Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers never shared the extraordinary levels of closeness enjoyed by their contemporaries Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who saw each other as literary ‘travelling companions’.
Neither were they spurred on by the kind of highly motivating personal rivalry that fired the bond between modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, another pair of author friends of a similar generation.
What Christie and Sayers had instead was a solid working friendship, and, for them, this was presumably enough. For Emma Claire and me it never has been, though.
As some of our readers will already be aware, we got to know each other at a time when we were both living carefree lives as young English teachers in rural Japan. It was still some months before we’d admit to anyone else – and each other first – that we had serious ambitions to write, and so, although I remember us sometimes talking about books we were reading, writing was not a big part of our friendship. We spent our time doing other things: travelling the country, going to parties, and sampling the wares of local noodle shops and bars.
Back then, I would have been delighted to be told that, once we’d ‘come out’ to each other as would-be authors, the similar direction in which we’d chosen to travel would allow us to support each other through the years to come: celebrating individual triumphs as a pair, providing each other with a sympathetic ear when necessary, and – through our mutual interest in female literary friendship – eventually finding a way to write together.
This would have sounded fantastic, and of course it is. What could be better than your closest co-worker also being one of your closest friends?
The only niggling problem is that recently it began to dawn on us that, bit by bit over time, our whole friendship had become consumed by work. When we went out for the evening, supposedly for fun, our thoughts would soon turn to ideas for feature articles we could write together. When one of us invited the other over for dinner, we’d find ourselves talking about the next literary event we’d be doing together, or our jobs at the universities at which we both teach.
Now that we’ve become aware of this, we’ve started to make a concerted effort to have times when we turn off the ‘shop talk’, although sometimes it can be hard. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that, despite having sent Emma Claire three emails today and talked with her on the phone, each of these conversations was about our various joint projects.
That’s why it was especially good to go out for cocktails and noodles recently. The drinks were fancier than the cans of alcoholic fruit Chu-hi that we used to buy in our twenties. The ramen broth was floating with all sorts of extra ingredients unseen in the traditional joints we used to frequent. But there was something about the night’s holiday atmosphere that took me back to those heady, early days in Japan.
It reminded me that, though a working writers’ friendship is a wonderful thing, to have found someone with whom you can truly ‘travel’ is many, many times better.
4 thoughts on “Travellers on the Same Road”
It’s tricky to draw the line between friendship and work – especially when what drew you together was a shared spark, a shared conviction that the art you do is your most important life activity. I’m lucky enough to be married to a writer, and he’s my closest confidante and adviser. He’s also my sternest critic and makes me raise my game. I try to do likewise for him. We don’t often collaborate on projects as he writes TV scripts and computer games, whereas I write literary novels and teach other writers. But we do spend a lot of our conversation time talking about our crazy industry, our diverse colleagues and our professional course. He understands when I need a pick-up, or a boot to get me unblocked. That’s good. But sometimes we declare a day off, drive out into the countryside, explore a new town and remind ourselves that there are other reasons we’re soulmates.
Thanks for getting in touch, Roz. My partner is also a writer (a journalist) and he’s another great source of support, so I can really empathise with what you say. It’s wonderful to have someone (be it a friend or a partner) who truly understands the life you’ve chosen, but it’s also important to get away from it all sometimes, and remind yourself of everything else about that person that made you connect in the first place.
My writing mind is usually ‘on’ – not a bad thing, because usually writing doesn’t feel like work, so I can imagine that spending time with your ‘write-mate’ could be consumed by shop talk, but it’s good that you can switch off sometimes to re-charge a little of that creative energy.
Thanks for your thoughts, Andrea. I agree that writing (and writing-related) talk doesn’t have to feel like work – which is probably why it took a while for Emma Claire and I to notice we’d become consumed by it! But we’ve definitely found it helpful to set time apart from it now and again. As you say, as much as anything, it helps to re-charge our creativity.