neither ice nor mud nor winter light
on making friends as a writer
Hi friends 🍵🐳
One of my favorite poems is Song by Adrienne Rich, which has the following opening stanza:
You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.
It’s the flippant OK in the second line that really gets me, to admit loneliness and then describe it precisely for the rest of the poem. Loneliness is a theme I constantly circle around in my writing. A lot of writers can probably recognize or appreciate that impulse. Writing is so often a solitary act, and while it’s part of the job, it can get challenging even for the most autonomous people. I’m generally very at ease on my own, but when it comes to writing—coupled with the self-doubt, uncertainty, and the painful desire to make something good, the struggle would be much worse if I didn’t have my friends to lean on.
I’ve been reflecting on community recently, so I thought I’d share some ideas that have proven useful to me in developing and nurturing one. It’s a very personal thing, and everyone needs to figure out what works for them and what level of engagement they want. I’m really happy where I’m at with community at the moment, but that definitely hasn’t always been the case.
I’ve seen tweets where writers talk about how everyone wants to make friends, yet everyone is too embarrassed to make friends. Which is actually a pretty accurate portrayal of how people feel when they’re starting out building community. (I actually briefly considered calling this piece “notice me senpais,” then thought maybe not this time.)
Yeah, it’s nervewracking to reach out. And profoundly embarrassing. You worry about sounding stupid or gushing or unprofessional. Maybe you won’t be liked. Maybe you’ll be ignored. Maybe they’ll humor you but secretly think you suck! Etc etc.
The thing is, friendships happen only when people take a chance. They have to start somewhere. If you find someone cool and want to be their friend, it can’t hurt to reach out. It makes a difference, however, to be genuine and thoughtful about it.
Personally, I’ve done some fairly bold cold outreach. If I read someone’s work and like it, I’ll write them a thoughtful email about how I enjoyed their piece, and how I’m looking forward to reading more. (I get their emails from their website or Twitter bio.) The same is true if I like their nonfiction or their writing advice tweets, or whatever. In essence, I write people fan letters, which can be a starting point for a friendship.
There’s a casual Twitter version of this that I’ve also experienced, where you engage thoughtfully with someone’s tweets, in a measured way. The uh-oh version of this is liking everything they post and replying out-of-context or in overly familiar ways—usually that just makes a writer nervous and less willing to respond. But if you reply to tweets where you genuinely have something to say, and you do this respectfully and kindly…that can lead to friendship too. (I’ve seen this work particularly well when people share fandoms and are just delighted to have someone to yell with.)
I’ve been lucky to live mostly in cities with great writing communities. If I’m in the same city as a person, and I’m a fan of their work or we are lightly acquainted, I’ll sometimes ask if they’d like to grab coffee sometime. (Obviously I wouldn’t do this if I have no context for the person at all.) I’ve had nice coffee chats this way, and some of them have led to precious friendships for me.
I’ve also been lucky enough to attend some cons, which have been particularly useful for meeting friends-of-friends. Even if I know only one person when I arrive, that friend probably knows someone else, and eventually we’ll end up in a large cluster at the hotel lobby talking shop or craft while people drop in and out. I have also bashfully approached writers I like at cons, asking them to sign my books; sometimes it leads to a short chat where I get to do the toe-curling in-person version of my fan letter. I’ve made at least one very good friend this way, so it was worth the awful moment of psyching myself up to do it.
In short—making friends often means getting over your own embarrassment long enough to say hi. I grew up extremely shy and didn’t like introducing myself to people, but when I moved to the US in 2010 and knew absolutely no one, I realized I would be miserably lonely if I didn’t get over this initial reluctance to take the first step. I have some tough memories of randomly sitting at cafeteria tables to meet people as an undergraduate transfer student. Even then, I would give up some days and spend lunch at the library, quietly eating a sandwich by myself. But over time I did develop that muscle, and it’s served me incredibly well, especially since I’ve moved to new environments so frequently. It’s not easy, and it requires practice—but if you stick with it, it’ll get better.
This is the courtyard of Somerset House in London. Moving there really tested my gutsily-say-hi capabilities, as I had one friend—my coworker—when I moved. Eventually I did make writer friends in that city. I can’t wait to visit them again post-quarantine.
find common ground
The above stories might make it seem like 9/10 times, when I reached out, a friendship magically formed. That’s not actually the case, but I do think there are specific things that make it more likely for initial outreach to become an actual relationship.
One thing I’ve observed is it’s easier to be friends if you’re roughly in the same stage of career. You might have heard folks talking about this idea of “We came up together.” Some even phrase it more specifically as, don’t try too hard to make friends with writers who are way more advanced in their careers, and probably already have their own friend groups; instead, focus on the folks who are around you. I don’t believe in that advice wholesale because I think friend groups are malleable, not fixed; also, good people remain good people, no matter how successful they are.
But I do think there’s some truth to this statement for the simple reason that you’re more likely to have things in common with people who are experiencing a similar set of struggles/learnings/emotions, which is partly determined by where you are in your writing journey. That common ground can make it easier to deepen a friendship.
This isn’t true across the board, but several of my sff friends I think of as my “cohort” in the sense that we started publishing short stories around the same time, so our freakouts and triumphs were somewhat in sync. We attended cons the same years, because we were trying to get acquainted with the community and establish our careers. (Then, after a while, we moved into the stage of con-ing where you’re no longer going to every panel possible, and instead prefer hanging out at the lobby or having 1-1 catch-ups). We felt sick over awards season together, and then cheered on those who did make the ballots. My cohort is also now at the point where those who want to write novels are either struggling through first drafts, or have (hurrah!) started to sell them. Some even have a few books out already.
