When Writing Friends Aren’t: Sabotage and Self-Image

By Deborah J. Ross

We can encounter destructive relationships in every area of our lives, but when it comes to our creativity, they can be particularly nasty.

Some people write in isolation. Either they aren’t naturally sociable or they find that critical feedback simply isn’t helpful. Most of us, however, create some type of support system at some stage of our careers. Often it’s early on, when we’re struggling to learn the craft. We may find a face-to-face group or an online workshop or other network of fellow novices. The internet provides a wealth of opportunities to meet such people, as do conventions. (When I was starting out, there was a wonderful workshop-by-mail run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury; I’m still friends with some of the writers I met by exchanging letters and written critiques.)

Most of the time, beginning writers are honestly trying to help one another. We may make mistakes as we learn how to give useful critical feedback or make idiotic suggestions about marketing, but the basic relationship is one of good will and support. Success, however small the sale, becomes an occasion for celebration. When one member improves, we all feel encouraged.

Trust is a crucial element in such groups. We work hard to learn to accept criticism, to not be defensive, to take time to think through the comments. While this vulnerability makes us more teachable, it also leaves us open to manipulation and abuse.

Sadly, sometimes the people we thought were our friends and supporters, our colleagues and conspirators in the adventure of creating and publishing stories, turn out to be our most insidious adversaries. Sometimes, the alarm comes in the form of a sinking feeling, a sense that verges toward futility, after a discussion with a particular person. Other times, we realize that once again, we have been lured away from the precious time in which we intended to work. Often we have no idea how that happened. We want to think well of our friends; we believe their words even when their actions speak differently.

The whole issue of jealousy and sabotage on the part of those we have trusted with our creative process, those we have relied on to be both honest and tender with us, is complex and troubling. I can’t do justice to all its aspect here. The first step toward healthier boundaries is realizing what is happening and that we are not alone. It’s happened to most of us.

I don’t mean to say that people join writer’s workshops with the intention of eroding the self-confidence, not to mention the craft skills, of the other members. I do mean that people are not always aware of their own feelings and motivations. A person may truly believe he or she means nothing but the best for another writer, all the while subtly and unconsciously communicating something very different.

A writing friendship can begin as mutual support but not fare well when one writer’s career takes off and the other one’s doesn’t. We’re not supposed to feel jealous of another writer, especially a friend. But without self-awareness, it’s easy to slide into resentment. (“It’s not fair that he got published and I didn’t when my story is just as good.”)

Sometimes, resentment comes out in statements that undermine trust in the other writer’s judgment and work, pressure to go against one’s natural strengths, for example, to change genres, to aim for unreasonable markets (“Why are you wasting your time writing sword and sorcery when you should be writing steampunk?”)

Occasionally, envy will prompt a writer to try to manage the other’s career, even to act as a sort of agent. Gossip is a common way of venting frustration, damaging both reputations and trust. (“She only got that story published because she slept with the editor.”)

For me, it’s important to find people I can trust, both within the field and outside it. Sometimes I need a disinterested listener, one I know will hold whatever I say in confidence, so I can work out what my guts are telling me and how to deal with the situation. This helps me to recognize my own “warning signs” and develop a vocabulary of responses. I also need regular time with fellow writers, not only to chew over specific writing problems but for general communication-of-enthusiasm and mutual cheering-on. When I do this regularly, I am less apt to be drawn into those relationships that are less healthy for me as a person and as a writer.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.

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When Writing Friends Aren’t: Sabotage and Self-Image — 16 Comments

  1. Sometimes, of course, the problem is just different interests in writing, whether genre or plotting or what-not.

    There’s also, with new writers, lack of skill. The other writer is, perhaps, mechanically applying the rule he got out of a book and can’t see how they don’t apply.

  2. I’ve been through a couple of writer/beta reader friendships that went sour. One person gave me such a thrashing critique on a contracted book (this bordered on personal attack) that I almost dropped the project and considered giving up on writing as a career.

    The gentle reassurance of another writer in the same critique group pushed me to make a few revisions and continue. That turned out to be one of my favorite books.

