Friends and Writers

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

Last week I read an article from a capable author in her forties who had gone broke, lost her career, never been married, and had lost 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 vegetarian? 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 vegan, 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 raw 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 stay on time; 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 trainings 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. Who couldn’t use a few good friends?