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Shall I Compare Thee

“Why compare yourself with others? No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you than you.” ~Unknown

Years ago, my almost Father-in-Law came to visit from England. Unlike his son, he was a mostly kind, quiet and unassuming man. Over a beer he told me how the family was involved in ‘the hunt’ and how proud he was to host them at their farm. It is a rather prestigious honour, apparently, to invite an elite posse of prissy dressed horsemen and women to chase a fox over log, creek and hedgerow. An honour absolutely lost on hick Aussie me. He told me how Prince Charles had hunted on their property and what a very nice fellow he was. Then he leaned in, with an almost conspiratorial tone to his voice and said, “Truth be known, we actually socialise several rungs further up the social ladder than we should because of the hunt.”

What struck me most, and why I probably still remember the conversation, was his very conscious sense of his social standing. And I got a very keen sense of how this was somewhat precarious. How it was somehow very important. (I should add, this type of rigid social structure doesn’t exist in Australia as it does in England).

When I considered my weaknesses and strengths for this month’s article, the first thought was this encounter, and how I now understand how he felt, because it is how I feel as a writer.

I compare myself to others and come up wanting. Holding what I feel is a precarious rung, far above where I should be and at some point someone will realise and boot me off.

Why do I feel like an interloper? It’s not because I dare to publicly acknowledge myself as a writer or to put my words out there. It has more to do with who I circulate with. The last 12 months has seen a huge hop, skip and jump from where I was to where I am now, and even typing that makes me cringe. I long for my days labouring under a mushroom oblivious to anything but my own efforts.

While I could acknowledge this movement has to do with hard work and a sprinkling of talent, and be grateful for all kinds of doors opening—not just for me but the writers I work with—I feel like it has thrust me into a space I’m not ready for. Not worthy of. In short, I feel like I don’t belong.

To justify this feeling of not belonging I compare myself to others: what they do, where they are published, what they write, how often they write. In doing so I confirm, by my own set of warped principles, that I’m not worthy of keeping their company, much less have my work appear alongside theirs (even if some other impartial third-party thinks this—whether these third parties be editors or panels dispensing awards).

Why the need to compare myself to other writers when all I get from it is a sinking sense of failure?

Yes, it’s part jealousy (now that smites!). Yes, it’s part confirmation of the voices in the back of my head that whisper You suck. Yes, it’s part to do with feelings of inadequacy. Mostly it’s because I’ve never coveted this place. I don’t expect other people to know me or my work.

What bothers me about this particular form of stupidity/self-flagellation is I don’t abide this type of thinking in any other area of my life.

If I feel the pressing need to compare myself with anyone it needs to be in terms of their generosity of spirit, energy and time and endeavouring to be more like them in these aspects of belonging to a creative community, and worrying less about where anyone is (or isn’t) on the pecking order. When writers get together, they just get together and enjoy each others company. Go to any Con in Australia and you’ll see it in action.

These wonderful writing colleagues of mine are an on-call cheer squad and a beta reading force to be reckoned with. They share new publishing markets, competitions and wisdom with bottomless generosity. They more often than not give the nod to crazy ideas I have and help where they can to spread the word. They don’t bitch and snark about each other, or work to drag anyone down. They always have an encouraging word. They share beers, conversation, cake, coffee, brain storming sessions, early mornings and late nights, here and on the other side of the world. And when my idea of myself falls out of step with where it should be, they give me a much needed kick up the bum, dig up my self esteem, dust it off and hand it back.

If I accept who I am, what I do, what I write, where I submit my work and how often I am able to turn up to the page, then I have the ability to enjoy who I am, where I am and where I am going. In the greater scheme of things, I only have to meet myself on my own terms, live up to my own set of expectations and be happy in my own skin. Whether Prince Charles shows or not, is really beside the point… and if I’m honest, he really can just stay home.

As writers we all bleed in one way shape or form for the stories we birth. In that way, all writers are equal.

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Jodi is an editor, publisher and long suffering mystress to the voices in her head, with stories tethered under the umbrella of ‘dark weird shit’ and published in anthologies in Australia, the UK, USA, Canada and Denmark. Founding partner of eMergent Publishing, Jodi is the creative spark behind the conceptual short story anthologies Chinese Whisperings, Literary Mix Tapes and Write Anything's Form and Genre Challenge. Jodi is the 2010 recipient of the Kris Hembury Encouragement Award in recognition of her contribution to the community and status as an emerging artist. She blogs at 1000 Pieces of Blue Sky and tweets (unoriginally) as @jodicleghorn.

18 Responses to “Shall I Compare Thee”

  1. Stacey says:

    I wonder if that’s a feeling that carries through even when you have a published novel under your belt? There are some writers I’d probably always feel naive and inexperienced around because they inspire me so much. And oh, I am guilty of envy, so guilty! Even while I cheer others on I wonder “why not me?” Ugh, it’s a hard place to be.

    • Oh yes, I know the envy creature (isn’t it the extra evil side of jealousy). I spent so much of the last two years being eaten alive by it, I couldn’t see my way forward to simply appreciate what I did, and what I was able to do.

