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

Elsewhere on the net, a talented new writer made a comment about the damaging effects of another person’s careless behavior. 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 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.


This essay (and more!) can be found in my collection: Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life.



When Writing Friends Aren’t: Sabotage and Self-Image — 4 Comments

  1. Such people can be hard to pinpoint initially because they rarely realize what they’re doing. That level of self-awareness may show up in fiction, but the friend who keeps begging you to come out and play during time you’ve earmarked for writing may actually believe that you need the break. Or they may have an unexamined feeling that your industry is a rebuke to their inability to get something done. Or they think that their honest reaction to a plot issue you were discussing is helpful, rather than hypercritical (“I’m simply telling you what I think,” is a phrase that sets off alarms for me.)

    If it feels like the relationship is not helping you, it very likely isn’t.

  2. I had two close friendships end because their critiques became judgmental of me rather than the work. I sold my first trilogy before they finished something publishable. It all went downhill from there. Now I have built a new network of friends and critique partners.

    I won’t “insult” those old critique partners by sending them early drafts anymore. If they want a polished work from me they can buy it.

    • Phyl, I had a similar experience. One of them tried to “manage” my career as if they were my agent. They critiqued one of my stories by saying, “This is such a piece of sentimental twaddle, I can’t critique it.” Gardner Dozois bought that story for Asimov’s and it made Honorable Mention in Year’s Best Sf — the best revenge I can think of.

      Why do we think we have to put up with this @#$%^&*? Or am I just too nice to say “#$%^&* off”?