I’m back from the remarkably wonderful Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College where I spoke several times on the theme of (what else?) friendship. One of those times was with the retired English literature professor and author Daniel Taylor, and our topic was “Writing on Friendship”—how it’s been done, how we’ve tried it, how it might go wrong, and so on.
I decided to use my portion of the session to talk about four of the challenges or pitfalls of writing on friendship, and I thought some of you might be interested in seeing what I said.
First, the danger of writing about friendship generically or in the abstract. When I first started writing my book on friendship, I had lunch with editor and Reader Extraordinaire John Wilson to pick his brain on possible sources for my project. I recall him saying something along these lines: “Too much writing on friendship is about offering some general theory of friendship rather than about portraying friendship as the author has known it.” John, as it turned out, also attended my first session at the Festival this past week, and afterwards he came up to me and said: “I’ve thought of the title for the next book you need to write. It could be called Particular Friendship, playing with the negative connotations of that phrase (from monastic contexts) but going beyond those connotations to make the point that individual stories of friendship are almost always better than some sweeping theory.” “Descending to particulars always helps to clear the mind” (Dallas Willard).
Second, the challenge of negotiating the “freedom” and “givenness” of friendship. This has been the tension that has animated most of what I’ve written on friendship to this point. On the one hand, as Ethan Leib has said, “Friendship is fragile because one may more or less freely disavow a friend; but the bonds are special, in part, precisely because we may walk away at any time.” Unlike marriage or kinship ties, there’s no blood relation or public promises that bind friends together. And yet, on the other hand, friendships often take on the character of family ties, and one cannot simply “walk away” at any time. Friendships do involve obligations and constraints. Figuring out how to balance or interweave or choose between these conceptions can be tricky.
Third, the challenge of describing a relationship that does not have a clear narrative arc. In one of his beautiful essays on friendship, Alan Jacobs makes the point that whereas romantic love is “ecstatic,” hurling its subjects beyond themselves, “it is the nature of friendship to be un-ecstatic, to bring one back into oneself rather than throw one beyond.” As I’ve put it here before, summarizing Jacobs,
Friendship usually isn’t about “a story to tell, a sequence of events to dramatize, an intensity of experience to lyricize.” Furthermore, friendship isn’t about undertaking some quest to achieve some goal. Unlike, for instance, the love of parents for children, which is very much oriented toward the telos of “training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6), the love of friendship is its own end. And because of that non-flashy, goal-less quality of friendship, it sometimes takes the dramatic rupture of death for us to see the friendship as a whole, and for us to be able, then, to give voice to our gratitude for it.
Incidentally, this is why, according to Jacobs, some of the best literary depictions of friendships aren’t found in novels or short stories or memoirs but in letters.
Fourth, the challenge of writing about disappointment and frustration in friendship. This challenge isn’t uniquely that of the would-be chronicler of friendship—think how hard it is for a spouse to write about marital strife or boredom—but it is, still, a challenge. When I was writing my book on friendship, I viewed myself as an activist and a cheerleader: I wanted to motivate my fellow Christians to take concrete steps to honor and pursue deeper friendships, specifically for the sake of people like me—single, celibate, same-sex attracted believers who want to belong in “thick” kinship-type relationships. But I knew that that kind of charge would sound hollow if I didn’t find a way to be honest about how painful deep friendship can be and how it can fail. How could I write about this without hurting my friends? And yet how could I not write about it without damaging my project? Honestly, I’m still not sure I did it well. I included a chapter in my book that described my jealousy and neediness in one particular friendship and its subsequent loss, but I’m not sure I successfully resisted the temptation to tidy up even that painful narrative. Christian writing about pain seems often to fall into one of two errors: maudlin sentimentality or problem solving. In the end, I’m not sure that I completely avoided either one.
Wesley, thanks for posting this. I was torn between this session and another “must attend” at the same time. I was feeling bad I missed it.
I just read your book Spiritual Friendship and loved it. Thanks for sharing about your writing process here- wish I could have been at FFW! You mention some in your book, but if you were to make a top ten “great literary friendships” list of books that portray some of the wonderfulness but also particularity and tension of friendship, what would you put on that list?
Oooh – good call… I’d be interested in that list…
Do you yourself have any you’d put on a “great literary friendships” list of your own?
Hmm, that’s why I asked, I’m struggling to think! 🙂 I always think of fantasy (Harry-Ron-Hermione, the Fellowship of the Ring) because in all of those people are on quests and depending on each other. But I was trying to think of other genres of stories where the center is a friendship not a romance. There’s ones where people are siblings (March sisters in Little Women) but that’s family bonds, not only friend bonds. So I’m looking for some good recommendations! 🙂
Oh yeah. Friendships are fused in adversity can be wonderful.
And I love that if I look at someone else’s friendship through the lens of fiction (or biography), it’s a lot easier to open up my mind and let someone drop in a good idea.
Hi Vikki and Steph E,
One great example of a book about friendship is the excellent young adult novel Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It focuses on the friendship of a pilot and a spy in WWII. Another example more along the lines of great literature is the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, a four-book series about the friendship between two women.
Thanks for the suggestions, Chantel. 🙂
I’d opened up “My Brilliant Friend” & read the first chapter when I was in the library recently… I decided not to stick with it, though I’m a bit curious.
“Code Name Verity” sounds interesting. (and I definitely love me some YA reading.)
It was truly such a great session, Wes. You gave me much to think about. It was great seeing you too!
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