      It was tough when I asked ‘why not me?’and part of the ‘why not’ was… I’m not even producing anything. I’m not even in the race.

      I think like you, there will always be authors I’m in awe (rapture?) of. But the happier I am with myself, the less I’ll feel the need to draw a comparison with others. And when we both have a novel published and under our belts, we can have a coffee and see if we still feel the same way?

  2. Rebecca L Dobbie says:

    I was feeling this way for a while. But I decided that maybe I am not a great writer. I am still learning everyday. But I am me. My writing is my voice. No one else writes like me. As long as I am doing the best I can than I am being true to myself. Honesty, hard work and less comparrison is my motto.

    • Having your own personal creedo and working to that, and measuring yourself against that, is an awesome idea. As you point out, we can only work/strive to be the best possible version of ourself.

      Comparison I am certain is the spawn of all evil.

  3. That feeling that you’re above where you should be? NEVER goes away. I’ve heard some of the biggest writers in the world talk about how they’re sure this next book will be the one to prove what a fake they are.

    So don’t get too caught up in that feeling. It seems to be one of the natural psychoses that accompanies being a writer :)

    • It is such a relief to know I’m not the only one Nicole. I felt beyond my comfort zone writing this. Before I submitted I sent it to Devin Watson who read it and told me this is one of the most natural feelings in the writing community as a whole and it even has an name “Imposter Syndrome” (though Imposter Psychosis sounds so much better).

      I love and revel in the community I belong to, here in Australia and abroad, and I want to enjoy it to its fullest.

      So I’m continue on, knowing I share collective imposter psychosis and then get back to the task at hand!

  4. Dan Powell says:

    Great post. Every writer feels a bit like this, even those who have ‘made it.’ You can bet, despite her millions, J. K. Rowling is nervous as hell about publishing her first adult book. When I start to compare my progress to others around me, I try my best to shut it down. I usually distract myself by writing. Refocuses me on what matters.

    • I love what you said to me, Dan, last night when we were chatting: that you should only ever compare yourself to where you were last year, or five years ago. To only compare yourself, to yourself.

      I feel there is infinite freedom in that (as long as you don’t use it as a new stick to flog yourself with!) Already I feel a new surge of confidence coming on, knowing I’m writing more, feeling better about it, and setting myself up for many more submissions (and possible acceptances) this year… as well as two brand new writing projects (as opposed to publishing projects).

  5. g says:

    I hear your words. This month I have felt out in the cold, and knew I needed to pull myself back into my writing world. Watching folk turn out book after book made me feel inadequate, yet I have written two. In short, time after time I kept telling myself I am not good enough to be published. This past 48hrs has been a turnaround for me, and I am getting my act together. You are not alone.

    • I’m glad you have had a turn around Glynis… watching those around you steam and forge ahead can feel disheartening. That’s how it felt last year for me.

      Two novels… that’s something to be proud of. Absolutely (from someone with a draw of half finished NaNo novels!) I’m always in awe of anyone who has finished a novel.

      Did anything in particular spark the turn around?

      • Glynis Smy says:

        Yes, my friend sadly lapsed into a coma (brain cancer). It dawned on me three friends would never read my books. They have been supportive and encouraging. I am not going to waste their efforts!

        So I have put novel three on hold and am concentrating on publication for the other two. I am lucky to have the chance to complete something in my life, and felt I was wasting time.

  6. Well, you may not have Prince Charles, the so-called Prince of Wales, visit you regularly but you do have a genuine Welshman, which is a far greater honour, I assure you.

    • It is Paul! And at the end of the day, we all know who I’d prefer to have visiting (especially if he brings some local wine, cheese and some of those awesome Christmas candles!)

  7. Emma Newman says:

    For what it’s worth, I feel exactly the same. Stacey – to answer your question, I’ve had a short story collection published (by Jodi and Paul!) and my debut novel has just come out in hardback and I *still* feel like an imposter (and I still get envious too!). I don’t think this has anything to do with books, or writing, it has everything to do with the deep-seated insecurities we carry into everything, including a writing career.

    • I feel like I’m in excellent company Em. When you amped up your focus and output last year, I used you as a role model… who I was aspiring to be like as an author. So if we’re carrying the same psychoses around, I guess I’m already part of the way there.

      I wonder if the insecurities come from a more general public opinion that writing isn’t a ‘real job’. It doesn’t even have to be something anyone has ever said to us directly… but just that hive mind of culture at work.

      Certainly doesn’t help to be one of the, per capita, most underpaid professions in the world.

  8. Alan Baxter says:

    It never goes away. The day you stop feeling insecure in your work is the day you don’t care any more. May that day never come. I’ve never met a writer yet who didn’t feel that way and work on despite it.

    • Thank you for those words of wisdom Alan. It reminds me of what I’ve said about editing, the day I think I’ve nailed edits when I send them back to an author, is the day I give up editing. It will be the day I lost my humility and let my ego take over.

      The nugget in this is… feel insecure and work on despite it. Or as Em Newman would say, make a pot of tea and then get back to it!

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