We learn many things about being writers while in graduate school and our skin grows thicker through the rough polish that work submission gives us, but where do we learn about how to establish and maintain literary friendships? To a writer, they’re deeply important, not just because writing is a lonely process but because the majority of any writer’s life exists not in “pen in hand” time but in the other twenty-two hours a day. To whom do we first show our work, particularly when we’re in a period of style shift? To whom do we turn when the third (or fourth or fifth) rejection in a row arrives? Whose behavior do we look to and follow as we get published and develop a literary reputation of our own? Only another writer can do, but literary friends deviate from nonliterary ones. Successful literary friendships are guided by a set of unspoken rules which themselves shift as the nature of the relationship shifts.
The first literary friendships I had were with poets whose writing I admired, poets who in turn treated me (and my writing) with respect and enthusiasm. I met Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner just as I began to get published. They were James Merrill Writers-in-Residence in neighboring Stonington. They’d formed Sarabande Books almost a decade earlier and each had a number of published collections. We were the same age, as were our daughters, and this started a friendship in which I (rather gingerly) asked them questions about whether grad school was a good option for a woman in her late forties, who were the poets they most admired, and how they coped with rejection. I listened closely to their answers, read every book they mentioned liking, and never, ever passed on personal information they shared. Over the years, we’ve become very close, though there is a part of me which will always see them as mentors.
I’ve found mentors in other places as well. I had the great good fortune to study with Jane Hirshfield while in graduate school. Her intelligence, humility, and graciousness are as important to me as what she taught me in terms of prosody. She would likely be stunned (and a little embarrassed) by my mentioning her, despite my private expressions of gratitude over the years.
I came to know Marilyn Nelson after conducting a literary interview with her. Every one of her books and every one of her answers were direct, honest, and generous, and this is how she lives her life. She too is a poet who I consider a touchstone and a mentor.
In my relationships with mentors, I’m very careful to not contact them too frequently or too personally. I don’t assume we’re peers or friends
Over the years, I’ve become friendly with some of the editors of the literary magazines I most admire. Because I would like to see my work published in these magazines, I’m careful to never mix the friendship with business. This means I write in my professional voice when I submit work, and keep personal correspondence completely separate, both in time and sphere. I fully expect my editor friends to treat my work dispassionately, and accept it only if they feel it’s just what they’re looking for. I don’t take it personally when I get a rejection.
I was emailing just yesterday with an editor who has recently rejected my work for the third time in a row. Because we’re friends, I like her to see the very best of what I’ve been writing, whether or not she thinks it’s right for her literary magazine. I appreciate her aesthetic eye as well as the warmth of her friendship. She wrote a reply that I love and has given her permission to reprint it here:
“Rejecting friends' work is the most painful part of editing. In my experience, friends' aesthetics go in and out of phase with each other, and the important thing is to respect the integrity of the other person's intentions and efforts. The rest will sort itself.”
And so it does.
I teach as an adjunct so I don’t have official colleagues, but all my fellow Benningtonians, regardless of the genre they studied, are colleagues to me. When I get an attagirl from them, I know it’s well-meant, and I reciprocate with enthusiasm. Because we’re still relatively new writers, I’m happy to share information about where and how to submit work, and sometimes drop a friend a line telling him about a specific contest, or asking if she’s managed to find the time to write after having had a baby. And they do the same with me. I’m blogging here because of the inimitable Laura Orem, whose generosity astounds me.
Just recently have I begun myself in the position of acting as a mentor to other writers. I battle a sense of not having the success and intelligence which might make my advice worth taking. But since I understand very well the desire—and need—for writers to find models not only for their work but for the way they proceed in the world, I do my best to be honest and helpful when someone reaches out to me.
Sometimes I think about how miraculous it is that we exist in the same country, at the same time in history, doing the same thing. How can I not feel heard by fellow poets? How can I not hear those who want to speak to me? Marilyn Nelson pointed me to Lisel Mueller’s beautiful poem, “Alive Together” a few months ago. It’s the perfect way to say thank you and goodbye.
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard's woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pop
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master's bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrong-headed angel,
or Mary's friend. I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah's Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who--but for endless ifs--
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.