By Alaina Bixon | Contributing Columnist
Some people have a special talent for friendship. They focus attention on us, as if listening to our stories is the highlight of their day. They’re generous, funny and supportive, and we feel lucky to know them.
We writers work in solitude, so we thrive on connections with other writers and groups, our literary community.
The literary annals are loaded with examples of friendships — and rivalry — among writers. Virginia Woolf loved reading books by other authors, but said she almost stopped writing after reading Proust; she was afraid her work could n’t compare to what he had accomplished. Fortunately for her readers — I love “Mrs. Dalloway ”and“ To the Lighthouse, ”along with many of her essays – she kept on writing. Woolf said, “Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends,” among whom were Lytton Strachey, EM Forster, Rupert Brooks, and TS Elliot.
Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table in Manhattan during the 1920s and 30s included Alexander Woollcott, the humorist Robert Benchley, playwright George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross (the first editor of The New Yorker magazine), Harpo Marx, Noel Coward, and Tallulah bankhead The Round Table, known for its witty, sophisticated conversations, created intense friendships, lunches that could last into the evening, and occasional business ventures.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway text in a bar in Paris, shortly after the publication of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and their friendship flourished over drinks and discussions about writing. Hemingway was still writing for newspapers, and Fitzgerald’s success may have inspired Hemingway to write a novel.
Toward the end of Fitzgerald’s life, Hemingway wrote to him, “you can write twice as well now as you ever could,” while Fitzgerald regularly referred to Hemingway as the “greatest living writer of our time.”
MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl enjoyed a decades-long friendship. Reichl wrote, “MFK Fisher was the first to write about food as a way of understanding the world, and with ‘The Gastronomical Me’ she virtually invented the food memoir.” At the time Reichl began writing, it was impossible for “people who were raised in our food-obsessed culture to understand the contempt Americans had for food and cooking when I was growing up… My parents, who believed that no serious person had any interest in food, were puzzled by their strange child who inexplicably loved to cook. Until I discovered MFK Fisher, it was a lonely existence.”
Mary Frances Fisher maintained friendships with chefs, writers, and restaurant folks wherever her travels took her. Jeannette Ferrary, former food writer for the New York Times, wrote a memoir “Between Friends: MFK Fisher and Me.” Maggie Waldron, another food writer (and a late friend of mine), told me her walking staff had been a gift from MFK Fisher. Mary Evely, former chef at Simi Winery, often visited Fisher and shared dinners when they both lived in nearby Northern California towns, Guerneville and Glen Ellen. Mary’s cookbook, “The Vintner’s Table Cookbook,” paired recipes with specific wines, winning her a James Beard award. She inscribed my copy: “Alaina — We can survive anything with good food, good wine and good friends.”
I have been fortunate to lead food writing workshops for Inlandia Institute, and MFK Fisher is one of the writers I always include. She was a pioneer, writing lyrically about food as a way to share stories about people, places, and times in her life.
Painters, writers, and artists of all kinds called on Gertrude Stein during each years in Paris with Alice B. Toklas. Picasso, Juan Gris, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Ezra Pound all found themselves in her parlor and often around her table. On one occasion, Alice wrote, “This has been a most wonderful evening. Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her 10 years to understand.”
Thom Gunn developed lasting friendships with fellow poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, but was perhaps closest to Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of “The Threepenny Review.” “I thought he was possibly the best living poet in English. Thom Gunn gave me a poem for the first issue of ‘The Threepenny Review,’ and he gave me forty-three other pieces of his marvelous writing, poetry and prose, in the twenty-four years that followed.” Through reading his poems, she recognized a kindred soul. Their friendship extended until his death.
Anna Quindlen, a writer I feel connected to through her work, said, “Part of the great wonder of reading is that it has the ability to make human beings feel more connected to one another.”
We all benefit from those connections, and writers need them too. I’m grateful for Cati Porter and the talented Inlandia Institute writers, as well as the inspiring writers at UC Riverside and Palm Desert. What a wealth of community and friendship!
“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.” – Linda Grayson
Alaina Bixon is a writer, editor and coach who leads creative writing workshops. She founded Tilton Bass Publishing to help authors get their books into the world.