Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman, BIG FRIENDSHIP

Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman, BIG FRIENDSHIP

Zibby Owens: Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman are coauthors of the book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. Aminatou is a writer, interviewer, and cultural commentary. She is a frequent public speaker whose talks and interviews lead to candid conversations about ambition, money, and power. Aminatou lives in Brooklyn. Ann Friedman is a journalist, essayist, and media entrepreneur. She’s a contributing editor to The Gentlewoman. Every Friday, she sends a popular email newsletter. Ann lives in Los Angeles. They also cohost an insanely popular podcast called “Call Your Girlfriend.”

Welcome, Ann and Aminatou. Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so delighted to have you on today to talk about friendship.

Aminatou Sow: Thank you so much for having us.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Aminatou: We are the authors of Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close which is a memoir of our decade-long friendship with each other. We write about our story. There are also interviews with experts and other people who are friends and other people who are our friends. We really just wanted to take a look together at the relationship that we have with each other because we think that a lot of people have the kind of friendship that we have. The best label to call it, really, is your best friend. As we know, that can mean so many, many, many different things. We really wanted to talk about the importance of those kinds of really long-lasting, impactful friendships.

Ann Friedman: We also wanted to put some language to many of the experiences that we had within our friendship, the fact this term best friend is one of the only words that we have for a super intimate friendship where someone might be as much a part of your life or more important to you than blood relative or has known you longer than a spouse. We really wanted to elevate this relationship to the place that it belongs in the sense of, not all friendships are the same, but if you have one like this, here’s some language that might apply to the situations that arise within in. Our book is really about what’s great about that, why it feels so incredible to be intimately known in this way by someone who is a friend, and also many of the difficulties that arise with that, like any intimate relationship, why it can be hard to really stay close to each other for the long term for a lot of life changes.

Zibby: I was actually surprised by the opening of your book in that the two of you were away at a spa and had come to a point where things were not perfect between the two of you. I thought that when I opened the book it would be a whole thing about the perfection of your friendship. Yet you started it so openly and honestly that, you know what, we had been collaborating for a while and it wasn’t always perfect. You two even host a podcast together where you talk about everything. You come off as perfect friends, and the pressure even behind that kind of performance level of your friendship. Tell me a little about the dips and how you got back to closeness when you had that period of kind of a rough patch.

Aminatou: I think that what’s interesting about our friendship — rather, I’ll say this. I think that a thing that is true about our friendship that is not true of every friendship is that we’re two people who host a podcast together. It just means that a lot more people that don’t know us can make assumptions about what our friendship really is. I think that that’s just something to get out of the gate. The way that we do our show, I think that if you’re actually listening really closely you can tell we are two professionals who are good at editing each other. It’s not a show about, I’m going to air all of my grievances or I’m mad about this thing that you did in private, so I’m going to talk about it on the show. That’s just not how people who are professionals are. I think that the idea that there is a kind of relationship that is perfect, whether it’s a friendship or a marriage or a whatever, that’s just not true. Everyone knows that that is not true. I think that what we were really trying to get to is how do we explain that, like all relationships, our friendship is not perfect? How do we make time to work on it not on the podcast? I’m not working anything out that’s personal on that podcast. I don’t think that that’s the point of it.

I think that just like all relationships, we’ve had our highs and our lows. The thing that Ann said earlier about finding the vocabulary for it, again, it’s because in other kinds of relationship there is really easy shorthand and really easy understanding of if you’re married to someone or you’re dating them and you say, we’re growing apart, everyone knows exactly what that means. If you say that about your friend, what does that mean? Can you grow apart from your friend? What are ways that you can try to save a relationship that you have with a friend? Is it okay to go to therapy, or does that sound like something completely extravagant? I think that we were just trying to have, out loud, a conversation that the both of us had been having in private for a really long time. By talking about how our friendship works, we are just trying to encourage other people to tell us how they’re doing friendship. We say this very clearly in the book. We’re not experts at all. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an expert in friendships. We are two people who just really like each other and want to stay friends for a long time. The only way to do that is to be really honest about the fact that it’s hard sometimes.

Zibby: Especially as long-distance friends which you two are as well. Now I feel like with Zoom and all the rest there’s somehow more incentive to connect with friends from far away. I feel like you two have been working on this for years now with the podcast and have really put your stake in the ground as not experts, per se, of course, but just that you can do it. There’s hope for people who miss their friends who live far away.

