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.