Celebrating Female Friendship

When this month’s guest bloggers, Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver, let us take a look at one of their on-line chats, we felt privileged to be witnesses to a conversation that so clearly conveyed their mutual appreciation of each other’s support.

This has, of course, been a common theme in all of the guest posts this year. Like them, Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell, and Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson, have gone from living close to their writer friend to being separated by geographical distance. But they all wrote of how they’re still able to rely on their pal’s advice, even though they are physically far apart.

IMG_1146Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman, too, who live on opposite sides of the world, told us how their frequent phone conversations, about ‘writing, gossip, lipstick’ amongst other things, keep the relationship going.

Kadija ‘George’ Sesay and Dorothea Smartt spoke of the pleasures of working with each other professionally. Zakia Uddin shared a story about hearing valuable literary advice from Susan Barker on a crowded London night-bus.

Julie Sarkissian and Haley Tanner, and Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan, were keen to emphasise how much they valued having someone with whom they’ve been able to share the struggles and eventual triumphs of their books-in-progress.

We are grateful to all of this year’s guest bloggers for posting these inspiring words about the crucial role that the friendship of another woman has played in their writing lives.

Since launching Something Rhymed at the beginning of the year, we’ve often found ourselves wondering why the literary friendships of our most famous female writers are generally less well-known than those of their male counterparts.

Recently, we’ve been mulling over a number of theories, but one conclusion we’ve come to is that the all-too-common depiction of ambitious women as inevitable jealous rivals could have played a major part in this. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are two writers, in particular, whose reputations have suffered in this way. This month’s pair, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, are another, historically later, example.

At Something Rhymed, we’re keen to try and promote some more positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you. #SomethingRhymed

We’ll be sharing our own stories (in 140 characters or less!) of helping each other out personally or professionally. Whether you’re a writer or not, we’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, why not leave a message in the Comments section below?

Remember

You can keep up-to-date with Something Rhymed by following our blog via email. Just type your email address into the box beneath the banner on the right hand side of the screen, and then click on the ‘Follow’ button beneath. On mobile devices, you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the box and ‘Follow’ button.

A Contact You Can Smell on Your Skin: Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver

Like Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, this month’s guest bloggers spend hours critiquing each others work over the phone. Separated by long distances across America and different time zones, poet Harriet Levin and novelist Elizabeth L. Silver let us take a look at one of their online chats.

Elizabeth L. Silver

Elizabeth L. Silver

ELIZABETH: I remember the first time we met. You were the big shot director of the writing program at Drexel University in Philadelphia and I was a lowly adjunct with my first post-MFA teaching job. You were an Iowa grad, had a major book of poetry published, and were a Yaddo alum. But our personal backgrounds had so many similarities that I was instantly drawn to you. Those early conversations, which centered on our writing and our relationships, cemented what has become a truly beautiful friendship in my life.

HARRIET: Thank you, Liz. I’m going to hang this on my wall, and whenever I feel down, take a look at it. Truth to tell, it was you actually who inspired me. You were working on a novel and I saw how you went about it and then I literally watched you land an agent, because you were sending out emails from the computers in the Writing Center, while I was trying to write fiction for the first time and had no idea what I was doing.

ELIZABETH: I loved how when we met, we were both conceiving our novels, talking about the work and our approaches to writing fiction. You might not know how eager I was to see you every day, that  I came to my job at the writing center at Drexel just to find out how your novel was progressing and to share my struggles. I had no idea I inspired you at all.

HARRIET: You know when you meet someone whether it’s important. Not every meeting is like that. If you have a good olfactory sense, you can smell it on your skin, because you’ve made contact. I’m the sort of person who has to move her seat in a restaurant when the person beside me wears offending perfume or hairspray, and I’m also the kind of person who moves closer. It was like that with you, Liz, this sense I had (and still have) that life is always happening around you.

Harriet Levin Millan

Harriet Levin

ELIZABETH: Now that I’m going to print out and place next to my laptop when I feel down. Is it clear that Hari is a brilliant poet?

HARRIET: And boy did you help me with my work. I’ll never forget the day when, over the phone, I told you I had reached the climax of my novel, but didn’t know how to resolve it. I was out on the deck off my kitchen, gripping a broom handle in my free hand, raising it into the corner of the porch door to swipe off a spider web. I have an idea, you said, and then you spelled out the resolution for me! It was right there but I couldn’t see it and you were able to see it so clearly. I put down the broom and went into the house and wrote the next pages.

ELIZABETH: That’s so funny because we discuss plot and story all the time, but I don’t remember that exact bit. The truth is that I wish we still lived in the same city, but our friendship has really blossomed long distance. We share work over email and spend hours critiquing it over the phone. It is these long-distance workshops that I rely on, that I treasure, and that I seek at all points in the writing process.

