It is obvious wisdom that comparison kills. It’s a distraction and sets you up for dissatisfaction. I rationally know this, and yet I cannot stop doing it. I’ll often catch myself making comparisons with others, feel bad, and then feel ashamed for my response. I should know better! I should be happy for others! I shouldn’t make it all about me! (The spiral of feeling bad for feeling bad is where I frequently live.)
Comparison and envy are not particularly good things to spend time and energy on, but I wanted to talk about them precisely because they’re difficult, ugly things.
I have found comparison useful only in that it forces me to look inwards. When I’m feeling envious of people with manuscripts and oodles of published work, who sign with agents and get book deals, I realize that I’m just projecting my own insecurities onto others. That may be obvious, but it’s good to have a compass for my anxieties. It allows me to trace those insecurities and figure out a way forward.
I then try to squash the comparison before it starts feeling destructive by asking myself a few questions. Have I done the thing that this other person is doing? Do I even want what they have? For the first question, it often boils down to “I want the recognition for work I haven’t done.” (See the tweet below.) From there, the answer is simple: put in the work. For the second question, it’s an opportunity to reorient myself around my own goals.
But of course, comparison is a slippery slope. It can never be satisfied. I was surprised to see an author, whose writing I love, tweet about their disappointment in the lack of reviews and media coverage for their book last year. I’ve always thought that publishing a book would be the ultimate accomplishment, but in reality, the target is always moving.
Writing is one thing, publishing is another. Anyone can pick up a pen, open up a computer, or record a voice memo and write. But publishing is not inherently fair. There are systemic problems and disadvantages against certain groups that prevent access to the industry and a level playing field. There’s timing and luck. But it’s also true that I (or any writer) doesn’t by default deserve to be published. At an individual level, we can never fully know anyone else’s life, what they’ve been through, or how they’ve gotten to where they are.
At the heart of it, I’m also trying to unlearn this scarcity mentality, that others' successes somehow diminish my own or that I’m running out of time to accomplish my goals. There is enough space for everyone. The same book deals that give me a twinge of envy are also the ones that I cannot wait to preorder and read.
So much writing advice tells you to hone in on your uniqueness. Write the stories that you feel especially equipped to tell. Concentrate on the things you obsess and agonize over. I think this is also an antidote to envy. I particularly like Ray Bradbury’s phrasing of it here:
Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out.
I know I won’t ever be fully free of comparison and envy, but I’ll continue to try and center the things I can control: my time, energy, and attention. I can focus on the fabulous mulch in my mind.
- Mateo Askaripour in LitHub on a “write fast, fix later” approach: “This assumption of quality based on the amount of time it takes to create a work—whether it’s a painting, book, film, play, or even a meal—presents a serious flaw in how we value art both financially and socially.”
- A beautiful comic by Yao Xiao about COVID-19, grief, and using creative acts to connect to difficult memories.
- Check out Kundiman’s winter/spring online classes which include workshops and craft classes. Scholarships available.
- “We Have to Save Books from the Book People” by Joanna Mang
- Call for pitches: Slant’d, a magazine focused on first-person Asian American storytelling, is looking for Issue 05 submissions—written or visual—around the topic of “wonder.” (I wrote for Issue 02 so if you’re curious about the writing/editing experience, feel free to reach out with questions!)
Recent reads & other media
I can’t wait to discuss When No One Is Watching with my book club at the end of the month. Alyssa Cole was one of the authors who got me into reading romance (would highly recommend The Loyal League series) and her first thriller, which is like Get Out meets Rear Window, is a page-turner. Though the final act’s pacing felt a bit rushed, it didn’t detract too much from Cole’s larger discussion of gentrification and her foregrounding of Black history. I really liked her interviews with The New York Times and BuzzFeed about writing in a different genre and how “the themes explored in this book are simply reality.”
I also read Ross Gay’s essay collection, The Book of Delights, which made me both appreciate current small delights and miss the ones I took for granted. I’ve been re/watching a bunch of random movies: The Prince of Egypt (an amazing soundtrack), Nightcrawler (equally disturbing and funny), and The Devil Wears Prada (still not over the fact that Harry Crane from Mad Men is in this).
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~ meme myself and i ~
Accept the cookies. POV: you’re a millennial trying hobbies. “Bill Gates’ son” drinks rich water. Welcome to the team comrade! I’m literally reading right now. Calling your dog when they’re right beside you.