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Between Friends: Writing Women Celebrate Friendship.

CAN WRITERS HAVE FRIENDS?" Jane Smiley asks in this anthology's most provocative piece. Twenty women writers, some famous, many not, give their own answers. For Japanese American Sylvia Watanabe, the friend is her grandmother; for Meg Pei, it's her father; for Terry Tempest Williams, an unusual uncle. Joyce Carol Oates speculates about a dead friend, while Phyllis Rose ruminates on her tie to a gay man. In her introduction, editor Mickey Pearlman cites Julia Child's credo: "Life itself is the proper binge." We're offered essays on family, place, loss and consolation--a tasty smorgasbord so varied that Pearlman herself expresses surprise at the responses she received. But though I love indulgent dining in good company, I hunger for more on the particular issues friendship raises for writers.

Jane Smiley cuts to the core of the writer's dilemma in a unique piece which required her to "dig new wells." When her best friend's brother was told that he resembled one of her characters, Smiley agonized over a response. Writing him an apology was out; the rules of etiquette didn't seem to apply. Smiley notes that most people who recognize themselves in a writer's work don't feel complimented or flattered, even if the writer thinks they should. And there's the rub: if writers inevitably end up writing about their friends, "is it actually possible for them to have friends?" In fact, when Smiley decided to stick to her principles and ignore his complaints, she felt relieved.

This episode led Smiley to compare fiction writing with gossip. She argues that gossip allows us a way of "understanding and assimilating daily events," thus helping us to live a moral life. She identifies five stages in these verbal exchanges: "wait-till-you-hear-this (information), are-you-kidding? (amazement), I-can't-stop-thinking-about-it (fascination), you-know-why-she-did-it (speculation), and actually-I'm-not-surprised (understanding)." Like gossip, fiction sets up a joint act of contemplation between reader and writer that can help readers refine their moral decisions in a participatory way.

Though Smiley believes the mature writer draws not from one but many human models, a person who recognizes herself in a supposedly fictional piece is usually distressed by familiar physical details. Having fat thighs or a disagreeable odor is more troubling than "having been portrayed as a serial killer," she notes. Indeed, ironic distance, the writer's most important tool, can be very hard on friendship. Smiley knows that writers reveal far more about themselves than about their real-life models, but this fails to comfort friends who appear in one's work.

I know purists who claim they never base characters on friends for fear of invading someone's privacy. Once I confronted this quandary by asking a friend's permission to tell her story. Fearing the worst, I sent her the result, and was enormously relieved when she responded positively. But what if an experience is shared among friends who are also writers? When I based a story on a writer friend who decided to have a child alone, she was furious--and not because I'd used the "material." Since we'd been close during the final months of her pregnancy, she couldn't deny my role in the experience, but she found the character modeled on her to be too disagreeable. Our friendship never recovered.

Smiley's essay raises many prickly but important issues. If women writers reject drawing material from our friends' lives, don't we risk being too well-behaved and timid? Shouldn't we cultivate the distance necessary to write what we need to say? Some writers might choose repression instead. Scottish-born Margot Livesey is amazed by the self-disclosure of many North American writers. "There are things that cannot and should not be told," she writes. But I prefer Smiley's view that introducing friends into one's work is to bring them "into the ongoing cultural investigation of what it means to be human." If and when I see myself depicted ironically in a friend's work, I hope I'll remember Smiley's words.

Women writers are often credited with being more cooperative and nurturing than our male counterparts, but what happens when one friend becomes a star, while hardworking peers remain unrecognized? Playwright Wendy Wasserstein thinks women are forced to compete because "there is only room for so many of us at the table of satisfaction." In "The Ties that Wound," she attributes the painful loss of a best friend to her own ambition, which didn't mesh with her friend's more domestic life.

My own women's writing group dissolved after twelve years on the heels of one member's withdrawal. Our response to her literary success disappointed her; in her eyes we could no longer be counted on as friends. Indeed, support and competition are hard to reconcile. We may criticize the exploitative literary or academic star system, yet we genuinely wish for success. It's no surprise, then, that we react ambivalently to friends who make it.

THE MOST NURTURING friendships depicted in Between Friends are rooted in childhood. Both Jill McCorkle ("Cathy, Now and Then") and Carolyn See ("Best Friend, My Wellspring in the Wilderness!") give charming accounts of lasting girlhood friendships. McCorkle was surprised to learn "that not everyone has a Cathy," her best friend from Lumberton, North Carolina. "When someone from your past is part of your present," McCorkle writes, "then you have the rarest of all friendships; you speak your own language, a kind of shorthand...where a word or phrase conjures up major portions of your life." Carolyn See's childhood in Hollywood was eased by her connection to Jackie, another girl with a struggling single mother. Now in her sixties, See rejoices that "two desperately poor, desperately lonely semi-orphans could, day after dopey day, put together a friendship that could last half a century." When See appears on a panel with the luminaries Breslin, Doctorow and Oates, Jackie's her companion. She delights See by filching the name cards and gluing them to their hotel-room toilet tank.