HARRIET: What’s more, in this past week alone, we both discovered that we had started new novels.

ELIZABETH: I could hardly believe it when you told me! As we both enter this terrifying period of novelty with our new projects, I feel a calmness knowing that I will have you along my side in the process. Thank you.

HARRIET: And knowing about the success of your first book, Liz, convinces me that you can do it again. That we both can. Thank you.

Harriet Levin’s The Christmas Show was published by Beacon Press and Girl in Cap and Gown was published by Mammoth Books.

Elizabeth L. Silver is author of the novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton published by Crown  in the US and Headline Review in the UK.

 

Same Material, Different Approaches

Red is a colour I rarely wear in hot climates, since my skin tends to flush in the sun.

I am also prone to smatterings of heat rash and mosquito bites. When I lived in Japan, other women at the school where I worked used to voice concern at my freckled complexion, and recommend I confine myself largely indoors during the warmest months.

Still, I was inspired by the clothes swapping of writer friends Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton to borrow a red dress from Emma Claire just before a week’s trip to the Spanish island of Mallorca, and so I ended up fitting the outfit carefully into the top of my suitcase just before I zipped up the bag.

IMG_1144Em had told me she’d previously worn this red dress for a successful PHD interview, but, even when I first tried it on in the cooler temperatures of my London bedroom, I knew I’d never have worn it for an important academic meeting.

When I lifted it from my bag after my arrival at our villa, I found that feeling magnified by the sun’s bright light pouring in through the windows.

Of course, I am only thinking of this as an outfit for myself here; Emma Claire will have looked thoroughly professional on the date in question. But owing to differences in our figures, I had to compensate for gaps that opened in its button-up seam with several strategically-placed safety pins that I’d have feared might show – further proof if it was needed that this was very much a holiday outfit for me, rather than something I’d wear to an interview.

IMG_2701

About to buy marmalade in Deià

Despite the skirt also soon getting all scrunched in the heat of the car, I had a wonderful time wearing Em’s dress for a day out with my partner, exploring the remoter reaches of the island.

Walking along dusty hilltop lanes, breathing in the scents of bright vine flowers, it struck me how the same material can be so vastly altered by placing it in a new context or hanging it on the frame of another person.

This is, in fact, a familiar feeling. When Emma Claire and I first sit down to write a feature article together, or plan a forthcoming joint talk, we’ll sometimes find that, though we come to the table with the same basic ideas, we each envisage the end result from quite separate angles.

This has been known to lead to heated discussions – occasions when I’m not necessarily as measured as Em might have it – but we’ve come to really value this way of working.

The process challenges each of us to stop sticking to our usual approaches, but to break out and try on our friend’s way of doing things. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful in developing a distinct voice and style for the pieces we write together.

An Unexpected Gift

Unlike Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, Emily and I have never been in the habit of swapping clothes. This is strange since aspects of our styles have become quite alike. Just recently, we unwittingly showed up at Maggie Gee’s book launch wearing outfits so similar that it prompted much comment.

One clothes-borrowing incident does spring to mind. We were co-writing a feature at Em’s place and, because it took far longer than expected, I ended up staying for days on end. I’d brought only one outfit, which I washed in the shower and hung out to dry overnight. It was still damp the next morning so I ended up going home in a tracksuit of Emily’s – which looked rather strange with my wedge heeled shoes.

This sort of thing would rarely happen to Em. She would have made sure to use the washing machine in good time so that her clothes would be dry for the journey home. She does her laundry on the same day each week; meticulously seams or darns anything that needs mending; hangs up all her clothes, even those waiting to be ironed.

I sometimes tease Em about her scrupulous attention to detail, but I secretly admire this quality in my friend. There is something soothing about the calm sense of order in her home, and her care extends from domestic and professional tasks to her sensitive treatment of all those she encounters.

And so, when I folded the outfit I’d chosen from Emily’s closet into a bag already overfilled with my laptop, notebook, washbag, and – I hate to admit it – pens, I immediately felt guilty. The last time I’d seen Em pack this item of clothing, she had carried it in a suit cover.

It’s the kind of top I associate with Em: loose-fitting, delicate material, subtle details, a pastel shade. I tend to wear more figure-hugging tops and bolder colours, fearing that floaty things might hide the fact I have a waist and that this palest of pinks might make me look pasty.

Emma Claire (right) with her book club friends.

Emma Claire (right) with her book club friends.

Some of you might half-recognise this top since Emily is sporting it in her author shot. I wondered whether I would become self-conscious, wearing it out and about, or feel less like myself.

