Friends and Writers

Susann Hayden explores adult friendships and offers advice for writers to find fellowship.

Last week I read a WordPress article from a capable author in her forties who had gone broke, lost her career, never been married, and been ditched by each of her friends all while commemorating the first anniversary of her mother’s death. Her pain was palpable through every paragraph. The theme of the piece was adult friendship and the framework was centered around long time female friends who, in gender solidarity, were expected to stick around through thick and thin. Reflection on some of these questions made me recommit to solutions for myself around the difficulty of finding and keeping friends as an adult – and a writer.

It didn’t surprise me that this writer had lost her friends. As we go through our paths as adults, most of us drop countless people by the wayside and are, similarly, left by the curb ourselves. The reality is that if over half of marriages end in divorce, why wouldn’t an even bigger proportion of friendships end every few years or decades? Think about the friends you had in elementary school or in your childhood neighborhood. Didn’t you transition to different friends by junior high? How about from high school to college or high school to work? Have you ever relocated, changed careers, had a baby, endured a serious illness, survived a natural disaster, bought a house, taken up an adult hobby? Have you ever reconsidered your religion, changed your major, come out with a previously undisclosed sexual preference, inherited money, become a vegan? Think of all the changes and choices we are privileged to make as adults along with the unending list of more serious life events that can descend on us like comets falling from the sky. Many of us lose contact with family members through many of these events, much less friends we chose when we were 10 or 18 or 25 years old.

People who find romantic love that lasts to a golden anniversary or people who find friendships that last a lifetime may be just blessed in this way. Like a born athlete or a musical prodigy or a genius – maybe this is just the gift life has bestowed. Yes, we can improve ourselves as friends and people but it is no guarantee that others will do the same for us at the same time or at the time that we need it. When friends drop us in the times we need them most, as will spouses and employers and landlords, it can be devastating. Gender has nothing to do with the endurance of friendship any more than any other race, age, lifestyle marker accounts for loyalty of any kind. When life transitions, friends can behave as if bad luck or singular choices are contagious. We are shunned and unfriended and, ultimately, dropped. It’s the same feeling as having a lover leave who has been naked with you, knows your covert predilection for Sookie Stackhouse novels, and agrees that your sister is a nutter. Suddenly, all of those intimacies are gone; when you already are feeling vulnerable and hopeless, these losses seem compounded. The hardest part is not seeing it coming. We have made a social contract and the agreement is broken. It’s stunning and appalling. It is sanctimonious to think we have not made some of these hardened friendship choices ourselves.

Both of my parents died when I was much younger. One of the feelings that I never expected was a sense of freedom. My parents rarely placed familial suppositions on me. But during both of their funerals, I still had this surreal feeling that my life was now my own. I had no more fears of confounding them, celebrating the holidays the way we always had, dressing a certain way, or hearing again about me calling marshmallows ‘hush-mush’, or how I got the family car stuck in a lake. I was absolutely free of anyone’s expectations but my own. There was no history attached to me that would prevent me from being what I envisioned.

I have come to feel the same way about losing friends. If you have ever steeled yourself for a phone call where you will be explaining to someone who ‘knows you’ that you are now eating raw, practicing Buddhism, learning to skydive, or voting for Jesse Jackson, then you can probably relate to this. In those times I always resented having to explain myself and my choices. This pre-conversation angst was always a reliable signal to me that it was probably time to move on from those friendships. In truth, I have also dropped people for marrying someone I couldn’t stand, raising obnoxious children, or forcing bad food or family newsletters on me. I have eschewed former pals for playing endless games of Farmville on Facebook, talking to me about going to hell, mentioning the Kardashians, or voting for Republicans. Usually, we are simply no longer compatible in any way and we need to move on. Often, I have become obsessed with a new passion and purpose and need to be surrounded by a circle of supporters who share my enthusiasm. And, my friends aren’t moving on at that particular time. The timing is off: one of us is changing and one of us is steadfastly maintaining. We have become cronies instead of compatriots.

When you change, people cannot always change with you. Some of the changes you make in life seem too scary, too ludicrous, or too risky for others to come along. Some paths have to be walked alone for a while. Sometimes you have to be your own best friend through transition. For everything we lose, there is something better to take its place.

