Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When Writing Friends Aren’t: Sabotage and Self-Image

We can encounter destructive relationships in every area of our lives, but when it comes to our creativity, they can be particularly nasty.

Some people write in isolation. Either they aren’t naturally sociable or they find that critical feedback simply isn’t helpful. Most of us, however, create some type of support system at some stage of our careers. Often it’s early on, when we’re struggling to learn the craft. We may find a face-to-face group or an online workshop or other network of fellow novices. The internet provides a wealth of opportunities to meet such people, as do conventions. (When I was starting out, there was a wonderful workshop-by-mail run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury; I’m still friends with some of the writers I met by exchanging letters and written critiques.)

Most of the time, beginning writers are honestly trying to help one another. We may make mistakes as we learn how to give useful critical feedback or make idiotic suggestions about marketing, but the basic relationship is one of good will and support. Success, however small the sale, becomes an occasion for celebration. When one member improves, we all feel encouraged.

Trust is a crucial element in such groups. We work hard to learn to accept criticism, to not be defensive, to take time to think through the comments. While this vulnerability makes us more teachable, it also leaves us open to manipulation and abuse.

Sadly, sometimes the people we thought were our friends and supporters, our colleagues and conspirators in the adventure of creating and publishing stories, turn out to be our most insidious adversaries. Sometimes, the alarm comes in the form of a sinking feeling, a sense that verges toward futility, after a discussion with a particular person. Other times, we realize that once again, we have been lured away from the precious time in which we intended to work. Often we have no idea how that happened. We want to think well of our friends; we believe their words even when their actions speak differently.

The whole issue of jealousy and sabotage on the part of those we have trusted with our creative process, those we have relied on to be both honest and tender with us, is complex and troubling. I can’t do justice to all its aspect here. The first step toward healthier boundaries is realizing what is happening and that we are not alone. It’s happened to most of us.

I don’t mean to say that people join writer’s workshops with the intention of eroding the self-confidence, not to mention the craft skills, of the other members. I do mean that people are not always aware of their own feelings and motivations. A person may truly believe he or she means nothing but the best for another writer, all the while subtly and unconsciously communicating something very different.

A writing friendship can begin as mutual support but not fare well when one writer’s career takes off and the other one’s doesn’t. We’re not supposed to feel jealous of another writer, especially a friend. But without self-awareness, it’s easy to slide into resentment. (“It’s not fair that he got published and I didn’t when my story is just as good.”)

Sometimes, resentment comes out in statements that undermine trust in the other writer’s judgment and work, pressure to go against one’s natural strengths, for example, to change genres, to aim for unreasonable markets (“Why are you wasting your time writing sword and sorcery when you should be writing steampunk?”)

Occasionally, envy will prompt a writer to try to manage the other’s career, even to act as a sort of agent. Gossip is a common way of venting frustration, damaging both reputations and trust. (“She only got that story published because she slept with the editor.”)

For me, it’s important to find people I can trust, both within the field and outside it. Sometimes I need a disinterested listener, one I know will hold whatever I say in confidence, so I can work out what my guts are telling me and how to deal with the situation. This helps me to recognize my own “warning signs” and develop a vocabulary of responses. I also need regular time with fellow writers, not only to chew over specific writing problems but for general communication-of-enthusiasm and mutual cheering-on. When I do this regularly, I am less apt to be drawn into those relationships that are less healthy for me as a person and as a writer.


  1. Very interesting (and brave) post. This is something most of us fear and are aware of, but few want to talk about. Probably because it makes us feel paranoid and crazy, which is what most of us think the outside world thinks of us anyway. (Wow! Not sure I can even re-read that! : )

    I do believe, as you say, that most of it is likely unintended. But it does happen. Awareness is probably the key to nipping it in the bud. It's so hard as a young writer (not person, per say) to trust yourself. The whole business is wrought with insecurity and self-doubt, which is like wood to a termite when it comes to folks who would prey on us.

  2. This is very interesting and probably true. I would like to follow your blog. I'm a beginning writer. My first book will be published soon by Imajin Books. I've run into some like minded authors and others who leave me feeling uneasy, particularly on a certain social media site that's ostensibly for entrepreneurs and writers. So many self-published, so many not listening, so many with axes to grind it appears. I feel like a sheep amongst wolves on certain sites and have vacated those sites.

