Mardi Jo Link (www.mardijolink.com) is the author of the memoir, The Drummond Girls: A Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance, forthcoming in July from Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. Her first memoir, Bootstrapper (Knopf) was named winner of the Bookseller’s Choice Award, the Housatonic Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the Michigan Notable Book Award. She lives in northern Michigan.
“Every great book ever published is about relationships.”
A grad school professor said that to me once, and her words came back to my ears in full audio last year when I was finalizing revisions on my own book. I’d spent a year working on a memoir about my seven best girlfriends, and for comps I’d started seeking out non-fiction about friendship.
Library shelves and bookstore tables soon proved the accuracy of my former professor’s words. In my field trips I found lots of new books about parent-child relationships (perhaps because it was almost Mother’s Day), about marital relationships and love, about work relationships, and even about our relationships with our pets. Dogs mostly, but cats have their fair share, too.
Books about human friendships were surprisingly few. And often the best ones were being described as not about friendship at all but about something else entirely.
For example, my two favorites, Just Kids by Patti Smith, and Truth & Beauty by Ann Pachett, are each billed by their publishers as being books primarily about a passion for, and loyalty to, art. Understandable, I suppose, considering that Smith was writing about her years with the groundbreaking and controversial photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Pachett was writing about her relationship with another bestselling writer, Lucy Grealy.
In Just Kids, Smith dreamily recalls the way poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual awakening combined in New York City’s youth in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, all melding into a new world of creativity.
In Truth & Beauty, Pachett pulls the reader back to her grad school days in Iowa, to reflect upon how a writer is both born and made, and how early experiences can shape a writer’s sensibilities for decades to come.
Art, certainly, but what is really at the core of both these thoroughly transportive works is the richness of platonic friendship.
Without the relationship of friend to friend, Smith would not have had the depth of emotion to draw upon when writing her stunning opening:
“I raised the blinds and brightness entered the study. I smoothed the heavy linen draping my chair and chose a book of paintings by Odilon Redon, opening it to the image of the head of a woman floating in a small sea. Les yeux clos. A universe not yet scored contained beneath the pale lids. The phone rang and I rose to answer.”
Same for Pachett, who writes in this her opening chapter:
“I sat at the kitchen table and looked at her handwriting, which seemed oddly scrawny and uncertain, like a note on a birthday card from an elderly aunt. I had never seen her writing before, and certainly these were the only words she had ever addressed to me. While Lucy and I would later revise our personal history to say we had been friends since we met as freshmen, just for the pleasure of adding a few more years to the tally, the truth was we did not know each other at all in college. Or the truth was that I knew her and she did not know me.”
Both these women writers came to know their subjects in ways both intimate and devastating. Neither Mapplethorpe nor Grealy survive the memoirs written about them by their best friends, and these writers’ grief ably shows the complete vulnerability that writing about such deep friendship demands. Without opening themselves to that experience, Smith may have never had a National Book Award-winning relationship upon which to draw, and Pachett may have simply stuck to fiction, never writing a memoir at all.
With friendship offering such rich material for writers, I remain puzzled as to why so few books about long-time friendships are being published. Especially considering that for many writers, these are the long-term relationships that actually last. Parents grow old and die, children grow up, and many marriages end. Some of the best and most meaningful friendships, like the ones Smith and Pachett experienced and then wrote about, truly did last a lifetime.
Looking for some fertile material? Consider writing about your platonic relationships. What makes you a good friend? What makes you a bad one?