This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Don’t let the title fool you: I am not promoting comparison as a progressive component of your writing process. I just didn’t know how else to introduce the topic.
There are myriad ways comparison seeps into our creative process, at least in my case. And in the case of my friends. Perhaps jealousy is even a better term, because that’s what comparison leads back to every time: someone from our Master’s program publishes a chapbook; someone else gets accepted into a Tin House workshop; another writer, still a student, is attending residencies in Venice and giving lectures to packed crowds.
How could we not beat ourselves up about it?
I’ve always struggled with the sin of jealousy. A result of every adult I knew growing up warning me about the “dying industry” of journalism and publishing. Who wouldn’t see their peers as competition when your shared dream only has space for one of hundreds? Even thousands? All of you exactly the same: lovers of books who want to see how the sausage gets made, who want to be part of the thing that brought them so much solace and escape. It’s trite but true; how all cliches start.
And where you should find camaraderie, should find unabashed joy at meeting people like you, you instead (or should I just say I?) see threats. You have to fight for your spot in diminishing fields. Don’t you?
So I compare myself to my colleagues relentlessly. A few months ago, I read Greedy: Notes From A Bisexual Who Wants Too Much by Jen Winston, who spends much of the book complaining — or really reminding us, the readers — that she wrote this entire 287 page memoir in a year. Instead of allowing that information to sit at face value and just be an interesting factoid behind the writing process, I immediately internalized it to be a marker of my own inherent writerly failings. How come I couldn’t write a memoir in a year? Was I actually awful at writing? Was I never going to accomplish my dream of publishing a book because I was too damn slow with it?
Just the other day, a friend of mine told me they wrote 115k words in three months. I’m at about 58k, and I started in March. Things like that — which ultimately have no say on my abilities or talents — can send me spiraling for hours, days. Even when I think I’ve rid myself of the nagging voice in my head, it will pop up in the most unhelpful ways. Doing the dishes, grading student papers, folding laundry: you’re barely a writer.
And, perhaps even worse, the result of this hateful tunneling is I then start diminishing the work folks like Winston, and even my friends, my peers, my colleagues, have done to make myself feel better. Which makes me feel gross. And I could pretend this isn’t the case, that I have never wished others failure, but I’m sure I’m not the only one feigning undying support on social media while internally feeling awful for not “being on the same level.”
When I get in these moods or traps or downward spirals — whatever the best way to describe them — I try and remember a lecture my teacher and friend T Kira Māhealani Madden has given a few times titled “Feeding the Lake.” The talk, which I would love to get entirely tattooed on my body, is primarily about the intrinsic nature between breathing and making art. About the importance of feeding the lake no matter what that creative pursuit looks like. But it also helps me remember that what I want, more than anything, is for the lake to become an ocean. And it never will if I don’t support and uplift the folks around me.
I’ve been taught to see the lake as a puddle. Maybe even a divet left on a muddy road after a truck drives over it, now filled with rain-water. Something that will dry out tomorrow. What I’m beginning to understand now is that falling into comparison allows us to reinforce that idea instead of actively attempting to change it.
And so I’m trying to slow down. Since high school, I’ve been determined to fight for my spot. One internship after another, editor in chief for two years in both high school and college, constantly seeing the people around me that I should be connecting with as threats. What if I just let myself arrive at my own pace? I’m thinking of only teaching two classes next semester and instead get a part-time job at a local bookstore. I’m thinking about how I’d feel then.
Would the lake waters be less forceful? Would I not get motion sickness? My therapist is trying to teach me to be calm. To allow myself to experience it without feeling guilty. He asked me when the last time I felt calm was.
“I think in the pool over the summer,” I said. “On my back, floating and totally still. The water filling my ears, my face golden by the warming sun.”