I write for both a living and a hobby, which means I spend most of my time sitting around with a pen in my hand looking like I’m doing absolutely nothing. Because the majority of writing is just sitting in your chair of choice rethinking everything. Writing is waiting. Waiting on your mind to workout out a new turn of phrase or a more nuanced idea. Which is not very romantic, but you don’t have to wear proper pants to do it so that’s a plus.
Case in point, this is my third draft of this article. Telling you about the first drafts feels like a confession. And I’ll confess to you right now that the first draft stuck exclusively to swimming pool metaphors. And the second was built around the song, Hakuna Matata. Which means I wrote about swimming pools and Timon and Pumbaa. Basically nothing. You will never read either of those versions, but I still feel the need to apologize for writing them. They were that bad.
By now I know not to trust the first thing I put on a page. When I started out, I figured my first effort would turn a blank page into a life-altering experience for anyone who stumbled upon it. Eventually, I learned the lesson that awaits every writer: your first idea/metaphor/image is never your best one. Here’s an example about a girl who has blue eyes:
Her eyes are as blue as the sky.
Her eyes look like the blue of the ocean.
Her eyes match the blue in the Twitter logo.
Is that last image the best one possible? Ehh. But at least it’s original. (Lesson number two: original does not mean good.)
The point of the blue eyes exercise is that if you want to come up with something that actually engages the mind of another human being, you have to turn away from a lot of clichés. A writer must recognize that they will entertain a lot of bad ideas, then make their mind work harder to find something good, or at least something new and unique.
In Friendships As in Writing
The same is true for friends. It’s easy to be “friends” with a cliché:
How was your weekend?
Good. Did you do anything fun?
Cool, see ya.
That’s a real conversation I’ve had and probably one you’ve had to. People talk about the weather and sports and kids and weekends and workplaces all while talking about nothing at all. We talk around a real relationship with acquaintances and, to our own demise, we stick with our first conversational inclination with the people we think of as friends. You do this all the time. I do this all the time.
It astounds me that on more than one occasion I have spent five hours on a golf course in close proximity with one to three other people but left having added nothing to my knowledge of their lives, their thoughts, their dreams, their doubts. When I return from eighteen holes and a long lunch, my wife reasonably wants to hear how so-and-so is doing. She rolls her eyes when I confess the most honest, deep conversation of the day—the only thing I learned about so-and-so is that they can hit their driver straighter than I can.
How is it that we, people in need of real connection, commit our time but not our real selves to one another? How do I, a person who works with words for a living and a hobby, run out of conversation openers and questions that draw other people in? The how blows my mind, but the why I have some ideas about. Mainly, that our relational negligence comes from . . . ease.
Cliché friendship is easy. As easy, in fact, as writing something like, “Her eyes are as blue as the sky.” There’s not really anything wrong with the cliché. I mean, maybe the sky is exactly what her eyes look like. But I didn’t even have to try. And isn’t the result, I don’t know, boring?
Talking to someone about their weekend—and all the nothingness that went into it—isn’t wrong. It’s just boring. It’s just the path of least resistance. The result of all this ease is that we create relationships as weak as an “eyes as blue as the sky” metaphor.
Just try harder?
What I’m tempted to tell you is that in the same way that you have to put in a little more time and effort to move a metaphor past a cliché—or whatever category of not helpful Timon and Pumbaa fit into—it also takes a little extra energy and commitment to make a friendship more than a banality. But is that really it? Put in a little effort. Work a little harder. Ask some better questions. And actually listen when people answer. Sure. You can absolutely do that. And you should. But wow, I don’t care at all to write that down, and I’d be shocked if you were delighted to hear it.
Instead, I think that cultivating deep friendships is a lot like writing this article.
It’s hard. It takes longer than you expect. It requires concentrated effort. It requires time. It can’t be forced. It won’t get better unless you recognize what isn’t working. It needs both a commitment to the process and a willingness to step away and breathe. It takes patience.
Because the other part about great friendships is that they don’t always work the way you think they should. Sometimes suggesting a late-night cocktail with the friend that goes to bed at eight p.m. ends up being the best idea you’ve ever had. And sometimes your best friends feel like absolute strangers. I can point to three paragraphs in this article that I don’t like. This is one of them.
But that’s okay. Because friendships are less about the result. There isn’t an end goal you can get to with a friend. Relationships never arrive. They just grow and change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
It’s the same for this article. You’re reading it, but it’s not finished, really. I don’t think it ever will be. There are endless versions waiting to find a page. Every idea is always half-written. And I believe that’s true of my friendships too.
Cover image by Priscilla Du Preez.