    Twenty some books later I still will never trust this person as a beta reader again. Though the friendship has mended after a few publication credits under their belt.

  3. Some people in critique groups also misunderstand the reason they are there–this is generally a young-writer mistake, compounded by the character of the critiquer: he/she believes that the more savage the critique is, the smarter, the more observant, the more incisive it is (and therefore the smarter etc. he/she is). They more or less beat this out of us at Clarion, which can be a hothouse atmosphere which will bring out the show-off in anyone. But I’ve see it happen from time to time in other groups.

    Having a “senior member” of the group talk with the offender about what a critique is supposed to accomplish (helping the writer to do her best work, rather than helping the writer to write the story the critiquer wants) sometimes helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. So you have to be aware of who a critique comes from and what you can take away that might be useful. If anything…

  4. Critiques are in some ways easier to deal with than more subtle manipulations. We’ve all been on the receiving end of thoughtless and sometimes needlessly cruel comments on our work. Knowing we are “in the hot seat” provides something of a buffer — we can and should remind ourselves that it is the story and not us that is being examined.

    What do you do, though, when someone whom you have trusted, who insists that s/he is your friend, undermines your efforts, whether by distraction, competition for your time, covert competitiveness and the like? It can take a while and sometimes a rude wake-up call to see what’s going on then.

  5. Deborah, what a tough, but important subject to bring up. In my present state of misery, it’s hard for me to even recall the real details of the days where I was a proud and happy member of the “Gang of Four.” I think good critique/mutual reading and help relationships are the absolute best when it’s at the right time for the writers involved.

    I attended a SCBWI workshop a few weeks ago, where the “pro” writer who was facilitating was basically a nonstop motormouth who got visibly angry when anybody tried to halt her monologue. She was useful as a commenter, probably not to the new writers who were there, but to me, as she was a real good ringer for the sort of hasty b.s. reader that represents a good-sized portion of the agent/editor corps. I couldn’t believe how similar she was, her tastes were, and her reactions to this particular sort of reader. Since I make a study of that for business purposes, as they say in the MasterCard ads: priceless.

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  7. Thank you so much for bringing this up. I haven’t personally had the kind of experiences you talk about here, but I have heard about it more and more recently. I would much prefer an overly harsh critique to what you’re describing!

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  9. Perhaps I’m just a natural skeptic, but I think most of these folks know exactly what they’re doing. Jealousy is a hungry, ugly beast and if the offending parties don’t get control of it, it’ll eat them alive and leave scorched earth in their wake.

  10. Learning who can be trusted with our creative work(s) is a painful lesson which we learn over and over. Even partners have been known to rage with jealousy. Dealing with this is particularly difficult.
    Thank you, Deborah for the warning signals such as feelings of ‘futility’ and ‘distraction’ with another. You have given me the insight I need right now.

  11. The only other writer I’ve found I can be truly truthful to without provoking even a momentary negative blip in our relationship is my spouse, and vice versa. And some editors and our agent!

    It’s so fraught — even when aesthetic preferences are between you, which shouldn’t be taken personally — I am a classicist, you are a post modernist — it creates fissures in both the trust and the liking. Which is 🙁

    Love, C.

  12. It’s possible some people know they’re sabotaging the creativity of others, but I’ve learned since childhood that some people are simply emotional vampires. They’ll suck you dry with their demands if you let them. (and this goes for some editors as well!) They mean well. They honestly think they’re helping. And my suspicion is that their own writing never goes anywhere because they’re too busy looking for ways to undermine it. But I could be wrong on that.

  13. OTOH there are those who are really new to critique groups, who expect to be hailed as the next Joyce Carol Oates. That’s why a -group- is useful. I may be an evil dingbat, she and I may coincidentally be loons who despise your perfection, but four or five of us who agree that we cannot figure out what your protagonist is doing? That shows there is a problem.

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  15. Thank you so much for this insightful post–this is exactly what I was looking for when I typed “handling jealousy in writers’ critique groups” into Google tonight.