After I graduated from college, I got a job as an office assistant. I made pretty good money, had regular work hours, tons of opportunities to move up the ladder of assistantry, but I was incredibly lonely. Not physically lonely. I was living with my boyfriend and had a friend who gave amazing parties full of interesting people.
But I was writerly lonely. Which is a different kind of evil.
I read blogs by authors and reviewers, freaking out because I hadn’t gotten famous yet from writing. I reasoned that the only way to have writing friends was to become famous, and then I’d suddenly be hanging out with people whose stories I loved.
I was twenty-four. A voice in my head whispered: it’s already beginning to be too late. Feeling the walls of the office building closing in around me, I applied to several MFA programs and by the end of the year I was on my way to Alaska.
Flash forward five years.
I’m sitting in a hotel room at AWP, talking to Ashley Cowger. We talk for hours. About writing, about stories, about our hopes and fears for the future – both within our writing careers and in our other lives. She’s my kindred spirit. Her husband Damien comes in and we hang out together, playing games with their young daughter, Amalie. It’s wonderful. A happy nook of friendship amid the vast chaos of a huge conference.
The next day I go down to the bookfair and Ashley’s at the Autumn House press table, signing copies of her short story collection, Peter Never Came. Damien’s behind the table for the New Ohio Review, where he’s the Managing Editor.
|Ashley Cowger signing her book Peter Never Came at AWP 2012
|Damien Cowger at the NOR table at AWP 2012
At the bookfair there’s a sea of people, and I only know a few of them. But they’re good friends, amazing people, and very talented artists.
I met Ashley and Damien while I was at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ashley was a year ahead of me in the program, and her stories were more polished and well-written than I thought mine could ever be. And even though we’re both shy, we became friends.
They invited me over for dinner before they left to move to the lower 48.
They came to my first public bellydancing performance.
We carted away their mattress and box springs when they moved away, thankful for the first real bed we’d have in Alaska.
At Clarion West, a Very Famous Author once came up to one of my classmates and ruffled his hair.
I was agog.
I had spent hours in bookstores reading Very Famous Author’s books because I was too poor in college to buy them. VFA’s stories changed what I thought was possible in fiction, and they made me feel like writing could not only be deeply affecting, but also fun.
“He’s just a guy,” my friend said.
And he’s right. Very Famous Author may be a very famous author. But he’s also just a guy. And once, long ago, he wasn’t very famous. But even then, he was still a writer.
I wish I could go back in time and talk to myself.
This is what I’d say:
- Make writing friends however you can with people who are just starting out.
- Join an online writing group.
- Look up your city’s local literary association. They may not publicize stuff on the internet. Be brave. Call their phone number.
- Don’t be in a rush to be famous. That’s not what matters anyway.
- Push yourself to talk to people about writing, but don’t push too hard. You’ve got a long time to take all the little steps you need.
- Write. Read. Live. Read. Read. Read.
I’m not sure if younger me would listen. But maybe it would lessen the stress I felt every day, and the fear that’s still in the back of my mind of never being a good enough writer.
I’ll turn thirty in May. I’m still not a famous author.
But I have writing friends. Amazing friendships I found through my MFA program, through Clarion West, and through my local literary association. I’m not a lonely writer anymore, and that makes the writing so much easier.
They’re just guys and girls and people. Just like me.