Author: Luisa Perkins
•12:52 PM

Example No. 1: Several days ago, I read Ex Libris, a collection of Anne Fadiman's essays, and immediately emailed several friends recommending that they read it. Like a beautiful jewel in a simple setting, each essay shines; considered one after another, the pieces create an aggregate loveliness that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

How disappointing it is to me to admit that my admiration for Fadiman's talent is heavily tinged with envy. It's not just that her writing is superb; my jealousy extends to her person. I've never read Homer and Virgil in the original; I don't live in a spacious and bright SoHo loft. I didn't go to Radcliffe College. Worst of all, I've never been friends with Mark Helprin.

(Many of you know that Helprin is my hands-down-favorite living writer. After hearing him read once, I asked him to sign all my copies of his books, congratulating myself all the while for my restraint in not dropping to my knees and kissing his penny-loafered feet. My love for him as a person is now tempered by my knowledge of his political leanings, but his writing remains pure magic.)

Example No. 2: I'm submitting a short story for an anthology put out by Shimmer magazine, the theme of which is 'steampunk animal fables.' (Yes, it's exactly that kind of crazy obscurity that really gets my creative juices flowing.) As much as I love the steampunk subgenre, it's been awhile since I've read any, so I pulled out two pillars--Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--to get myself in the rhythm of that unique world. Such wonder and ingenuity; such marvelous stories told in liquid and transparent prose. Instead of the inspiration I was hoping for, I put the books down with a sense of loving despair.

The Case Under Consideration: At last year's Readercon, Eric Van said, "There are two kinds of books that a writer reads: those that make you say, 'I can do better than this [crap],' and those that make you want to throw the computer out the window and never write another word." Other writers agreed. Some said they couldn't read within their own genre while working on a manuscript, while others went further and said that they saved all their favorite authors for rests between projects. If they read books they admired while simultaneously trying to write their own, they found themselves hamstrung, hopelessly blocked by the indulgence of comparison.

Writers are not alone in the comparison obsession; I've witnessed people of all kinds doing it. Children, women, men; doctors, painters, knitters; athletes, musicians, writers of computer code; cooks, bloggers, and parents. Each says to him/herself, "I can't [x] like that one. Why even try?" Or, with a shot to the ego, "My [x] is much better than that person's is." Either way, his/her own work suffers, because its creator no longer sees it for its own merits, but only in the relief it casts (or doesn't) when considered against someone else's.

If the work suffers, why would we risk short-circuiting expressions of creativity by indulging in comparison? What compensation is there for the loss of self-esteem or the false gain of a short-lived high?

(I have some highly metaphysical theories having to do with universal forces of opposition and the adversarial components of creation that attempt to answer these questions, but I won't burden you with them. At this point in my blogging life, I have a fair sense as to what will cause my readers' eyes to glaze over and their index fingers to click onward.)

Discernment is an essential part of emotional maturation. Having a distinct yet open-minded sense of one's likes and dislikes is healthy. We are taught to judge thoughtfully, to compare and contrast. "Write a 2,000-word essay discussing the relative merits of Shelley's 'Ozymandias' and Horace Smith's 'Ozymandias,'" our English professor commands, and we do our best to comply (and are graded on a curve for doing so). After we see Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, all our friends ask how it compares with Simon Langton's. Was the clam chowder at Ocean House better than that at The Oyster Bar? Exactly why are Huggies better than Pampers or Luvs? Inquiring minds want to know.

When the comparison is removed from our own realm of expertise, we can be passionate in our discussion without taking it personally. Which is better: Ted Nugent's guitar work in "Stranglehold," or Stevie Ray Vaughan's in "Voodoo Chile?" I can discuss the strong points of each virtuoso animatedly, but with a sense of detachment; I'm not a guitarist, just an ardent fan.

In similar fashion, excellent blogs like Radioactive Jam and Ransom Note Typography inspire pure admiration in me; their posts are so very different from mine that there's not much basis for comparison. (If, on the other hand, you are the owner of a blog on my blogroll that is not one of the two mentioned above, have no doubt: I love you, but I envy you, too.)

Is there a way for me to evaluate my own writing in a vacuum; can I hand a story to a friend to read without adding the self-deprecating caveat, "It's not Tolstoy?" My friend and I both know I'm not Tolstoy; why is it so essential to my pride that I remind her of that salient fact?

In the realm of hobby: can I knit a sweater and enjoy it for its own sake without wondering what Eunny Jang or Amy Singer would think? Can I enjoy the neighbor's perennial border without wretched feelings of woe when I look at my own?

It is when comparison is turned inward that it poisons. I take absolutely no joy in a sense of competition with others (no, not even when I'm beating you at Boggle). It's my goal to get to a secure enough place emotionally that I can appreciate the work of others without compulsively analyzing how it stands up next to my own. How to get there? I'm still fumbling around on that key point of strategy; when I puzzle it out, I'll let you know.

And if you figure it out first, please share. I'll be disappointed that I wasn't the one for only a minute, I promise.
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16 comments:

On 12/2/08 , Kimberly said...

Luisa...this post is brilliant on so many levels. Your passion for the topic seems to have gifted you with even greater eloquence than usual.

I struggle with the same issue. I've come a ways, and I've a long way to go yet. I think the trick is to focus on the former.

Also, I like to admit my envy out loud. Not bitterly, but sincerely. It helps somehow.

 
On 12/2/08 , Anonymous said...

For being sick, my dear, you've turned out a brilliant blog. I used to compare myself with every other practitioner in yoga class until I finally started to practice with my eyes closed. You can't compare if you can't see. I did that for a month, then realized that we all have different stories to tell--and everyone's story is equally valid and beautiful and important--whether in writing, gardening or cooking.