Our society has changed. Look at the main ways we communicate now: social media, emails, texts, and phone tag. Change is not bad, it just is. At the same time, we bemoan the loss of personal time and gatherings and holidays and face-to-face talks, we have gained the ability to video call, share real time photos and video, keep our friends and family current on the daily reality of our lives – what we like to do, where we like to go – and communicate with a whole world of friends we could never have ‘met’ any other way but through the technology we feel is alienating us. It’s a trade-off. The important lesson is to find what works for us for an appropriate level of community and intimacy, and leverage technology to sustain it. Still, I miss the times when getting together with a friend for a drink, a movie, a weekend, was possible just be picking up the phone. And, most people – even those that use social media constantly – still desire a level of friendship that can’t be forged without personal contact.

Life in any city or small town makes meeting friends easier because activities are arranged for you all of the time from building get-togethers to gallery walks to sporting events to holiday festivities. But, you have to be patient and actually not pretend you are busy by playing with your phone apps -or, worse, talking on your phone – or look away the minute you meet someone’s eyes. City dwellers have an armor around them to stay safe or on schedule; small town people are worried about how you will change the dynamic they have grown to expect. It’s important to be authentic, open to opportunities, and keep at it.

Here are a few ideas for writers and other entrepreneur types looking to make friends as an adult.

Writers’ walking group: Let’s face it. Writing is a solitary pursuit and one that can make you inactive. Walking, getting fresh air, being joined for a while by like souls who understand what you go through at the computer could be just the antidote to writer’s malaise. Beware searching for the right criteria on places like Craig’s List. I looked for other writers and possible walking buddies last year and came upon the perfect ad line for what seemed like a writer who liked to walk and wanted some company. I clicked in to the post of a female lying naked, face down on her bed. Turns out, she liked to take long walks, was looking for an artist, and was really anxious for new friends. Yeah, that’s not what I meant. Like every worthwhile pursuit, finding walking buddies will be a process.

Find a stranger mentor on the web: My mentor is a total stranger named James Altucher; he has helped me more than he could ever know this year. James is a financial analyst and the best-selling author of Choose Yourself and countless other books about being an entrepreneur in the new economy. He is a prolific email and article writer and his style is humorous, specific, and self-deprecating. He tells the tales. He also has a plethora of practical advice to encourage walking your own path and understands that you have to make money at it. His ten ideas a day and 1% improvement theories really keep me on the right track. His books are sometimes free through the Kindle program at Amazon and his free subscription service to his website and email list offer me a daily dose of strength and motivation. I don’t know James and I have nothing to gain by shilling for him here. But, he has recommended many books and avenues of research for me and made me an idea machine for my thinking and writing. Thanks so much, James.

Start reading other blogs until you find a circle of like minds or minds that stimulate your own creativity. Don’t study the experts for this exercise; follow the fascinating. I trail photographers, postcard collectors, museum enthusiasts, fashionistas, astrologers, travelers, home cooks, surgeons, poets, pastors, and stay at home dads. They hail from Calgary, London, Dubai, Bangkok, Kowloon City, Tokyo, Moscow, Charlotte, New Delhi, New York City, Lisbon, Rio, and Dayton, Ohio. I love my gang of fellow creatives – and I have never met nor spoken with a single one of them. But, I do not feel alone or disenfranchised. They show me the depths of their thoughts and share minute, intimate, details of their lives with me. And, several of them make me laugh out loud while I am reading. I am so grateful.

Take a class: Seriously. It really works. Take a class in something unusual that will attract the people who have hidden dreams and quirky proclivities just like you. For example, I don’t know of anyone who ever met a new pal in a sadistic spinning class, but I know a lot of people who have met great friends at a sweaty co-ed yoga studio. (Co-ed is key: even if you find the opposite gender scary, it helps to have a well-rounded group with a lot of different perspectives when learning a new skill.) Ditto cooking classes and watercolor classes, pet training and scuba lessons. Dance classes are also great, but don’t pick the ones for two person dances. Pick something like tap or modern dance, where there is no gender or couples pressure. Take a class in chess or improvisation, public speaking or ornithology; learn a foreign language or music appreciation. Just pick something and go. Do it NOW!

