It’s also true that some of the most difficult interactions I’ve had in recent years have been with fiction writers.
Here’s an ugly little not-so-secret fact: Fiction writers are competitive. Fiction writers aren’t always straightforward, or sincere. We’re good at manipulation on the page, after all; what’s to keep it from spilling over into real life? Someone once said to me, only half-kidding, that she prefers poets as friends because poets aren’t cut-throat. There’s no money in poetry, so they don’t have to be. Anyone who has spent time in an MFA program or at a residency knows that the social dynamics at the fiction table can be as duplicitous and charged as the stuff that seventh-grade girls impose upon each other. I prefer sitting, most nights, with the visual artists.
Is it always that bad? Of course not. I came out of grad school not only happy but with good fiction-writing friends in the bargain. And I’m in a writing group with fiction writers I trust and care about. So why am I so susceptible, among certain writers, to feelings of insecurity and fierce competitiveness? Am I really that vulnerable, that petty? Or is something about writers in a herd, writers with our public faces on, that brings me back to junior high?
My reactions have little to do with writing merit; there’s just something about Writer A that makes me grimace whenever I read of his latest publication, whereas I’m filled with joy at learning that Writer B has won a certain award. I may or may not know either of them, but over the years, something – their affect, their eyeglass frames, their posture at a reading – has short-circuited all my years of supposed social maturation and taken me back to age twelve, when I knew instinctively whom to avoid.
Sure, there are blatant cases. The writer I’ve met ten times who, each time, looks at me blankly. The two who said No when, new at a teaching job, I asked if I might share their table. And, on the other hand, the novelist I first met when I was her student; after ten years, she greeted me with a smile and asked if I still wrote about ghost towns.
Do I expect fiction writers not to be human, not to be as varied on the likeability scale as, say, house painters or musicians or attorneys? No, but I don’t care about house painting or the law or even music – not the way I care about fiction. Perhaps I’m stunted, or overly sensitive, but I’ve learned that some other writers can bring out a side of me that I don’t particularly like. And when that happens, I may give as good as I get. Yikes.
For years, I’ve told myself to Get Over It. To go out and attend events, to schmooze, to hobnob, to network. And I’ve felt miserable when doing so under that kind of direction, with that kind of expectation – or when, looking around the crowded room of chatting writers, I feign interest in the nut bowl. But when I go to hear a writer I generally admire, or to listen to a group of writers whose names I’ve never heard before – out of curiosity, out of eagerness to hear people read aloud – then I’m brought back to the joy and, yes, solidarity that can be found in such venues.
I wish I could balance both pieces – the public and the private – more consistently. My email in-box is full of notices of readings throughout the Bay Area. I should go to more of them, right? Maybe not. Maybe it’s OK to realize that balance isn’t always available, at least not while I need to put more energy into the private side, into the writing. When I’ve got a chapter I feel good about, a story I’m ready to send out, then I’ll call one of my writer friends. “There’s a reading tonight. Wanna go?” We’ll go, we’ll listen, we’ll laugh. And I’ll remind myself that I don’t have to like all the kids, nor do they all have to like me. But it doesn’t hurt to hear their work — with an open mind.