest common denominator in your writing, but you should remember that there is a world full of potential readers out there who are untrained, who are smart but not knowledgeable. You can reach them, if you wish, if someone can help remind you when you’ve gone too far. Or, this friend can be the first to announce that your latest work is affecting, is really striking on multiple levels. This friend will change over the years as he or she becomes more informed through the connection with you. Keep finding new non-writers.
My cheerleader is Janet McCann, a professor at Texas A&M who has always been in my corner. My informed critic is Crystal Boson, with whom I not only collaborate critically, but creatively. My non-writer used to be my wife, Kate, but she’s developed quite the discerning taste over the years (which is still great, as I can turn to her for an informed reading of whatever I’m working on). Now my non-writer is my dad. None of these people are close to me geographically, but we maintain communication through email, social networks, and phone calls. These are true friendships and relationships, and they improve what I do, who I am as a writer. Could I write without them? Probably. Something. But once you have these friends, you just might realize how much you really need them to be at your best.