Thank another writer with a note: I do a lot of reading and research for my writing. Recently, for example, I wrote a post on forgiveness after reading a compilation book on the topic and finding an excellent article to serve as my framework. I was so appreciative of the way this writer explained her theories that I looked her up online, found her website, and sent her a short note through her contact page. I simply stated that what she wrote really spoke to me and that I could grasp and synthesize her theory because of the excellent examples and stories she used to illustrate her points. I thanked her and wished her well. Less than a day later, I received a warm note from this busy woman, letting me know she was glad she could help and wishing me well right back. I have read about the importance of thanking your author mentors as far back as Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, but I never took the advice before now. I have now decided to do this at least once a month because it is a good exercise for future friendships and relationships, period. If you want a friend, be a friend. If you want support, be supportive. If you want give and take, give first and see what happens. Again, I will probably never meet any of the writers I acknowledge. But, I feel like the world is full of potential friends; I know I am not alone trying to be a pioneer.

Do Volunteer Work: Feel like you are friendless and alone because your college pals don’t support you as a writer? Feel hurt by being left behind to deal with your changes? Feel scared about looking for a new job or downsizing to make a career change? Then get your self up and go volunteer. Just type in ‘volunteer opportunities’ and your zip code into Google search then pick up the phone. Some place in your area needs your help right now to serve food or make phone calls or clean toilets or keep somebody company. One of the best ways to feel less distress is to go see the state of someone else’s life – someone else that needs a lot more comfort than you do right now. Want instant gratification and appreciation? One of those people you go help today will hold your hand or smile at you or say thank-you and it will sustain you for weeks. Volunteering is addictive to those needing humanity. And, as a writer, think of the stories and experiences you will gain.

By the way, I believe a new level of friendship is being and could be better forged through participation writing and reading these blogs. I don’t know how that would look, but I see more opportunity to connect beyond leaving brief praises and likes. Many longer term bloggers appear to have established a comfortable social network of followers and work friends through sharing posts. But, there may be a chance for more interaction or support for those who would like it. Please share any thoughts and ideas in the comments section: more ideas about adult friendships in general, how to forge them, how to keep them, how to forge friendships as a writer, etc.

We all deserve to be surrounded by people who understand and support us, however fleeting or enduring that may be. And, to the woman writer who has had such a rough transitional year, I repeat the eastern philosophy that I was told by a friend: When things are falling apart, they are really falling together. Good luck and Buddha bless to you. Who couldn’t use a few good friends?

Being Sensate

In this photo essay, Susann Hayden explores the sensory experience of the artist and the audience – featuring beautiful photographs from Trou Blanc Photography.

I’m not a visual person. Statistics show that most of my gender are not, compared to sight and visual cues dominating the sensory experiences of the majority of men. I take everything in without too much focus on any one thing and process it as a total sensory experience – combined with the smells, the tastes, the feel, the soundtrack. I am more surface that way, like taking a helicopter view that gives me a dominant impression that I can quickly process and store or discard.

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Cannabis in the Mist, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

What am I sensing? Emotions, usually. The general mood. A sense of beauty or violence or energy, to name a few of the labels I use to sort it all. I retain all of the sensory details, with the visual cues in the background fading more often than not. My eye for detail is limited by my overall perception of the stimuli; I remember a couple of details vividly – those that support my label of the experience, and those that seem to most contradict it. Therefore, the more juxtaposition of elements there are in the sensory experience I am having, the more interesting it is to me and the more I need to spend time in it and figure it out. At the end of the day, almost everything is a giant jigsaw puzzle in my brain, and moving the pieces into place is my purpose. I liken it to my own personal predilection for math and science as the basis for a structure that makes sense to me in the world.

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Blue Sky Cannabis, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

My husband, Michael, sees everything in vivid detail; he is a technicolor observer.He processes all visuals first; he has to be reminded to smell the air, hear the laughter, feel the rain on his skin. That is probably why he is a natural at photography; he would be an extraordinary cinematographer. He seems to have that elusive third eye where he can see what the lens will capture and what it will ignore. He also labels his impressions, though he would be loath to tell you the words he uses in his big brain. He doesn’t much like putting words to his visions or experiences; his photographs are the only clue to what he was thinking and feeling. In other words, where I see myself as a mathematician of the universe’s meaning, I see Michael as the artist that keeps posing more questions. When I recently told him that I see him as a seeker, he said he saw me as a finder.

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Shadow Leaf, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

My other senses are more acute than Michael’s. I grew up as a lovingly supported, creative kid with all manner of toys, paints, puzzles, pets, lessons, projects, scenery, travels, and experiences. All mundane and extraordinary stimuli were encouraged and discussed at length at our family dinner table. I read 472 books in 1st grade; I know because I got a gold star for each one. By second grade, the school librarian and I decided that I should just read every book in the card catalog; so, I did, from A-Z. There is no visual stimulation in most children’s books after you reach the third grade reading level. At that point, you have the colorful, illustrated paper jacket, but it is all text after you open the book. A love of reading may be the defining indicator of the potential for imagination and continued creative and sensate expression of an adult. The world is a reader’s oyster; there is nowhere – not even the minds of others – that is inaccessible to a person who reads. There is no question that can’t be posed, no situation that cannot be experienced.

