At some point in your writing journey you will make other writer friends and exchange work with them. Anne Lamott hilariously describes this relationship in her book Bird by Bird. One of my favorite passages is when she writes about sending out her work to her trusted readers:
I always send my work Federal Express, because I am too impatient to wait for the mail to deliver it. I spend the entire next day waiting to hear, pacing, overeating, feeling paranoid and badly treated if I haven’t heard from my friends by noon. Naturally I assume that they think it is tripe but that don’t have the courage to tell me. Then I’ll think about all the things I don’t like about either of them, how much in fact I hate them both, how it is no wonder that neither of them has many friends. And then the phone will ring and they will usually say something along the lines of “I think it’s going to be great, I think it’s really good work. But I also think there are a few problems.” (Lamott 165)
At this point I should point out that this was not the blog post I set out to write. I originally started one about supporting characters, mostly about the genius of Jeffrey Eugenides and how he crafted such great supporting characters in The Marriage Plot, and how these secondary characters always complemented but never upstaged the protagonists. But I needed more examples of good supporting characters so I e-mailed a writer friend asking for suggestions and he suggested I use Thomas Pynchon’s V. When I pulled out V and started thumbing through it, I realized there was no way I could summarize the supporting characters in this novel in twenty-four hours. Actually I don’t know if I could summarize any part of this novel unless I had a very long time to sit down and really think about it without any interruptions, and since I’m a mom whose kids are on spring break, this was not a very likely scenario. Instead I started thinking about why I even owned the book V in the first place or why I recently bought the collected works of Eudora Welty. And the simple answer is that my writer friends recommended them.
Writers support each other in lots of ways. We read each other’s work (I think it’s going to be great but I also think there are a few problems…) We celebrate victories (Publication!) and wallow in the defeats (It’s been a triple crown rejection day.) When I got stuck on what to title this blog post, I texted an SOS to my writer friends, and I have to say it was a tough decision between the current title and “Grumpy Cat Hates All the Writers My Friends Like.”
Another way writers can support each other is to read the stories and authors their friends like. There’s a benefit to this beyond just being a good friend. Reading another writer’s favorite author can help you understand his work better, which in turn can lead to you understanding your own work better.
One of my mentors in grad school once said about one of his trusted readers something like, “He knows my work so well that he knows what I’m trying to do even when I don’t quite pull it off.” I think that this kind of understanding comes from seeing the whole picture of what shapes a writer and his work. All writers are huge readers. All writers? Yes, all writers. You will never ask another writer what he’s currently reading and get a blank stare in return. A writer will never say, “I can’t remember the last thing I read because I just can’t seem to find the time to sit down and read!”
When you read another writer’s favorite author, you have almost instant access into what he is hoping to do in his own work or who he might be consciously (or unconsciously) emulating. For example, maybe you are not a fan of books with looooooooooong scenery descriptions. But then one of your favorite writer friends recommends you read A Boring Book Where Setting is a Character, which just so happens to be his Favorite Story. Ohmygod you do not want to read this book.
To be honest, you are probably not going to love this book. Probably there will be times you are slogging through it and your spouse will say, “Why are you reading a book that makes you as pleasant to be around as Grumpy Cat?” But hopefully you will not give up on the book before you have an “a-ha!” moment where you suddenly see why your friend loves, loves, loves this author (oh, all these setting descriptions really do ground the reader in the scene) or you will see the author’s influence in your friend’s work (so that’s why he’s always describing what people are wearing in such detail.) Maybe prior to reading this book you would have told your friend to cut all those unnecessary descriptions. This doesn’t mean that your instincts are incorrect—just because someone is good at describing scenery doesn’t mean setting descriptions should overshadow the rest of the story.
However, it’s good to be reminded that no one approaches a book the same way. Some people want to be challenged by a storyline. Some read for escapism. Some want to connect with the characters. Two people can enjoy the same story but for different reasons. Conversely, two people can dislike the same story for different reasons. If you are only reading work similar to your own, you could easily fall into a rut. Without my writer friends I would never have discovered Junot Díaz or Eudora Welty or Thomas Pynchon or Miranda July. And without reading these authors I probably wouldn’t have been willing to take any risks in my own writing and try something new. When I started grad school, I only read novels and I thought of myself strictly as a novelist. And now of course I enjoy writing short stories as much if not more than novels, and my bookshelf is full of really great short story collections too.
So when your writer friend mentions for the umpteenth time how much she loves Alice Munro, squash your inner Grumpy Cat (That book? No) and just go ahead and read it.