Ann: I think that we have long had the belief that it requires a different kind of prioritization if your friendship is not in person. Often, that’s during the transition period. It’s not so much once you’re used to be far apart. By this point, we are pretty comfortable long-distance friends. We know, more or less, the ways we like to be checked in on. We know how to prioritize each other and let each other know that we’re important even though we are not seeing each other every day. Those are things that aren’t necessarily obvious if you’ve spent most of your friendship in the same place or in one context. We’ve done a lot of thinking about this as it relates to the global pandemic that we’re all in right now wherein even friends who are in the same city are essentially long-distance friends. Really, that challenge of how do you transition a friendship where maybe your routine in the past was that you always went to the same exercise class together every week or you always met up with each other after work or whatever it was? Once that changes, you kind of have to say, what actually is the way we check in with each other now? That is very similar to one person moving away. Having to navigate that challenge is really laying some groundwork for other changes that you might have to navigate in a friendship, so other big life shifts that might prevent you from keeping with an old routine. We’ve discussed it as really, not to say that there’s anything good about a terrible global pandemic, but it really is a skill set that, if you want your friendship to survive, you have to figure out how to hone together.

Zibby: It’s so true. One of the parts of your friendship in the book that I found really interesting was when Aminatou got sick. Her diagnosis was unclear at the beginning. I know, Aminatou, you in the book were saying you were pretty private about it. Ann, you kept trying to help and see what you could do. Was this really the end diagnosis? What could happen? Tell me a little more about how the two of you traversed that challenging time together. Also, what do you do when you worry about a friend and their health and yet you’re not right there and you can’t help? What can you do? What’s the best thing you can do for your friends?

Aminatou: It’s a big one.

Zibby: I know. Sorry about that. You can take that one apart one question at a time.

Aminatou: You’re talking about a part of the book where we talk about this concept called stretching that is really, how do you just keep up emotionally, physically, whatever, with people that are in your life when two of you are very different? Sometimes you have to stretch for very tiny reasons like your friend likes a kind of music that you don’t like. It means that every time in the car they’re going to play it and you just have to learn how to live with it. Sometimes the stretch is something bigger like your friend is, they’re moving across the country. How are you going to stretch to be there for them? One of the examples of stretching that we have both had to do is that I experience chronic illness. It means different things for the person who is sick than it does for the person who is the friend. I think that it’s fair to say that it is challenging for both people in a way that unless you are open and generous with each other, it just can become a real problem in any kind of relationship.

On my side, it was a real stretch to say, I don’t actually know what is wrong with me. I’m working with my doctors to figure that out. The diagnosis is not something that is neat and easy. My life is very different in the sense that I can’t do all the things that I used to do. I’m going to have to skip your wedding or I’m going to have to skip a trip that we had planned on taking or I’m just too tired to get on the phone to talk to anyone, and on top of that, just being really private and not wanting to have every single detail of my medical life up for discussion all the time. At the same time, I had to stretch in that it means that I had to ask my friends and my community for more help because I just can’t take care of myself in the ways that I needed to do. This was a time in our life where, even though we weren’t talking about it explicitly, we were both trying to figure out, how can I stay friends with someone when my life is very different or when a situation that is happening that has nothing to do with a personal preference is there and we both have to learn how to navigate it?

Ann: The flip side of that for me was feeling like, here is a new situation that someone I love very much is dealing with, or maybe some new information about an ongoing situation. I am three thousand miles away which means I can’t do some of my normal friendly, “I’m thinking about you” activities like dropping off some food on the doorstep or whatever. I’m a big food-drop off person. That is not possible from the other side of the country. We had already by this point in our friendship been long distance for a while. We kind of had a routine of, how do we check in with each other? That is really different when, for example like Aminatou was saying, she doesn’t want to necessarily give a full health readout to all of her friends. Sometimes she just wants to catch up. I respected that always. At the same time, I’m like, I’m far away. I want to know what’s going on with you. I care about you. Trying to really pull apart what is supportive of her and what is just making me feel more secure in the friendship. What do I need in order to feel like I’m still in an intimate friendship with this person? What does she need?

This are the kinds of questions that we had to work through. Some of that is helped by knowing each other very well. We write in the book about how I know and love Aminatou, so I know that sometimes she will use humor to gently deflect when she doesn’t want to talk about something. If I noticed her doing that when I asked about something specific about her health, I had a choice to make, which was either explicitly keep poking or respect that she didn’t want to talk about it just then. I don’t know that I have any big-picture advice in terms of, what does it look like to support a friend? All of this is so specific to the friendship that you’re in and to the people who are in it. It really is one reason why we wanted this language of the stretch to be a part of the book. Then it’s less about, here is what you do, step one, two, three. It’s more about describing the kind of situation that is pretty likely to occur in every important friendship.

