"Bad Art Friend" and the Writing Life: 10/10/2021

Life can be tough for everyone.

There is a story in this week’s New York Times Magazine, that once released online, quickly dominated the social media feeds of writers (“Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”). I’m not even sure if it’s all that interesting a story for non-writers beyond a kind of rubbernecking tale of people being crappy to each other mixed with some reasonably intriguing questions about the ethics of where an artist draws their inspiration from, and how they use that inspiration.

I’m not sure I can do the story justice in a capsule description, but it essentially involves two women from the same community writing organization in Boston (GrubStreet) who at least seemed to be friends. One of the women (Dawn) did a non-directed donation (meaning it goes to a stranger who simply matches your tissue type) of one of her kidneys, sharing the story and a letter she wrote to the recipient and his family in a private Facebook group that the other woman (Sonya) belonged to.

Some time later Sonya wrote a short story including a character who donated her kidney to a stranger, a story that included significant passages of Dawn’s letter from Facebook, but which is also a story about invented characters, and is not the story of Dawn.

The interpersonal dynamics between the women are hinky and there’s a wrinkle with the broader GrubStreet group talking trash about Dawn being something of a weirdo that they don’t really like. All of this stuff has come to light because the women are suing each other, Dawn suing Sonya for using her letter in the story that was ultimately selected for a special program where 30,000 copies of the story would be distributed to people in Boston, and Sonya suing Dawn for messing with her career after finding out about the use of the letter in the story. I’m pretty sure I have that right, but it’s best to read the story for yourself.

(For a somewhat alternate view, Michael Hobbes, co-host of the “You’re Wrong About” podcast dug into some of the publicly available court documents and reconstructs the story chronologically.)

This might get long and self-indulgent. Apologies. I’ll put a little buffer here for you so you can take a break and come back later if you’re intrigued, or just scan down to the links and recommendations.

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Reading the story mostly made me sad because I thought I recognized some of the underlying sentiments driving the behavior, and how committing yourself to trying to write makes one vulnerable to those sentiments and how if you let them too far in, they can destroy you.

When I first started writing, it was for the pure pleasure of having something in my head that ultimately wound up on the page. In my first few creative writing classes in college, I would bring my stories to the workshop in an entirely guileless frame of mind. I assumed the story was “good” because it had felt so wonderful to bring it forth into the world. Surely that interior feeling was reflected in whatever was on the page. I was looking forward to hearing what other people - my audience - had to say about it. It didn’t matter if it was praise or criticism, it was attention.

As an undergrad, I would take in the comments, do a light revision, and then promptly mail it to the New Yorker. I didn’t actually believe they were going to publish my story - I wasn’t wholly delusional! - but as far as I understood the system, this is what writers do. You write, you send, you hope. Rinse and repeat.

And who knows, maybe lightning would strike and the New Yorker would recognize me as a young genius. Now I obviously recognize that I would’ve had a better chance fashioning my story into a paper airplane and flying it all the way to New York City from Champaign as I did getting a story published by the New Yorker, but at the time that fact just didn’t matter to me. I was doing what writers do.

(The odds of my publishing a story in the New Yorker even as someone who has published dozens of short stories are only slightly better now.)

I felt my attitude begin to shift as I applied to graduate school for creative writing a couple of years post-college. I remember one rejection to an application I received from the University of Michigan, which told me they’d received 1600 applications for 6 slots. Suddenly, the stakes of this messing around telling stories seemed real. There clearly wasn’t room for all of us with ambitions to write to get any attention for our writing.

My attitude evolved (devolved) further in graduate school. As much as I craved attention and recognition for my stories, particularly from peers who I knew to be good and a professor who had just won a Pulitzer Prize, I came to loathe the actual workshop. Part of the process of completing graduate studies in writing is to develop your critical sensibilities, and the first place I started turning my critical sensibilities was myself, and I knew as much or more than anyone else that my stories weren’t as good as I wished. To have the fact confirmed in a workshop of my peers was simply deflating. Nobody was being anything other than honest and careful, which was maybe the worst part of it. I still felt mostly free when I was writing, but the aftermath of the writing was less and less nourishing.

At the same time, the feeling that the whole thing would’ve been a waste if I didn’t start publishing started colonizing more of my brain. I made the common mistake of trying to write something that I thought the workshop would like, which resulted in stories I wasn’t invested in, making them even worse.

Under this mindset, writing begins to feel like a bottomless void you pour yourself into where nothing is returned. It would be wonderful if we could all achieve a state where we write without needing or wanting external validation, and I’ve met people who have achieved this, but it’s a rare thing.

I think that groups like GrubStreet, which these two women belonged to, can help fill some of that void by providing access to supportive people who know and therefore respect how important these things can feel to a writer. They are a built-in audience, even if you aren’t publishing, and taking classes and workshops can feel like progress in and of itself. It becomes natural to desire validation from your community, and that will bleed over from writing to your life in general. From the outside, the stakes these two women are fighting over may seem low, but to them, they couldn’t be higher.