    This is an interesting topic but one which many writers would be uncomfortable with. May I end in a preposition? I think so. Others pontificate and cannot be cured. I prefer to write a bit in isolation for that reason.

  3. @E.J. That's one of the reasons I wrote this post. I think we need to talk about what nourishes us as writers, and what starves us. It's such a lonely business at best. As an example, I used to think I'd never be any good because my first drafts were awful and weren't getting any better (at least, measuring by the critiques I was getting). I completely ignored that I was learning to revise really well. Then I had lunch with a writer (successful, who I admired very much) and I shyly told her how discouraged I felt. She told me that NO ONE ever sees her early drafts, not even her most trusted reader. She taught me that the only version that counts is the one that ends up on the editor's desk. And I wouldn't have known that if I had not been able to talk about how insecure and vulnerable I felt.

  4. This is a wonderful post, Deborah. Thanks for writing it.

  5. I can relate to this, Deborah. For the past several months I have had the sinking feeling that a long-time friend and critique partner has gone over that hump. Her last critique was an exercise in snark and self-indulgence, so radioactive I could barely read it. What good does dragging the writer down do anyone? I can take brutal crits, but why should I have to? You can say a draft has issues without personally attacking the writer.

    Much as it pains me, because I've valued her advice in the past, I will ask her not to critique the next novel I post to my workshop. So sad.

  6. @S.A. Bolich. Yes, sad. And painful and awkward, especially since this person is a friend. I hope you're able to separate the roles to preserve the friendship. The best way to do that is to protect yourself and minimize resentment.

    Without knowing anything more, I wonder what your friend is suffering, to lash out in this way under the guise of a critique. Then again, when people are in pain, they often do not take criticism of their inappropriate or hurtful behavior well.

  7. I know a writer who had several successful novels in her field - was poised to make the jump to the bestseller lists. But her writing group apparently grew jealous of her success, instead of using it as a possible goal. The poisonous drip eroded her confidence and shut down her muse.

    She hasn't written in at least ten years. I don't know if she will ever go back - but her response to the criticism from that group destroyed a career and friendships.

  8. Authors are like Magicians,they weave life from their imagination.I ask,please don't kill what little magic is left in this world.

  9. Hi Deborah,

    Just wanted to let you know I enjoyed this post so much I referenced (and linked) to it on my own blog. Thanks so much again for sharing.

    You can read it here:


  10. I think it's important to be vigilant of our own subconscious motivations when we're cheering on or critiquing our fellow writers and friends-who-are-writers. I love my writing friends to death, but hey, I get jealous like any other human being when they score big, and even sometimes when they score little. It is normal to feel a twinge when someone succeeds at something into which you've poured tons of time and energy.

    When I'm dealing with my own green-eyed monster, I typically take a big step back, offer a congratulations, and study that writer's moves. Whether it's submitting more often, getting more stuff ready for submission, or working harder on my bigger projects, I try to let negative feelings spur me to work harder. That way, they don't overflow onto my friends, and they're given positive expression.

    Elizabeth Twist

  11. @Kathi - that's tragic. Each creative voice is precious and unique, although some of us have more bounce-back-ness than others. Jealousy/envy-fueled sabotage is so counterproductive. When we genuinely rejoice in one another's achievements, everyone benefits.

    @E.J. Wow, thanks for the signal boost. From the response, this is an area we badly need to talk about.

    @Elizabeth - thank you for sharing that, and for the courage to be honest about your own feelings of jealousy. Your ability to turn them into something positive is an inspiration.

  12. Hi Deborah... I popped over from EJ's blog and glad i found you. For this reason, I've surrounded myself only with CPs who give constructive criticism. It's not worth it to endure negativity otherwise. On the flip side, if they're not helping me grow by being too nice, that's no good either. I think it's so important for beginning writers to understand they can say no to a CP who is bringing them down.

  13. Hi Pk Hrezo. That's wonderful that you have been fortunate in your writing friends. You are certainly right about not wasting time on negative, confidence-destroying feedback. There can be more subtle forms of sabotage, that appear on the surface to be positive but carry undertones of discouragement. I've had particular difficulty with friends who come to the conversation full of enthusiasm (and often, very good comments) but erode the boundaries of time and energy I need to do good work. I end up wondering how the afternoon got friveled away or why I'm too drained to focus well.

  14. I have also been lucky to make some great writer friends, but I've also met some dodgy people who would be worse than enemies to have on my team!