So concludes E.B. White’s children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. Indeed, Charlotte, the spider, changed people’s hearts and minds—and postponed Wilbur’s death—with just five words.
I’ve been ruminating on this ending, and it’s got me thinking: Is the good writer/true friend combination really a rare one? Is there something about being a good writer that makes you a lousy friend? Are good friends generally uninteresting writers?
I’ve been working on my next novel and, at the same time, paying attention to the books on my coffee table to try to figure out what keeps me hooked. Let me tell you, the most compelling writers are not very friendly. The authors keep secrets. They manipulate. Fairly often, they outright lie.
Imagine stopping by a friend’s house and announcing, “Your husband did something terrible. I need to tell you about it.”
“What did he do?” your friend asks, looking pale.
“We’ll talk later. I have an appointment for an MRI. I might have a brain tumor. I have to go.”
You run off. You actually have no reason to believe you have a brain tumor and you don’t have a doctor’s appointment. You go to your favorite coffee shop instead where you see your friend’s husband. You sit with him for a while and then send your friend a text, “Just had coffee and a long talk with that husband of yours. This keeps getting worse.”
She writes you back, “Why wasn’t he at work?”
You write that his hair looked limp, as if he hadn’t washed it in a while, and describe the way his glasses kept sliding down his nose. You tell her his hands shook while he drank his coffee. You describe the re-usable mug he drank from, and the sugar sediment you saw when he put the mug down on the table. You tell her he snuck some sips from a flask of something, too, and ask if he’s been drinking a lot of booze at home.
Before she can respond, you write, “He’s walking over to my car right now. He’ll freak out if he realizes I’m texting you. Gotta go.”
Your friend is going to keep checking her phone, waiting for you to text again or call.
Good writing? Maybe. Are you a good friend? No.
When writing, I tend to relieve tension too quickly and resolve conflict too soon. I’m working on changing that. In my writing I need to be less of a true friend and more of a jerk.
Come to think of it, Charlotte was a true friend to Wilbur, but not to the humans who read her words. She duped them. Wilbur wasn’t particularly radiant, nor was he remarkably humble. Wilbur was an ordinary pig, transformed by her words.
We all need true friends, but we need a few friends who keep us guessing, too. The ones who borrow library books or cross country skis and lose them, but invariably offer a good excuse, or show up two hours late for every dinner party, always with a great story about saving an injured goose or filling in for an Angelina Jolie impersonator at a Save Darfur fundraiser. You love having that friend around, even though you don’t believe most of what she tells you.
Actually, much of the time, you think some of what she claims may be true. You hope so. The world is a more interesting and important place through the eyes of that friend who is neither forthright nor reassuring. Your untrue friend, good writer.