27 February 2023

You Can't Make Old Friends

If you’re a writer – even the shuttered, introverted stereotype – it’s nearly impossible to not have any friends.  You can add up all the MFAs in Creative Writing and they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, unless you factor in your friends.  Maybe some of your friends are also relatives – a brother, sister, dog or lunatic uncle.  But there’s no better source of creative nutrition than the nutty real-life characters who orbit your private sun.

I had two brilliant instructors in grad school, who became my friends. Did they bestow the same generous help and encouragement on my haughty, self-absorbed classmates?  I’ll never know.  

I have some vague recollection of the academic instruction I received in college, though the real learning came from hanging out at the snack bar with the motley crew of screwball personalities and social deviants with whom I kept company.  We might have ridiculed the pompous professoriate, but we all eagerly debated what they were trying to teach us, and it was through this lively filter that I absorbed most of what my father was reluctantly paying for.   

The late 60s, early 70s were an ideal time to be in college, with permissive administrators, hip young professors trying (unsuccessfully) to be cool, a full buffet of intoxicants and the opportunity to get tear-gassed at an anti-war demonstration. 

A common complaint about the liberal arts heard today is this type of education has little relevance to ones ultimate career ambitions.  The usual rejoinder is that it teaches you how to think and process complex information.  Maybe, but I’m sure it taught me how to keep my student deferment with as little effort as possible, as least until the draft lottery scared the crap out of all of us and sent a few of my classmates directly to Southeast Asia (not me).   I also learned how to write convincing term papers with scant supporting research under ugly self-inflicted deadlines, some just a few hours away, meaning the wee hours of the night. 

My roommate and now longtime friend famously wrote a paper on Boris Pasternak based entirely on the liner notes of the Dr. Zhivago movie soundtrack.  I think he got the A.  My finest effort was writing a paper overnight in heroic couplets, with a little help (okay, a lot of help) from my friends.  I got a B+, but no complaints.     

This type of improvisation was a bedrock capability that allowed for my career in advertising, and greatly abetted writing lots of novels, essays and short stories.  Though if the tactics provided the skills, the culture was the wellspring.  None of my friends have ever recognized themselves in my fiction, though they’re all there, in spirit if not direct description.  The rhythms of their language, their senses of humor, their insights and inexplicable behavior.   

Every novelist mines his or her friends and families to develop characters.  Amply enhanced by imagination and judicious resorting of traits and qualities.  I feel particularly blessed to have an Empire Mine of associations from which to extract limitless fodder and inspiration. 

I’m pleased to report that I appreciated it then, and throughout my life, and treasure it now as we compose those remaining chapters. 

Photo credit: Pierce Bounds


  1. All true, Chris, except that in academia in the early Sixties, the professors never became helpful buddies and mentors to girls—with the notable exception at my own alma mater of Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis, and a writing career was not the primary result. Oh, and I misinterpreted your excellent title when I first read it, since it takes on a more profound meaning when one reaches the age at which one reads the obits with keen interest.

    1. My wife was lucky in the early 70s to have professors in undergrad who became mentors, and even friends. We've had one out to our house a couple times, and he's quite the pleasure.

  2. I hit academia late in life - in my 30s, in the 1980s, and things had changed a little. But I had some great teachers - Dr. Peake was my history mentor, and he was so proud of me when he heard that I had become a history professor at SDSU! And that I was a writer as well!

    Also, we college / university non-trads made close friendships, and I still consider some of them to be my family. We've been through a lot together.

  3. In one of my classes, we studied ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The instructor mentioned Eliot had sent an early draft to… mm, Dylan Thomas, I think, who struck out a third of the work, greatly benefitting the poem in Eliot’s view. I was heard to mumble, “He could have improved it more by marking out another third.”

    But the funny thing is that it stuck with me, it had seeped under my skin in an unnoticed, indefinable way. Most literature I learned then, I like today, but Prufrock slipped in subversively. Now I’m glad of the women who come and go talking of Michelangelo.

  4. Leigh, if memory serves—which these days it seldom does—it was Ezra Pound. Anyhow, it remains a favorite poem.
    Edward Lodi

    1. Thank you for the correction, Edward. I'd wholly blanked out.

  5. Cindy Courtney02 March, 2023 08:02

    As one in this orbit you describe, Chris, I loved this tribute. We are lucky that our friends are such rich sources of story-telling, whether shared intimately or shared with the wider world in a book. Keep mining.


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