Being in the same career stage can act as a balm to professional jealousy in some ways, which is a bit counter-intuitive. Professional jealousy deserves its own post sometime, but one aspect of it is that friendships gain more stability if you respect each other, and each other’s work. I don’t mean that you have to love every thing all your friends write (it’s awesome if you do…but is that actually possible?)—but you do need to view them as professionals when it comes to The Work, and that’s easier to do when you’re on even(ish) footing. No matter how generous-of-spirit one is, of course it’s going to hurt when people around you start succeeding in certain ways. You’ll start to wonder: why not me? And there are all kinds of reasons why, but ideally starting off in roughly the same stage keeps those timelines within a certain boundary.
If this all sounds very calculating—well, it really isn’t. It often happens quite naturally. And in a very genuine way, I love the writing of my peers—the people who were publishing the same time as me, or were just ahead. They were the people I most wanted to connect with, and I thought we might have useful notes to exchange about being in the writing-and-trying-to-publish-trenches. It’s this common ground that had them willing to reply when I reached out.
People also form more formal cohorts when they undergo a thing together—like a writing workshop, an MFA, a pitch contest, or a debut year. Those experiences reinforce that initial bond, and allow for the magic friend-of-a-friend links that can become broader networks.
By the way, it’s not always writing. Sometimes the friendship happens because we’re obsessed with the same silly anime boy or kpop group.
okay but what about actual senpai though
Most of my writing friends are peers, but once in a while I do end up connecting with someone who is much farther along in their career OR who I’m just a big personal fan of, and I’m like woah, what the heck, why are you even talking to me. Proceeded by a lot of potatorolling. If you’re unfamiliar…that basically means lying on the floor and going “Ahhh” in faint, ghostly tones. Like a potato.
The times this has happened to me, it came about the following ways:
I reached out. With sweaty palms. Metaphorically. And it worked out.
A friend introduced us.
Maybe we ended up in a panel together, or somehow sat facing each other at a crowded post-con dinner at Denny’s.
For no apparent reason? They just—suddenly show up and are being very generous and mentor-ish?
I firmly believe that last one occurs because good people are good, and there are some successful writers who care deeply about investing in community. On the rare occasion when this happens, I try to take it gracefully. I also try not to be too humble or self-effacing, even if that’s my inclination. (I’m a professional too!)
Some people who you consider mentors can also be friends. These can feel a bit awkward as you try to get over your insecurity. But if you are constantly putting someone on a pedestal when they’re trying to talk to you normally…maybe don’t? You should always be respectful, but take your cue from their interactions. Above all else, enjoying those interactions and staying genuine will be your best bet to actually deepening the relationship in a natural, comfortable way.
And—when you’re in a position to mentor someone—I hope you do so! Many folks could use that first push or little bit of guidance; you could profoundly change someone’s life or career through simple encouragement.
let it grow
Building friendships takes time. It requires deliberate investment. When it comes to making friends, I think breadth is awesome—you never know who you’ll meet and hit it off with, so casting a wide net can be great. But depth is where you’ll really start to see those awkward hi’s pay off. It’s in the communication and support, the conversations where you start to talk more about what really matters. It’s in consistency. People drop off, of course; there are all kinds of reasons for friends to take breaks or not be in touch for a while…but real friendships will survive, re-surface.
It’s hard to force relationships. It can be disappointing when you’re trying to forge one and it feels like the other party isn’t as responsive or enthused as you want them to be. There could be many reasons for that, and you won’t usually be able to uncover it. In this case, I think you should be respectful and flexible, and see if maybe the author is trying to send you signals about how much engagement they want. You don’t need to stop trying cold turkey, but it might not be a bad idea to turn your attention elsewhere—there are lots of potential friends to make out there, who could turn out to be a better fit!
Alternatively, you might be on the receiving end of someone trying to make a friendship, and you’re not super comfortable, but you don’t want to appear cold or conceited. I’ve been in this situation, dayjob-wise and writing-wise, where I’m kind and friendly, so people take that as an invitation to be overly familiar and sometimes invasive. Then my alternative is to be an icy bitch. It sucks a lot—but your time and energy are precious, and you don’t need to give them to anyone if you don’t want to. (You don’t need to justify this either.)
Something that I’ve found to be very useful is cultivating different friend groups if possible. That includes making friends that aren’t writers. If your entire social circle is made up of people who are obsessed with the same things you are, and everyone is also a colleague because publishing is actually a small industry—then it will be very difficult to tune the drama out, and there is a lot of drama. So make friends with different hobbies, and even within writing, try to have some variance in who you connect with.
Lastly—be kind. Sometimes the starting point is that I like someone’s writing, but I only become actual friends with someone because I like them. No amount of skill will ever make me want to befriend someone if they’re not kind, or shady, or are actively toxic. On the other hand, I adore a lot of people whose work I’ve not read or don’t particularly connect with (this is not!! a subtweet!!). You’ll find that isn’t too unusual, as at some point it starts to become unwieldy to read everything your community is producing.
Be kind. Do your best to be genuine. Stay flexible and open, and when you find a set of people that feel like home, make time for them. It’s worth it.
This image was taken when I went wandering by myself during a weekend retreat with some writing friends back in 2017. I was alone in that moment, but felt cheerfully swaddled by community too, which was nice.
Thanks as always for reading! I’m sending this out on a Saturday rather than a Thursday, and that’s entirely because I was too exhausted to write in the middle of this week. But I didn’t want to miss twice and make a bad habit of it! I’m very grateful you’re here. If you liked this post, feel free to share it with others, or sign up if you haven’t yet.