When I left graduate school and moved back home to my parents’ basement, I tried to quit writing. This lasted about four or five, months until a visual illusion that strongly triggered a desire to write happened in front of me while walking in downtown Chicago.

It was one of those incredibly dreary fall days, rainy and foggy, like the clouds were reaching all the way to the ground. I was walking towards the El at the end of the workday, when a woman in a dark raincoat and holding an umbrella walking towards me, maybe 30 yards a way, seemed to literally disappear inside the fog. Even though we’d been moving toward each other, we never passed. I was struck by this image that her umbrella was caught by a gust of wind and she’d been carried aloft, Mary Poppins-style.

I went home and wrote the scene, and then simply asked myself what came before that moment, and then what came after that moment. I wrote those two scenes trying to capture the same surreal feeling of the one with the woman in the raincoat. In the before scene, the main character is in a meeting with a career counselor who is also a cage fighting champion who would rather talk about the ways he could kill a person with his bare hands. The after scene finds the man at home where he sees that his wife has been swaddling their books in toilet paper because the books have been hurling themselves off the shelves and are injured.

I had no idea what any of it meant (if anything). I was simply following my own dream-logic mood that I felt on the street when the woman disappeared. For the first time in at least a year, I was writing to work something out for myself, and the resulting effort pleased me.

Probably not coincidentally, it became the first short story I ever published, appearing in the 3rd issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly under the title, “The Circus Elephants Look Sad Because They Are.” I’d sent the story to Dave Eggers - who I’d just recently met - not long after finishing it, and he wanted to publish it, though he insisted I come up with a different title than what I’d submitted it under, “Stillness,” because otherwise no one was going to pay any attention.

This validation, the notion that my story would appear in print felt incredible. Even better was a review of the edition of the quarterly that came out not long after its release. It was by some guy named Paul Debraski, sho was simply keeping a blog about what he read and listened to. He had this to say about my story:

I lived on that last line for months. The void had at last answered back. I wish I could say that from then on, I’ve been free of worry about publishing or validation or attention for my work, but that would be a terrible lie. I still often worry about these things. When one of my newsletter posts garners fewer views than others, I try to puzzle out what I did wrong that week so I don’t repeat it, even though I know deep down that I am mostly powerless over whatever drives someone to click on the link week-to-week.

I’m sitting here in this moment thinking I should just delete this post and do something else because it feels so self-indulgent. I do know that my best work tends to come when I just say, “screw it, I’m going to do what I want right now” and then let the chips fall, but this is a very difficult mindset to achieve.

Everyone wonders if secretly, they’re just no good at the things they want to be good at, or are even proudest of. I don’t think this is unique to writers; it simply manifests differently in different folks.

“Who Is the Bad Art Friend,” is framed as a story about friendship v. appropriation or in-groups cliques v. a hangers on, but I think deep down, everyone just wants to be heard and understood and each of these women now thinks the other is standing in the way of that.

The story is engineered to induce readers to choose a side, while being rendered skillfully enough that different readers coming from different places will choose different sides. Don’t get me wrong, I have a definite opinion about which one is the bad art friend, but I also feel like where both of these women are coming from.

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Links

My column this week is a look at the “trend” of serialized fiction on Substack newsletters and expressing skepticism that this is a game changer.

Also at the Chicago Tribune this week, Christopher Borrelli profiles Wilmette native, and Broadway-produced playwright, Sarah Ruhl, who has a new memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face about her experience with Bell’s palsy. Borelli calls the book, “easily one of the best things I’ve read this year.”

Abudulrazak Gurnah was announced as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. At the Los Angeles Times, Anderson Tepper tells us where to get started with Gurnah’s books.

At Vulture, Hillary Kelly lists what she’s calling, “The Best Books of the Year (So Far).” She includes a couple of my personal favorites, including Lauren Groff’s Matrix, Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, and Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country.

At Outside, Emma Dries lists “20 Essential Works of Climate Fiction,” including Richard Powers’ The Overstory, Pitchaya Subanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, and A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, all of which are Biblioracle approved.

Recommendations

Turned in a draft of the big article that’s had me in the weeds, and now experiencing the blissful period of waiting for editorial feedback. All books linked below and above are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.

Keep going up week-to-week: $171.65 for the year.

If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.

Recommendations are always open for. Wait times should be minimal and some will even be featured in the print edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Want a recommendation? Click here!

1. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
2. Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven
3. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
4. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
5. The Pearl That Broke It's Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Kathleen F. - Asheville, NC

There’s some rough emotional sledding through Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward, but I think that tough stuff pays off in the end for most readers.

1. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James Lange
2. The Likeness by Tana French
3. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
4. Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel
5. Life after Truth by Ceridwen Dovey

Vicki L. - Perth, Australia

Vicki’s looking for a good propulsive story that also gets deep with the characters. That’s going to be Marcy Dermansky’s Very Nice.

I am now off to enjoy a truly gorgeous day in my part of the world. I hope it’s just as nice wherever you are, and if not, we’ve always got books.

JW
The Biblioracle