After my packing mistake, I took the kind of care with Em’s top that I knew she would take herself: putting it in the wardrobe as soon as I got home, making sure there was an anti-moth cedar ring on the hanger. And this level of attention seemed to rub off onto my treatment of myself. I was less slapdash than usual getting ready on the night I wore Em’s top, even though I was just popping over to my neighbour’s for our book club.

I very quickly stopped noticing that I was wearing an outfit that didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t terrified that I would tear it or spill my wine. And I certainly didn’t become as measured as Emily when we were discussing Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

Rather than feeling like an imposter in Em’s outfit, the sensation was of being a slightly more careful version of me – a sensation that encapsulates, in so many ways, one of the gifts I most value in our friendship.

Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton

We considered featuring the brief friendship between Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poets who are sadly as famous for their suicides as for the brilliance of their work.

But when we dug deeper, we discovered a longer lasting and more nurturing friendship. At around the same time that Sexton was meeting with Plath for martinis in the Ritz, she joined a local writing group where she got to know another female poet, Maxine Kumin.

When Sexton first set eyes on Kumin, she considered her ‘the most frump of the frumps’. While Kumin admired Sexton, who was ‘a little flower child, the ex-fashion model…totally chic’, she also found her terrifying. Certainly, Sexton’s more flamboyant style was reflective of her fiery nature, while Kumin was far more restrained and stable.

Anne Sexton (left) and Maxine Kumin (right)  at a creative writing workshop With kind permission from Nancy K. Miller.

Anne Sexton (left) and Maxine Kumin (right)
at a creative writing workshop. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph, credited to Doris Holmes Eyges.  

Perhaps because of these dissimilarities, Kumin and Sexton soon found in each other a deep creative support. They started to attend poetry readings together, hearing the likes of Marianne Moore and Robert Frost, and they reassured each other that their own work showed promise. Later, they even came up with titles for each other’s poetry collections.

It would be easy to assume that Kumin was the more nurturing of the pair, especially since she postponed moving to the country because she felt Sexton needed her close by. But Kumin was always keen to emphasise the mutual nature of their support. Sexton dropped everything, for example, to read Kumin’s novel draft when, during a trip to Rome, she received an airmail packet from her friend. Moreover, Kumin claims that Sexton ‘pulled me out of my shell’ and ‘made me see that the cerebral really needed a strong admixture of the visceral’.

As well as meeting up in person at least twice per week, they got into the habit of making regular calls, sometimes talking for hours on end, and even critiquing each other’s drafts over the phone.

During a period when both women had won prestigious fellowships at Harvard, and so were feeling ‘flush and important’, they went so far as to install a secret second phone line. They would sometimes keep their call linked for hours on end, interrupting their poetry discussions to make dinner or hang out the laundry, and then they would whistle into the receiver when they were ready to resume. Their illicit phone line allowed them to work together without having to worry about their husbands’ disapproval.

Indeed, the pair kept their mutually supportive friendship intensely private for many years.

Kumin, whose formal, reticent poetry won her a Pulitzer in 1973, had been represented by critics as the rival of Sexton, whose wild, confessional style had won her the same prize six years earlier.

Curiously, the pair felt so ‘ashamed’ of their friendship that they had allowed this myth of rivalry to continue for years before finally announcing that they were actually the closest of friends.

Their relationship would have felt more legitimate and less clandestine, they felt, if the women’s movement had existed when they first met. They were the women’s movement, they joked, they just hadn’t realised it.

Activity

After Sexton’s death, Kumin reminisced that ‘one of the joys of our relationship was the ease with which we traded dresses back and forth’, admitting that they practically fought over certain outfits, such as a red and white polyester dress that they both adored.

This month, we will follow in their footsteps by choosing outfits from each other’s wardrobes and then we’ll post about our experiences of wearing them.

Taking Stock

Seven months into our yearlong quest to discover the friendships enjoyed by famous female authors, it seems a good time to take stock.

We had the chance to do just that when we were asked to write a double page spread for the Independent on Sunday and a guest post for Writers and Artists.

When we first mooted the idea of Something Rhymed, we couldn’t have named twelve sets of famous female writer pals of old. We had no idea that Jane Austen risked her family’s disapproval by forging a radical relationship with a playwright who was one of the family’s servants. Who’d have thought that the mythically reclusive Emily Dickinson was a lifelong friend of the bestselling novelist Helen Hunt Jackson? As for Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we’d heard that they were enemies.

But once we set up this blog, so many of you gave us such great tip-offs about women’s partnerships that it’s become tough to choose who to profile. We’ve become increasingly curious, therefore, about why such fascinating relationships have been misrepresented or written out of literary lore.

In our guest post for Writers and Artists, we put forward some of our theories on this.

