After reading “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” in The New York Times by Robert Kolker, I felt a terrible pit in my stomach. I was bothered for days. At first, I took to Twitter, like so many of us, to see other people’s feelings about what they read as well. In the Twitterverse, it was all out hell over who was the worst in the story, Dawn Dorland or Sonya Larson.
Who was the victim? Was there even a victim?
And while it’s fun to argue online about which dress is white and gold and which is blue and black, this internet sensation focused on two peoples’ lives being dragged through the mud, finished with topics of white privilege in art spaces.
The tale of catty chat groups and clique-ish behavior in writing groups is not intrinsic to just this story. Just reading these texts put me in a cold sweat of my days back in undergrad writing classes where passive-aggressive notes were written in the sidelines of my workshopped material and returned back to me, or more than one person took the time (and for some reason felt they were appointed) to declare I had finally achieved “true writer” status (or not) with one of my pieces. Whatever that meant. A man in class once asked me out to dinner, then ghosted me because he hated a story I turned in the next week and was the first to announce to everyone in class I misspelled “dinghy” in my opening sentence. One girl’s notes on my poems each week were so vitriolic, I ended up often burning them before reading them in the kitchen sink so I could stay positive while working with her in my class.
Only certain people got invited out for drinks or coffee afterward—the ones who seemed to do no wrong with the instructor. You wanted to be a part of that group. And often, you were not. People in the group had things you wanted. They got glowing letters of recommendations for grad school, ins with various location publications, and poetry nights. A circle of peer notes and feedback among one another outside of class. And even more importantly … writer friends.
Being a writer can be a lonely task, often spent in congress with a notepad and pencil or at a keyboard, slowly impairing your vision as you search for the perfect description of the carpeting of the main character’s bedroom. The hunger to spend time with others in those same trenches can be strong and re-invigorating before you return back to the page. While, yes, your family may love you and support you, they just may not get why you’re blocked, what you’re frustrated with, or how much of a downward spiral it can be to explore your “voice” and worry that your voice might just be that you are a superficial unclever POS.
I was not exempt from picking on other writers I felt were not living up to their potential. I remember marking up someone’s short story about faith and pointing out at every opportunity how the character’s actions were motivating the story, not their beliefs, making their story really come across as a “brilliant satirical attack against faith.” The piece was really rough on a whole, and it was easy to dig my claws in—but looking back now, decades later, it’s with regret.
How was I helpful? I wasn’t at all. I had just used this person as my doormat and was performing to appeal to the “in” group of my class. And it worked—I got my invite to after-class drinks that day.
I was a bad art friend.
By the way, this was not a premiere school for writers. This was just a regular English department in a state-funded university in Arizona. My experience, I know from talking to many other writers at this point, and from Kolker’s article, is as imbued in the writing field as anything else. So hungry for getting our day in the sun in a competitive field, we go at each other like crabs in a bucket. It’s practically reality TV (but like, in a rather boring way).
Devour or be devoured. Form alliances. And of course, make targets so you don’t become the target.
And again, who was in those classes? If my memory serves me well, it was mostly a bunch of privileged white kids who had the resources to attend such a class. Being catty jerks and deciding we knew who was “in” and who was “out.” The environment stressed me out plenty, and it likely would have been way more anxiety inducing for BIPOC folks.
It’s probably been about 17 years since I was in those undergrad classes, and if I could go back in time and bitchslap my former self for being an ass, I would.
All of that cliquish-ness is for nothing, I would tell younger me. I don’t even remember the names of the people I wanted to be in the good graces of. Most of them aren’t even writing anymore. Our world is so big and there’s an opportunity at every step—why the fuck would you punch down on writers, much like you, who are trying to figure their stuff out? Cut it the fuck out!
I’d like to hope that, by this time, I’ve become a better art friend. And here are some things I think are better than that behavior and we could use more of.
- Writing that isn’t finished yet or isn't to your taste doesn’t equal bad. There are people who hate my work—HATE IT. I once wrote a comedy that a reader called “the least funniest piece of writing I have ever read.” Taste is subjective, and thank goodness it is. A writer doesn’t have to please everyone, and they are not obligated to please you specifically to be a successful writer. If they’re looking for critique, feel free to provide, but if they don’t take your notes, don’t be a dick about it. This is their choice on how to maneuver their career path, and you don’t have to approve of every step they take.
- Celebrate Other Writer’s Successes. Someone got staffed or optioned? Someone placed in a contest or queried and got invited to submit their piece? HECK, YES. Earnestly congratulate your fellow writers in your way. Retweet them, send them a private email, bust out the emojis, whatever your style. Find happiness in the fact that a peer in your field is having what might be a much needed win. It is very easy (especially if you’re feeling insecure or jealous) to belittle a success—I once got a scholar award in grad school and a classmate was quick to say I only got it because I was a woman. Ouch. Needless to say, if I were to need to hire some folks in the future, I don’t think that person would be at the top of my list. Who needs that pettiness? And if you don’t have anything nice to say, just let them celebrate without being their rain cloud. It’s OK to shut up sometimes. I promise.
- $upport other Writer$ and Arti$t$. Yes, I mean with money! It doesn’t have to be a lot of money. I have done a lot of crowdfunding, and I’m over the moon even when a fellow artist friend tosses in just a buck or two to show their support. Buy or rent their movie on Amazon. Pick up a copy (or download) of their book. Buy a print. Are they working on something and just need to talk it out? Buy them a coffee and offer your time to listen. We often forget that we artists are the frontline of support for other artists. Knowing someone who knows the pains of working on their art supports you and wants you to succeed is wonderful. It’s empowering. The more we can do that for each other, the better I think we’ll be.
- Get out of Your Art Group/Join Other Art Groups. Sometimes it gets really comfortable in your creative group. You know them, and you can predict their feedback and tastes. You might feel like you’re in a position where you’re on top or you know what’s what. Because in this bubble of creativity, the rules and expectations have been set and you’ve learned to operate within it. That can be a wonderful thing to have a group of people you know you can count on and give you helpful feedback. However, it can also, without realizing, pit you against creatives that are outside of your personal bubble. Us vs. Them. When in reality, we’re all artists. Being at the top of your personal creative group of friends doesn’t necessarily guarantee any more success in your field than anyone else, and once you’ve grown comfortable in your creative group, you may find that you feel less challenged. Don’t forget to open up your creative group, meet more artists and see their perspectives on the craft. It’s much better for networking AND you’ll probably have a more dimensional understanding of your field. And be less likely to be a dick about it.
- Art Friends Are Not Your Competition, They Are Friends. It feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? We get pitted against one another in classes and contests, and it feels like there’s a bottleneck to get your work out, so the urge to push and shove against one another feels … almost like a survival instinct. Yes, sometimes it seems like you never emerge the victor or get your day in the sun, but that’s not the fault of the other people you’re trying to push aside. The FOMO of art opportunities can be in all of us, but there’s no need to take it out on one another. The only thing that’ll happen is you’ll find yourself with … less and less art friends.
This is not a definitive list, and I encourage you all to add some of your own to this in how you would like to operate as a better art friend. I, for one, am going to go cheer some folks on who’ve placed in contests, read some scripts of those working on their next project, and overall … just try to be the type of art friend to others who I want in my life.
Our fields can be harsh, and the struggle is real, but that doesn’t have to be all we are.
*Feature photo by Angela Roma (Pexels)