‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.’ Thanks for that, Gore Vidal. He died last year – whether due to the success of his friends, I don’t know – so it’s probably safe to say that his pithy observation is simply not true. I’ve got a book deal. So how come my friends aren’t lying in massacred heaps all over the place?
For the most part, my friends are people who have seen me struggling with this ambition for decades. They’ve watched me fighting to create the time to write in the first place. They’ve held my hand when the rejections have become too much, and held the baby when I’ve needed to write something down mid-conversation. Most importantly, they’ve taken me seriously. My friends have not required that I have a published novel in order to think of me as a writer. And this has helped me to think of myself as one, and therefore to behave like one. I’ve tried to do the same for them. Why would a piece of me die when a friend I’ve been exchanging writing with for years gets published, any more than when a baby is born to friends after ten years of miscarriages, or a friend’s teenage daughter gets a place at Oxford? Why would I die when one friend gets a massive promotion, or another finally takes the step she’s dreamed of for years and leaves the corporate rat-race to teach music?
When my friend succeeds, I own a tiny piece of that success. I took a phone call in the dark watches of the night; I gave a mock interview. Maybe I cooked a meal, or offered sanctuary; perhaps I just said, ‘Go for it.’. But I was there. In the same way, there are lots and lots of people who own a bit of my book deal. They read a chapter, or more. They encouraged me. They may simply have said, ‘How’s the writing going?’ Even my mother-in-law owns a piece of The Ship – although probably not have the bit where the British Museum is gassed. It would upset her.
I strongly suspect, though, that Gore Vidal wasn’t talking about his friends. I expect he was talking about success that comes to strangers. The success that comes to people who have advantages that would make all the difference to you– independent wealth, say, or expensive education, or valuable contacts; a supportive spouse, a lack of small children (or the presence of small children, depending on your situation), a job they love, a job they hate. But those jealousy-inducing narratives are written by the person who hears of the success. Not by the person who has succeeded, or their friends. And the blame for any resulting death should be laid in the right place.
If I bragged, or crowed, or refused to talk about anything other than my book deal, or took it for granted that more success will follow – now that would kill my friends. But why would I? My friends know what it took, how they helped, just as I know the rocks they’ve had to hew and shape to put the foundations under their castles in the air. I won’t brag or make gilded assumptions. But neither will I pretend that success isn’t important, or that it came out of the blue, or that I haven’t been working on this for a decade. That would be just as bad, because it would fuel the popular impression that writing success comes from having a few lattes in a café with your laptop open. That a book deal falls from a blue sky into a deserving lap. That it’s easy.
Write. Write hard. Get help, write harder, don’t give up. And if, when you get your deal, a stranger hears of your success and decides that it was easy for you, I say let ‘em die. Die, or find out the truth. After all, a half-written story is a bad reason for suicide.