We live in fear that others will see our mistakes and think that we don't see them. So we point them out first, as if that mitigates it all somehow.

But really, what I keep reminding myself is "Who cares?" And sometimes, happily, the answer is "Not I."
Melissa

 
On 12/2/08 , Thalia's Child said...

In a turn both ironic and humourous, I am finding myself wildly jealous of the way you put a blog post together.

Excellently written as usual, and what a great topic.

When I get really jealous, I try to turn the doldrums that follow into inspiration "Oooh, if I work hard, maybe I'll be as good as _____ at ____"

But who am I kidding really? I'm still jealous.

 
On 12/2/08 , Jenna Consolo said...

This is an outstanding and eloquent post. I have no answers, as you are the one I envy most, so I'm no help at all. It certainly is a demon. And good luck with your short story submission! I'd never even heard of steampunk.

 
On 12/2/08 , bubandpie said...

I'm embarrassed to admit how close to home this post hits today.

 
On 12/2/08 , Michelle said...

I think we're so conditioned by society to want to be the best that we struggle to find any peace or joy in simply being good. It's a shame.

I quit gymnastics at age 11 when I wised up to the fact that I wasn't really on a trajectory to make it to the Olympics. Never mind the intrinsic pleasure of flying through the air, which I still remember with such nostalgia.

My competitive nature has occasionally been a boon by inspiring me to work harder towards my goals. But more often than not, I've quit some endeavor altogether, rather than be mediocre at it.

Now I'm trying to remedy this trait somewhat. I'm rekindling some old interests, trying some new things, taking some risks, having some more fun and generally trying to get over myself. But it's not easy for me!

 
On 13/2/08 , Lilacspecs said...

Well-stated, quite accurate and highly relevant. I have this issue as well but honestly never really pinned it down until just now in reading your post.

Highly enlightening, thank you.

 
On 13/2/08 , Radioactive Jam said...

Contentment is a factor, yes? And a challenge as well. Not sure I can explain what I'm thinking, but I expect you understand.
:-)

 
On 13/2/08 , Anonymous said...

Love this. Envious of all the other comments. But I’m cool with that. Really.

Two additional thoughts. Well, maybe three. Whatever. I guess the fact that I’m neither a writer nor a knitter has played a role (perhaps an important one) in our enduring relationship.

I see that the book reco went to others besides me. There you go, messing with my need to feel special.

What do you do with your kids' tendencies toward judgment, comparison, envy? That’s always great practice.

I, for one, would like to read more about those metaphysical theories you mention. You've got my interest, and I have no idea what you're talking about. Then I'll do likewise and regale you with passages from Bion and Winnicott and Lacan. Via e. Just for you.

- I'm Not Melanie Klein

 
On 13/2/08 , Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Amazing post, Luisa. Like you my competitive nature is internal. On the other hand, doesn't our self-competition push us forward somewhat, when we can "get over ourselves"? I think it's when it turns to navel-gazing that it gets dangerous.

 
On 13/2/08 , Anonymous said...

Just checking back to see what's happening here. I made a deposit earlier. Couldn't click away without commenting on the green. The G R E E N. Heh heh. Such a clever girl.

 
On 13/2/08 , Christie said...

I've so been there. I am, in fact, there right now. I decided to read a few literary magazines yesterday and suddenly...what is the USE of editing my short story? It is NOTHING like what I want it to be...because what I intend and so wish to write so rarely comes out onto the page -- (really, really whiny voice) how come everybody else knows how to do it? How come THEY have actual talent? When am I going to sound like a 'real' writer?

And on it goes. And on and on and on....

I have to remind myself - constantly - that God gave me the voice that I have. And therefore I have to keep working and working until I can do the best my ability allows...and who am I to ask God to make me sound like someone else when He made me to sound like me?...this theory usually gets me back to where I need to be (at the computer)...but it's such a struggle. Because we DO want to do better...and sometimes the challenge of it all is overwhelming. Especially as writing can be such a solitary endeavor, and all of the voices in one's head can get chaotic and cranky. So please know that you're not alone, as all of these comments will confirm. Sometimes we all want that greener grass over the pretty white picket fence...

 
On 13/2/08 , Annette Lyon said...

Is the new green color to accompany the theme? :)

There are times I'm still envious of whoever for whatever, but I did get over one major bout of jealousy when I turned it into action instead of whining at myself. I no longer have a speck of envy for that person. Julie Cameron's work has a lot of insights into banishing envy.

So if comparison isn't necessarily a good thing . . . hmm . . . are we still on for Friday?

 
On 13/2/08 , Brillig said...

Yeah... hi. Did I write this? No, no, of course not, because it's far more interesting, brilliant, and articulate than I could have possibly written it. But the sentiment is shared, and I wish I'd written it.

Um, the above paragraph is perhaps, um, an example of how I perhaps, um, share this particular trait... perhaps...

Oh, and, hi. You would never beat me at boggle.

 
On 13/2/08 , Brillig said...

Oh, and I meant to ask, what's up with the green? Is it accessorizing with today's theme? Or perhaps a jab at Valentine's Day? (Please tell me it's a jab at Valentine's Day. That would make me laugh so hard.) Or is it possibly because you just happen to like green? I myself was planning to go green once V-Day is over and I bring the red down. Oh! That's it! You were copying me... in advance! I KNEW it!!!!

 
On 15/2/08 , dawn said...

A well written post. I think the key is as RaJ stated, finding a place of contentment. The irony of it is, people envy each other. She said that better, he did that nicely. It goes back and forth and every direction, like a bad pay it forward. I suffer a lot from this very thing, so what I try to do, is tell myself, I am not that person, don't compare, it's not about me. It doesn't always work, but it keeps me from wallowing in complete self pity or worse, pride.