These joyful tributes to childhood friendship still thriving are so infectious they do what good writing should do--encourage us to tell our own stories. In Detroit in the fifties, Sarah (my own "Cathy") and I began writing together as a team in fourth grade, composing skits to celebrate Halloween, or silly rhymes to announce spelling lessons. We'd stand before our peers, convulsed by our own wit, sharing our bizarre visions. To this day our loved ones get funny looks when we middle-aged "girls" go wild with some sudden memory or private reference. In our fifth decade of friendship, talk about writing is central to our relationship. When publications or rejections come, her voice on the other end of the phone works better than the voice in my head. She helps me remember the long view, keeps me connected to our shared history and keeps me writing. If Sarah were to move, I'd feel as Connie Porter does in "GirlGirlGirl," an essay in which she laments a close friend's departure: there won't be "many more women to be girls with."

Though friendships that nurture writing take many forms, those sustained by the writing--or artistic--bond deserve special attention. In "The Friendship Tarot," Nancy Willard uses the tarot deck to structure her unusual essay. Different cards represent different points in her long-time friendship with visual artist Ilse Vogel--for instance, when they first met at an art exhibit, or when they started having dinner together with their husbands. At one point, Willard urged Vogel to write about her life in Germany under Hitler when she worked for the Resistance. Secretly, Willard sent these stories to her own editor. I suspect she felt close enough to Vogel to be sure that her act would be appreciated. When a writer encourages a friend to write and has a strong feeling that this friend's story should have a wider audience, it strikes me as very generous to act on her behalf. Willard ends her essay with an image of Vogel's published book, Bad Times, Good Times, which is dedicated to Nancy and her husband Eric--just as Willard dedicated her first novel, eight years earlier, to Ilse and her husband Howard.

FRIENDSHIPS WITH MEN are the focus of several other pieces: Shirley Abbot pays tribute to Bill James, an inspiring friend from her student days in Grenoble who seduced her mind and not her body; Janette Turner Hospital continues to visit with her Australian childhood soul-mate Patrick; and Phyllis Rose honors David, a gay man who provided a release from her failing marriage. This "subversive friendship, intended neither for sex nor procreation," served Rose as "an antidote, not just to my husband, but to an ideal of masculinity in America that had become unsatisfying, both to the men who lived it and to the women who lived with those men."

By her selection of essays, Pearlman suggests that sex and friendship are mutually exclusive; yet I wonder about friendships with men or women who are lovers, lovers who become friends, friends who turn into lovers, even husbands or partners who are also a writer's best friend. Just how do sexual friendships enhance or inhibit the writing life? Must relationships that include the erotic be classified differently from friendship? We need to hear more about friendships that include both the body and the mind.

And what about mothers as friends? Though Melinda Popham writes about the Irish working-class women of her mother's generation as models for her own fiction, and Sylvia Watanabe celebrates her bond with her grandmother, mothers more often appear as creatures your friends save you from. Are there no writers who consider their own mothers friends?

I began reviewing this book after driving five hours to sit with a friend in crisis. I huddled next to her in bed in her uncleaned house, as she popped pills in her dirty nightgown, trying to listen without judgment, offering companionship and love, then left wishing I could do more. Only Susan Kenney's final essay, "Ringing the Net," a thank-you to friends who surrounded her during her husband's slow death from cancer, comes close to my experience. Friends became their extended family, bringing lucky tokens, books and ice cream; shoveling snow; taking shifts by the bed during Ed's last days. Kenney credits them with keeping him alive long enough for his own daughter to make it to his bedside to say good-bye. Of the twenty essays collected here, only this one addresses the place of friendship during life's worst crises.

The answer to Jane Smiley's question is: yes, of course, women writers can have friends--they may live in memory or in daily life; they may even be relatives or men. As Mickey Pearlman notes, friends are necessary for creating the food of literature, and she presents many satisfying tastes in Between Friends. Still, I look forward to a companion volume that would focus more precisely on the role writing plays in friendships--one that includes mothers, lovers, teachers, students, writing buddies, and all the other missing ingredients.
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Author:Cohen, Judith Beth
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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