"Some of My Best Friends Are Writers."
ROBERT SWARD: Robyn, how did you start, how old were you when you first began writing?
ROBYN SARAH: I started at such an early age, I almost can't remember a time when writing wasn't part of my identity. I was six, in first grade, just beginning to read, when my mother put an unexpected gift into my hands, a "Huge 10-cent Scribbler"--bright orange covers, ruled newsprint inside. "Here," she said, "it's a book for writing in. You can write a story in it." A novel idea!(no pun intended.) I sat right down and wrote one, and I haven't looked back. Oddly enough, given the subject of this interview, the title of that first story was "Nancy Finds a Friend."
ROBT: Did you ever have a "writing friend" or were you one of those solitary figures...
ROBYN: Both. I've always tended to be solitary, even reclusive. But I've almost always had "writing friends" with whom I occasionally shared my work. (Different friends at different times--some of the relationships short lived, some ongoing for decades.) This one-to-one exchange replaced the "workshop" experience for me--writing workshops hadn't really caught on in Canada at the time I began my adult writing life, and later I felt no need for them. (I mean, I've led workshops, but have never participated in one.) I had my model from the beginning: in second grade, my best friend was one who shared my favorite school subject, "Composition" --and, like me, she also wrote stories at home. We used to read our stories out loud to each other on the telephone. She thought mine were wonderful, and I thought hers were wonderful. We inspired each other and imitated each other, but it was entirely good-spirited, collaborative, celebratory--not competitive. In high school, I had a writing friend who was a fellow student at the Conservatoire de Musique... she was three years older than I, already in university. It turned out she too wrote poetry and stories, and it was natural for us to show our writing to each other. This, again, was purely in the spirit of sharing an interest: neither of us had thought as far as trying to get published.
ROBT: How have "writing relationships" contributed to your development as a writer? Were they always positive... or did you, at times, feel you needed to be on guard in a certain way? Essentially, what led you to develop a friendship with "writing friend A" as opposed to "writing friend B"? What qualities did you look for in (potential) "writing friends"?
ROBYN: Initially,I was just glad if I found someone who shared my secret passion, someone else who scribbled. In the early years of university, it got harder--ego is on the rampage in those years, and most of the scribblers around me (poets, mainly) were male and much more sure of themselves than I. They gave readings, they took themselves seriously as poets, some had already published poems here and there... and they seemed to move in packs... and I as a woman who wrote poetry didn't feel taken seriously. It was hard for me to get up my courage to show them anything of my own. So there was this uneasy period when I hardly shared my work at all--which changed slowly once I began publishing in magazines. Since then it's been maybe two or three trusted writing friends, consulted one-on-one, when I've felt the need to show someone unpublished work or to talk about writing ....What do I look for in a writing friend? Well, for starters it has to be someone whose own writing I genuinely respect (though not necessarily a professional writer or one who is currently publishing.) It has to e someone who has responded to my own writing in a way that suggests some recognition of what I'm up to. And it has to be someone whose focus is on writing itself, in a very pure way--not on "writing biz."
ROBT: Robyn, how do you balance the need for solitude with the need for contact with other writers? Indeed, some writers find it very difficult to sustain friendship with other writers. There's jealousy, rivalry and one's need to be alone for long hours in order to produce and that sometimes means neglecting one's most valued friends. It's hard. The pie is small. The rewards are few. The competition brutal. So there's a degree of paranoia... (you and I being the exceptions, of course).
ROBYN: Well, you know, some of my best friends are writers. But, quite seriously, a lot aren't. Of my "soul-friends", the deepest friendships of my life, I think if I took a tally, more have NOT been writers. And the writers tend to be friends I don't see or communicate with very regularly--rather in intense, extended "bouts" with long lacunae. (I do have lots of writer-friends/colleagues with whom I grouse, as we all do, about the ups and downs of literary life, the vagaries of literary politics--and whose advice I occasionally solicit--and with whom I have ongoing exchanges about books and literature. But they aren't usually the same ones who see my manuscript drafts and/or show me theirs--and they aren't necessarily close friends in other ways.) Still, I'd have to say I feel a communality with other writers that's important to me, and special--a shared calling. A lot of my contact with other writers is by correspondence--often (but not always) initiated by me. Sometimes it's ONLY by correspondence. It's my way of having that important exchange, but preserving my solitude at the same time. But when it's time for a break from my desk, time to meet someone for lunch--often I prefer to see friends from other walks of life. It's good to get away from the claustrophobia of writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing -- and good to hear about other lives. As for that competition, paranoia... generally I don't cultivate friendships with writers who are career-driven--and I avoid or flee the kind of event where writers gossip about their agents, book deals, advances, foreign sales. That kind of talk brings on needless anxiety and self-doubt, and distracts me from what really matters, which is the work itself.
Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents, and grew up in Montreal. A graduate of the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec and of McGill University, she began publishing poems in Canadian periodicals in the early 1970s. In 1976, with Fred Louder, she co-founded Villeneuve Publications and co-edited its poetry chapbook series which included first titles by August Kleinzahler, A. F. Moritz, and others. The author of several poetry collections, most recently A Day's Grace (2003), she has also published two collections of short stories, and her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in the U.S. in such publications as The Threepenny Review, Poetry (Chicago), The Hudson Review and New England Review. Her poems have been anthologized in the Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry, in Bedford's Poetry: An Introduction and The Bedford Introduction to Literature, and in The Norton Anthology of Poetry.