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Leaf Stairway, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

Reading is no substitute for living, the non-reader always argues. But, that is an illogical response. What support is there for the assumption that an avid reader confines herself to second hand experience? It can be argued that the reader is more open and available to all of life’s experiences and, thus, develops extra-ordinary sensory powers that are wholly independent of what the world may or may not be actually showing her. In other words, I propose that frequent reading develops more acute sensory perceptions because most stimuli are accepted and dissected – not confronted with the muffled layer of something new, something threatening, or something difficult to process or define.

 

 

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Afternoon Sky, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

Michael grew up in a constant state of poverty: poverty of environment, poverty of sensory or new experiences, poverty of education, poverty of food and drink, of activities, toys, clothes, colors, affection. He also never read books. He had limited, narrow forms of stimulus in keeping with his parents’ strict socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious beliefs. His parents interpreted most stimulus as new and dangerous and confined Michael to television and video games. Thinking anybody that made a movie must be trying to create art and that video games were the modern version of that all American icon, G.I. Joe, Michael’s parents parked him in front of one toy – the television set – and left him to figure out the world as network and Nintendo executives saw it.

Television and video games are predominantly visual. Yes, there is sound, but taste, smell, and touch are automatically excluded. And, since sound consists of theme songs and canned laughter (TV) and assorted grunts and screams (Video Games), let’s agree that Michael was left with one form of stimuli: visual. Since his parents grew up with even less stimuli than Michael, let’s also assume that their main stimulus was also visual. And, since stimuli was confined to entertainment on the small screen of a television (while wildly unsupported with any understanding in real life experience) any attempt at a full sensory experience was usually overwhelming. Overwhelming usually means too expensive, threatening, uncomfortable, or sinful to the uninitiated; that was definitely the message passed on by Michael’s parents.

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Purple Flower, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

So, for Michael, every sensory experience is a warning. For me, most sensory experiences feel like being a puppy running through a big, sunny field of daisies. Once in a while, I will run into a bumblebee or a pile of poop, but that’s okay! For Michael, a sensory experience is like the scrawny weed that manages to pop up from a crack in the cement: a weird counterpoint in his apocalyptic inner landscape. He notices it but doesn’t ponder it. Unless he has his camera.

 

Michael’s photographs are teeming with sensory detail. They are beautiful and rich in color and texture and seasons and symphonies.

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Port Angeles Morning Sky, c.2015, All Rights Reserved.

Even the sepia ones instantly evoke a sense of nostalgia and sweetness not present in modern life. His landscapes invite exploration and travel; they provoke inner meditations on the vastness of nature and the relative miniscule stature of people. His animal portraits reveal unique personalities more interesting and layered than their human counterparts. Every time I see one of his photos, my imagination starts writing a story, like a phantom operated Etch a Sketch of character, plot, and scenery all quickly building itself in my head.

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Silver Isle, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

His photos touch on long forgotten memories of mine, so much that I can feel a spray of salt water across my face, the sun baking me brown, the smooth coolness of a marlin my dad and I would catch and pull overboard on one of our deep sea fishing trips. And, all of a sudden I can see my dad’s face, finally relaxing for a second. I get all of that connection and experience from Michael’s sensory laden photographs. And, I know he is an artist.

 

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Bubba in Bloom, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

As his wife, I can become annoyed that our holidays, our trips, our walks and our talks are not always remembered by my husband. He doesn’t see these in his mind’s eye any more than he can remember one detail about most of them. I could paint a picture with words that would evoke the very spirit of every one of those times. But, unless I write it down and somebody reads it, it only exists in our years together and, from that, the formation of a secret language, a smoothly choreographed handhold, and a thousand inside jokes – the shorthand and depth of experience that sweeten a relationship.

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4:20 Ferry, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

Michael rarely takes photos of any of that stuff between us to preserve it in a visual style. But, in this way, he builds the experiences and confidence to display even more facets of what he does elect to photograph and, in turn, invokes the collective conscience of a much wider audience. And I am content to enjoy him, by my side every day, drinking in every luxurious sense of our experience.