“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . it has no survival value; rather is one of those things that give value to survival."

C.S. Lewis

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

Fortune Cookie #29
by Helen Pereira

Maintaining friendships with other writers is a privilege that comes with membership in what Margaret Laurence called ‘The Tribe’. When I first started writing I took for granted the generosity of major writers who led workshops I was taking. After workshops ended, I sent instructors my first drafts, unaware of how precious their time was; awaited comments and suggestions of possible markets. My mentors were good tribe members, generous enough to respond. Their support helped me to continue in spite of rejections.

Later I attended a writer’s retreat where I met other writers. We hung out, read, and commented on each other’s work. One found me a publisher; another wrote me a fortune cookie. A star member of that retreat was the late Robert Zend, a dear zany, poet who believed that writers were all ‘old souls’ destined to meet. He sent us fortune cookie fortunes divined after observing us.

When I finally qualified for membership in The Writers’ Union of Canada I felt I was at last a ‘real writer’! A status I would never have reached without those who had been supportive when my work was rejected, and who cared enough to tell me why. Above all, they understood these long periods when I could not come out to play because I was working. Only other writers or artists understand how necessary this is and put up with it.

As often as I can, I attend Writers Union of Canada events—especially its Annual General Meeting where all the hugging that goes on makes it seem more like a family reunion. But TWUC is not all hugs. Our union lobbied for Public Lending Rights from libraries and compensation for electronic use of our material. Someone at TWUC is always able to answer questions. (“What act or section do I cite to the IRS for readings in the US?”)

Eventually, it was my turn to help students and new writers struggling into print, or those shy closet writers who hang around after readings asking questions. For me, ‘Tribe membership’ has rules:

Attend readings of colleagues I’ve met whether they are friends or not. Push their books in libraries and bookstores. Congratulate others on a new publication or an award received. (Even if my book has just been rejected and I never even made the award short list.) It ain’t easy! Maintain contact with students. Mine have saved my face. Once, at a book club reading, a member spoke up, “Ernest Hemingway lived in Toronto. What was he like?” My student rushed to my rescue, “Helen and Ernie broke up in Pamplona!” Oh yes, and keep quiet about what really goes on at retreats. What those other writers were up to. But writing a fortune cookie for colleagues is really okay. Really, really okay.

Non-writing friends are harder to keep. I have drawn the line on those from a previous life who considered writing to be a nice hobby I’d taken up, so decided it would be a good thing for them to do. (“It can’t be hard if you can do it.”) Would I please read their novel? Before the weekend? I have actually done that. It didn’t work. The author’s mother/husband/girlfriend thought it was great just the way it was. Others wishing to maintain contact regarded seclusion as snobbery. Fortunately, non-writer friends who are serious readers know that writing is work. They hang in with my mood swings and disappearances. A few close friends became writers long before I did, but were always supportive. From being my bridesmaid, baby-sitting, holding my hand through divorce, and even moving me from my house into an apartment across the border. Those are friends solid enough to be able to say, “That is really a terrible story, Helen!”.

Another, a childhood friend, became my editor. We fight like sisters and quickly make up because of our history. (Even if she is too conservative about using verbs as nouns and impatient with what she calls my “love affair with the semi-colon.”) We need all our friends, but only other writers sustain that tribal connection. Or, like Zend, watch over us because of an invisible bond.

About that retreat where I met Robert Zend. There I’d also met Robert Sward with whom Zend gave readings. Recently, surfing through the net, I saw Robert Sward’s website and resumed contact by e-mail. Several weeks later, recalling the retreat, I got down Robert Zend’s poetry collection, Beyond Reason where I’d pasted my fortune cookie inside:

>Fortune Cookie #29, of Tamwood Lodge, ‘82:
“Our skin is useful as long as we wear it properly, for it protects our flesh from pain, but if we wear our skin inside-out, it will defeat its purpose and cause us more pain than if we didn’t have it at all.”

Zend was writing metaphorically, but I’d been worried about a mole my doctor had not thought serious enough to remove. After reading my fortune, I made an appointment, had it excised, a biopsy done. Is was a carcinoma, caught in time. So I keep thinking about Zend, and why I’d happened to find Robert Sward’s site, and how doing so had made me get out Zend’s book. There are different kinds of connections among writers, but Zend’s is one I’m thankful for.


Helen Pereira is the author of four fiction collections, Magpie in the Tower, The Home We Leave Behind, Wild Cotton, and Birds of Paradise. (Killick Press) She has received Fellowships from The Banff Fine Arts Colony, The Canada Council and from Cleveland State University where she completed her MA in Creative Writing. She has read at Harbourfront and in libraries and universities in Canada and the U.S. Born in British Columbia, she has lived in Brazil and Ireland. She now lives in Mississauga, Ontario where she teaches Creative Writing at Sheridan College. She has just completed her fifth collection of short fiction.

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