I ask writers – especially writers who recently started to publish – to consider this rule with regard to their family and friends: I will never let someone’s personal reactions to my work change our relationship.
Writers won’t follow this rule because it’s an impossible rule to follow. People who say the right things will be loved a little more strongly. People who say the wrong things will go on a subconscious shit-list. The silence of those who say nothing will, over time, wear down the writer.
However, the rule is absolutely necessary to follow when the relationship is one you will never give up on; that list might include mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, best friends, and, of course – most of all – the children of writers. It might also include in-laws and certain neighbors and business partners, colleagues, and other writers. It might be a long list. It might be a short one. But if the writer is in a situation in which they’re shutting down on someone and the spark was a comment about their work (or decades of silence), they need to really weigh that comment (or long silence) before bailing.
Note that I didn’t put life-partner on the list. If a writer’s life-partner isn’t saying the right things about the work, this is going to cause major problems. Those who commit to loving a writer, for life, can’t simply try not to say the wrong thing; they should be vigorous, gushing, rock-solid champions of their partners’ creativity. I’m sure there are writers who compartmentalize their writing life and their partners don’t really enter into it. I imagine this would be incredibly hard to sustain, and I’m sure there are those who have.
On the flip side: the writers children shouldn’t ever have to think of their parents as creatives. They shouldn’t ever have to read the parents’ work and should never feel an ounce of pressure to do so, in my opinion. First and foremost, the parent nurtures the child. The child is never required to nurture the parent. The parent and child might end up having a fantastic creative partnership, but as a parent, your role is as mother or father, and it can be important for kids to have that role protected. The fact that the parent does something that is as intimate and yet public as writing shouldn’t come up with any more emotional weight than a fish-shop owner’s concerns about the sale-price of salmon. It might be urgent and a lot might be at stake, but it isn’t the child’s job to say the right thing to boost a writer.
We are wired to react to pain and hold onto it in order to learn from it.
I’ve published over twenty books. I hold onto everything said (and if years pass with nothing said) about my work. I hold onto the kindnesses loosely. I hold onto the criticisms like a bear trap. I don’t do this because I choose to. I do it because I am wired to – most of us are on a very basic level. Criticism is painful. We are wired to react to pain and hold onto it in order to learn from it. I can give a reading to an audience and be able to tell you everything about the guy in the back who brooded throughout it, and the line I read that finally prompted him to look up and jot a note. The attentive others? A blur.
But I follow the rule when it comes to my siblings, for example. I never expected them to read my work or comment. With my earliest books, I did expect them to buy a copy, but that was it. When my brother read my third novel, I was stunned. When he referenced my fifteenth book in conversation and with admiration, I was happily surprised. One of my sisters connected with me once about my poetry, which was very nice to hear. And I’ve collaborated a bit creatively with my other sister, a wonderful writer in her own right. Years and many books have gone by without comment from them, and I have completely cordoned off my writer self from my sister self. They didn’t ask to have a writer for a sister.
I put friends from childhood in this category. I cherish the friends who’ve known me from the beginning, and I could care less if they ever pop open a copy of something I’ve written. I tell you, though, when someone I never expected to read one of my books does and says one nice small thing, it goes a long way.
Friendships formed since I started writing are different. With friends, especially when they choose me now – I’m obviously a writer, raising a family with this career – I actually do expect them to be able to acknowledge what I do. I need to be able to talk about my work because my work isn’t just my job. Writing is a long marriage, beautiful and winding and sometimes terrifying and punishing. If I don’t feel comfortable talking about it or if the new friend never mentions it or segues away from it and we’re not talking about it at all, then I’m cutting off a huge portion of my identity. It’s surprising how many new friends I make who really don’t want to connect about this part of my life. I know now that those friendships won’t endure. And I’ll let them fade out.
I will say here that, occasionally, people come at writers with a lot of very strange and hostile energy. Sometimes these folks, one finds out later, are failed writers or people who never really gave themselves a shot. I’ve gotten pretty adept at spotting this weird energy and I pivot away as fast as I can. There are also folks who want to rope a writer into reading their work and friendship is a pretense. I give these folks the names of friends of mine who edit for a living.
So … How should friends and family of a writer show their support? Below is a list of tips that you, my fellow writers, can feel free to draw from. (If we share this list in a ha-this-is-kinda-funny way, maybe it’ll find the folks who need little tips and reminders without any finger-pointing.)