“In your twenties you’re becoming who you’re going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole.”
-Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
There are a lot of tropes on reality TV, but the most prevalent one is this: “I’m not here to make friends.” When someone utters those words, you know that you can expect conflict. Juicy, loud, angry conflict.
This approach to competition is quite common, although it’s not typically articulated so directly in real life. As an extremely competitive person, I understand the reasoning behind it perfectly. I went into my freshman year of college with that kind of ruthless attitude about writing. I was not there to make friends! I was there to win! During my first quarter, I lived like a hermit, writing thousands of words per day, and at the same time, not making any friends. It was isolating, depressing, and, most importantly, it didn’t make me a better writer. It made me a lonelier writer, unreceptive to constructive criticism and stubborn about doing things as I wanted to do them.
I was making the same narcissistic mistake that millions of college freshmen every year make. The mistake is this: you plop yourself into a creative community, you don’t talk to people because you aren’t there to make friends, you do your thing, you win! That’s the myth that reality TV feeds us; that’s the American Dream. Staunch individualism is supposed to beat friendliness every time.
I learned a lot in college, but if I could boil down all the big social and academic lessons into one, it would be this: reject all binaries. I realized that “winning” and “making friends” were often presented as an either/or choice when, really, the whole pretense of having to choose between the two was fallacious. If you watch any reality TV, you might notice that the ones that were “not there to make friends” often didn’t go on to win, anyway. So instead, I started paying attention to writers I admired. The writers I looked up to most all had really supportive networks of friends who helped them workshop their writing; these writers were generous with their time, and they weren’t stuck up at all. It took a lot of growing up for me to arrive at the conclusion that that was the kind of writer I wanted to be: I wanted to be more generous with my time. I wanted to contribute to a writing community. I wanted to give and receive meaningful and sophisticated criticism, and I wanted to make friends.
When I started working as an RA for Writer’s House in college (an apartment complex of aspiring writers living together), I was really eager to share my conclusions about this whole “not here to make friends” thing with everyone. The more experienced RAs warned me that the first all-building meeting was the make-it or break-it moment where your residents would either start taking you seriously or decide you were not worth listening to. Now, that was a binary I wish I could reject and forget, but instead, it haunted me. I stayed awake at night, enumerating all the possible ways I could mess up. Here I was, with this amazing opportunity to make a really positive difference, and in a fifteen-minute meeting, it could all go horribly wrong.
I had a lot of lofty expectations for Writer’s House. In my dream Writer’s House, I wanted everyone to feel included, valued, respected, and appreciated as writers and human beings; I thought that if I tried hard enough, I could have the most harmonious, supportive living community on campus. I found this commitment statement in a paper I read about active listening called “The Artist’s Commitment,” and I changed the words around so that it became “The Writer’s Commitment.” During my first all-building meeting, my heart was banging in my chest as I handed out copies of “The Writer’s Commitment” to all my residents, desperately hoping that they would invest in the writing community. If everyone invested in the writing community, I thought, it would be a huge success, a valuable on-campus resource, a cool place to be. If no one was there to make friends, though, it could be a huge disaster– a big mess of roommate mediations just waiting to happen. Please be here to make friends, I thought as I handed out the papers. Looking back on it, the Writer’s Commitment was a little cheesy and overly-dramatic:
I promise to always remember my power, love, and intelligence as a writer, and the vital role that writers have played in every culture and time. I will never again invalidate any writer, including myself, or any work of writing, but rather ally myself with all writers to end our economic oppression, and enthusiastically encourage the creativity of every human.
When I read this out loud to them, some of the freshmen giggled. Suddenly, I felt ridiculous. I wondered if I was coming off as too gentle, too hippie-dippy-trippy. I quickly went through all the college policies and wrapped up the meeting, hoping that they still took me semi-seriously, and that I hadn’t completely messed up the whole year.
Eventually, things did work out. Writer’s House became a really wonderful writing community that I was proud to be a part of, but it wasn’t wonderful because of what I did. It was wonderful because of the people who workshopped stories, attended writing events, and encouraged each other. Working in Writer’s House taught me that it wasn’t enough just to physically live in a community; in order to benefit from living in a creative community, you had to participate in it. The real value of college, at least for me, wasn’t getting a piece of paper listing my degree; it was making friends, learning new ideas every day, and actively participating in a community that challenged me to grow as a writer and a person.