Zibby: Got it. Aminatou, how is your health now? Not to pry into your private life which I know you don’t like talking about, but having read it, I’m concerned. Just wanted to make sure you were doing okay.

Aminatou: Thank you so much for asking. I am doing great.

Zibby: Good. I’m glad to hear that. Another part of the book that I thought was pretty awesome was when you had come up with the idea of the Shine Theory. Then somebody stole it. The two of you decided to pool your resources and fight it legally. You overcame the people who had trademarked your original idea. I just wanted to hear about that story because it sounded like there was a lot more than was on the page about that one.

Ann: Shine Theory really began as something that we spoke about and practiced within our friendship. It was really not something where we were going to make a concerted effort to unveil it to the world and announce it and be like, hello, here is our idea about why collaboration is superior to competition and why we always try to prioritize long-term investment in people. We did not have a press conference where we rolled out this idea and thought it was going to be a big deal. We were very much taken by surprise when we realized that someone who we did not know who we had not been in conversation with about this concept had purchased the URL and registered the trademark for Shine Theory without our knowing it. That is the backstory you’re referring to, I think, right?

Zibby: Yes.

Ann: Then we were presented with a choice about whether to just let that stand or whether we wanted this person who was really using it in more of a context of — I think she was a fitness guru of some kind. I don’t know. There were a lot of women’s abs on the website that she had set up. We had a choice whether to let her continue to associate this very weird interpretation of what it is with this concept we had originated or whether we wanted to fight for that trademark ourselves. We chose the latter path. Do you have any memories about this, Aminatou?

Aminatou: No, I think that’s very accurate to what happened.

Zibby: I just always like hearing about people struggling and working together to solve problems. Maybe there was not too much more to it than that, but I’m glad you persevered. What was your process like of coauthoring this book? I know you’d collaborated for years and years and years on your podcast. Perhaps a book in a different form was a new way of communication. How did the two of you tackle it and accomplish it?

Aminatou: A book is definitely one of the larger projects we have done. I think I can say it’s the biggest thing we have had to deliver all at once. It was a lot of fun. It was also really, really, really challenging. On the podcast, for example, we are able to work remotely. We don’t have to be in the same place to do it. With so much of the writing of the book, we did have to make time to essentially go on long stretches of writing retreats with each other. The process is not unlike a lot of the other things that we do. We talk it out to death. Then we go away in our own respective corners to actually do the work. Here, because we wrote in a joint voice, it meant that we had to outline it together. We talked about what the stories were that we were trying to illustrate, the ideas that we were trying to bring to the forefront. We would go in our separate corners of the room and write the assigned word count and then come back and edit that all together.

Zibby: Got it. Did you enjoy it? Do you want to write another book together? Was it one and done? How did you feel about it?

Aminatou: I will work with Ann Friedman in all mediums for as long as she will want to work with me.

Ann: The pleasure was exquisite, as was the pain. I also don’t know that that’s any different than what anyone would say about writing a book. I am extremely grateful to have had this other kind of window into the way Aminatou thinks and really works over an idea. Also, really just grateful for the opportunity to come to a joint understanding about what some things in our friendship have meant to each of us individually and also to us together. Even if no one really ends up reading or liking this book, I feel really, really good about what this process has brought to me personally and what a gift it was for us to be able to examine our friendship in this kind of depth.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors having survived the process?

Aminatou: Write a little bit every single day. That’s my advice.

Ann: Amen.

Zibby: Great. Thank you, guys, so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” You have made me, as I mentioned earlier, I now want to call my best friend. Even just the thought of thinking about friends in today’s day and age makes things seem so much better despite all the chaos and everything else. Thanks for even highlighting the importance of friendships and giving some tools to help navigate them over time and raising the origin story and all the rest of it in your book. Thanks for sharing your story with me and with readers. Good luck.

Ann: Of course.

Aminatou: Thank you so much for having us.

Ann: Go call your friend, Zibby.

Zibby: I’m going to. My friend, her name’s Jen. I’ll call her soon.

Aminatou: Bye.

Ann: Bye.

Zibby: Bye, guys. Thank you.

Aminatou: Thank you.

Ann: Thanks.

Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman, BIG FRIENDSHIP