We initially wondered whether these female alliances got overlooked because they were most often carried out within private domestic spheres. Unlike Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen and Anne Sharp never visited risqué music halls together; unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell never chronicled joint drinking binges in their published writings.

Even more significant, perhaps, is that whilst most of these men’s writing partnerships suffered spectacular bust-ups, many of the friendships we’ve featured were relatively harmonious. So it could also be that their frequent lack of drama has cost them newspaper column inches and lengthy entries in literary biographies.

Potentially most insidious, however, it that, unlike the camaraderie of Byron and Shelley, frequently recalled as robustly combative, the professional rivalry of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf was seen as entirely incompatible with female friendship.

As the year progresses, we’ve increasingly been led to wonder whether the lack of a level playing field lies at the root of it all. Although society has traditionally allowed men to accommodate healthy competition within their relationships, the same has been looked on much less favourably when it occurs between women.

We were able to explore this theory further in our feature for the Independent on Sunday.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf claimed that collaborative, intellectual friendship between women was considered taboo. The new feminists who we interviewed, however, were happy to celebrate such relationships. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism, was keen to credit novelist and No More Page 3 campaigner Lucy-Anne Holmes for fuelling her own success. And co-writers of The Vagenda, Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, friends since their student days, have relied on each other during periods when they’ve had to face down misogynistic attacks.

The sheer level of aggression faced by these friends suggests that although such relationships are no longer taboo, female solidarity is considered subversive even today.

The Kind of Friendship that Shores You Up: Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin

A work connection brought Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson together. In this month’s guest blog, novelist Susan Barker and journalist Zakia Uddin tell us about the lucky circumstances that led to their friendship.

Susan

SusanBarker Beijing Photo 3I first met Zakia when we had summer jobs at the Statue of Liberty in 1999. Zakia was working in the gift shop, and I was outdoors in a kiosk selling hot dogs to the tourists. She was 19, I was 20, and we were both wearing unflattering green uniforms.

My first impression of Zakia was that she was pretty (my then boyfriend used to call Zakia ‘the elfin girl’), and very sharp, with a dry sense of humour that unsettled our co-workers at times.

That summer we took cigarette breaks together, and in the evenings we’d hang out at dive bars in the East Village where we weren’t ID-ed. It didn’t take long to establish we had a lot in common. We’d both grown up in Essex, as the children of Asian immigrants, and both had a similar sense of being caught between two cultures, and not fully belonging to either.

But mostly we had books in common. Zakia was a consummate reader, and would lend me her eclectic second-hand book shop finds. Fifteen years later, I still have one of those ‘borrowed’ paperbacks, in my bookcase at home.

Zakia and I reunited in London after that summer, and though I have been living in Asia half the time since then, we have kept in touch. She’s the first person I look up when I am back in the UK, and my favourite person to go to the pub and talk literature with.

For the past decade or so we have also had in common the ritual of locking ourselves away to write fiction (and in Zakia’s case, journalism) and the highs and lows of our vocation to share and commiserate over too.

Zakia is relentlessly interesting, funny and subversive company. A blog post is not nearly enough to describe how fortunate I am to have her in my life.

Zakia

Zakia photoI wanted to be friends with Susan based on her recalcitrant attitude towards customer service. I didn’t know what we had in common until much later, but I thought her tattoo and predilection for vodka and Marlboro Reds was cool.

Our exchange of books happened early. In New York, I read a combination of half-understood theory and old novels. Susan introduced me to contemporary writing that I might have reached by a more winding route, but I’m glad I didn’t.

She lent me Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, and Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water, which both blew me away stylistically. We don’t always agree on the novels we like (which I love), but she continues to introduce me to technically fascinating writers.

Her genuine, sometimes gruff, encouragement with my writing was a factor in making me come back to fiction periodically, and then finally apply to a creative writing course. I also still think of her description, on a packed night-bus home to North London, of the novel as a ‘will-to-power’ exercise – seeing writing well as a challenge to yourself above anything else. The idea helps me to focus when I get neurotic or needy about ‘success’ or the lack of it.

Our backgrounds played a huge part in why we got along but there was also a shared love of similar music and film, and a tendency to see the comical in most things. We spent a lot of time in clubs, bars, and the kitchens of my various rented houses when she moved to London.

We’ve lived in different countries for a long while now, but the discussions when we sporadically see each other in England feel so much richer with time. What I value equally are the heartfelt, revelatory, honest conversations about work, relationships and the future, which usually make me feel realistic, tough and more hopeful afterwards.

This is the kind of friendship that shores you up.

 

Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations was published by Transworld this month.

A selection of Zakia Uddin’s journalism can be read at http://zaktivities.net/