Since we first started telling people about our new website Something Rhymed, one reaction we’ve encountered from concerned well-wishers is scepticism that we’ll be able to reach the end of our project, set to run throughout 2014.
Each month of this year, we’ll be profiling a different pair of female writer friends and challenging ourselves to complete an activity based on a prominent feature of that particular relationship. ‘Aren’t you going to run out of women?’ has been a response we’ve heard a few times. ‘You’re making this especially hard for yourselves, aren’t you? Wouldn’t it be easier if you profiled male authors too?’
Perhaps it would, but we wanted to set ourselves this challenge because – unlike the famous pairings of Byron and Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth, or Fitzgerald and Hemingway – we’d noticed that the literary pals of some of our most well-known female authors have often been overlooked. Did Jane Austen have a writing friend, we wondered? What about George Eliot?
The first women we’ll be featuring this year are Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, a duo who are all too frequently remembered only as bitter rivals. The accompanying activity, which website readers are encouraged to get involved with too, is corresponding by post – a regular habit of these two who wrote dozens of letters to each other.
They also exchanged gifts of loaves of bread and Belgian cigarettes, sought each other’s opinions on the new books of the day and discussed their own work over tea. And yet Woolf’s acid carping that likened Mansfield to ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ is far more famous than Mansfield’s assertion that reading her friend’s writing made her feel proud.
As writer pals ourselves who take a pride in each other’s work, we wondered why these two should have gone down in history largely as jealous enemies. There was friction, after all, in the relationships of many of their male counterparts and yet they have more often been immortalized as great literary comrades.
It was largely out of this kind of curiosity that Something Rhymed was born. But we also had a more personal incentive for setting up the website now. We’ve been lucky we know because, although we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs, our careers have grown roughly in tandem so far
We have been friends for well over a decade, ever since we met as young English teachers working in schools in rural Japan. We were both scribbling away in private back then, having not yet dared to share with anyone our secret ambitions to one day write books of our own.
Ever since ‘coming out’ as aspiring novelists one summer’s evening, in a garlic-themed restaurant in a small town shopping mall, we’ve been there to support each other’s hopes. We’ve been able to celebrate successes together – the publication of short stories or competition wins – and to offer much-needed encouragement when the going got tough. But now that we are both nearing the end of novel drafts, we’ve talked frankly together about our shared worry that the year ahead could put new strains on our relationship.
So, Something Rhymed is a practical response to this worry, too. The name, in case you are wondering, comes from the title of a poem by Jackie Kay, in which she celebrates her friendship with the writer Ali Smith. Over the next twelve months, we’ll be looking to glean tips from literary friends like these on how to sustain a successful writing partnership through potentially trickier times.
On the first of each month, we’ll post up what we’ve discovered about each new pair and also let people know about the activity inspired by these authors. We’ll be writing weekly updates on how we get on with the tasks and we’re hoping that as many readers as possible will join in with the activities along with us.
We’re also looking for ideas about who we should feature on the website, so if you know of any female literary pals that you’d like us to consider, do please get in touch. Thanks to our own research, and some of the great ideas our readers have sent in already, we are confident that we will be able to finish the year.
But we hope that people will continue to make suggestions because, even in the short lifetime so far of Something Rhymed, we’ve been alerted to several female writer friends who we previously knew nothing about. These relationships might currently be less famous than those most celebrated of male pairings, but it’s been heartening to learn of the many women who’ve seen their friends through the good and bad patches in their writing careers – just as we hope to do for each other, this year and far beyond.