Nothing is more toxic to the soul than comparison.
Glancing at the biographies of established writers, I feel myself infected with that familiar poison: by the time she was my age, Jodi Picoult was already married with children, had published several books, worked as a creative writing instructor at a private academy and English teacher at a public school, and earned her Bachelor’s from Princeton and her Master’s in Education from Harvard. What have I done? 3 years ago, I was just discovering my love for writing and beginning to write everyday. Now I write in my diary daily and publish weekly (or at least, theoretically) on my blog but have I written my great novel? gotten a $40,000 advance? worked for a newspaper? published a book?
As William Zinsser once said, the obsession with results is “a very American kind of trouble. We are a culture that worships the end result: the league championship, the high test score. Coaches are paid to win, teachers are valued for getting students into the best colleges. Less glamorous gains made along the way-learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure-aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.”
I- like many writers- suffer from this American sort of trouble. Goal-oriented and results-obsessed, I long to cross clear checkpoints on the route to my goal. When I can’t, I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything at all.
For writers, this accomplishment-mania poses a major stumbling block. Why? Because most of our “accomplishments” can’t be recognized like an impressive degree in a gold frame. Though outwardly, we’re still aspiring (or, to put it more bluntly, unpublished) writers, inwardly, we’ve accomplished so much: we’ve learned how to write stunning, spell-binding sentences, how to write clear, vigorous prose; we’ve learned how to order a piece, how to logically and sequentially organize our points for the most convincing effect; we’ve learned to appreciate the subtle differences in cadence and meaning between words; we’ve learned to write representationally: how to use figurative language-simile, metaphor, analogy-to more evocatively make a point, how to convey mood and tone.
But we can’t measure these achievements in checks on a to-do list or gold stars on a chart. It’s for this reason that we possess a lingering self-doubt, that we don’t feel validated or “good enough.” Like runners who can plot their mile times concretely on a graph, we want definite evidence of improvement. Command of language, knack for startling metaphor: these things are intangible- they can’t be calculated, computed, converted to data points on a spreadsheet. Like eyewitness testimony, our “progress” wouldn’t hold up in court.
No, no to have made “real” headway on being a writer, we’d have to have 3 books to our credit, several dozen articles, countless readers. Just writing, we believe, doesn’t make us writers- at least, not in the eyes of the world. In the world, the guitarist who practices his scales 3 hours a day isn’t a “real” musician- only the one who’s in a band playing regular shows; the filmmaker who’s making an amateur documentary isn’t a “real” director-only the one with a finished product and set screening can rightfully hold such a prestigious title.
I say screw the world. At the end of the day, isn’t a real writer one who’s simply written?