You are incomparable. No one else is inside your skin with your history, talents and perceptions, yet most of us compare ourselves to others. Considering the risk of unhappiness caused by making comparisons, can we live a life free of it? I don’t think so, but perhaps we can learn a little health and safety about it.
From the word go, we’re taught about ourselves, our world and how to acquire skills through the medium of comparison. Our society values some of us more than others. Our teachers put a grade on our attempts to learn. Our social interactions let us know how far below everyone’s expectations we’ve gone. See how nicely your brother . . . Why can’t you be more like . . . She was able to, so why can’t you . . . As if denigrating what someone is, will magically make them what they are not.
I attended a penny whistle class where the tutor would stop us playing and criticise the miscreant, usually me. I lasted about 15 minutes and then with a smile to show no hard feelings, packed my things. The tutor went venomously nuts while I packed, the message being that the reason things weren’t working was because of me.
I said to her, I came here to have fun, and this isn’t fun. She must have thought she was a fun type of gal, because she screamed abuse as I left the building.
Shame doesn’t make us improve. It cannot, because its basic construct is to destruct. To keep comparison safe, let’s dissect what comparison is. We compare ourselves to inferiors, equals and superiors. What happens when we do this?
Comparing ourselves to our equals affirms our belonging in our peer group. Usually this comparison is reassuring, unless we actually want to elevate ourselves out of this group into a higher status group. The latter can be a wake-up call for motivation, or a lesson in self hatred.
If we compare ourselves to someone we deem inferior, we feel good about ourselves. We may even be inspired to acts of altruism to help those people. Or we can denigrate them to solidify our superiority.
If we compare ourselves to someone we deem superior, we’re inspired if we evaluate their achievements as attainable, discouraged if we evaluate them as unattainable. We may even give up.
But what is it we’re comparing? As an example of evaluation, a thirty year old unpublished writer may want to slit her wrists after comparing herself to Cecelia Ahern who, at 21, wrote her first novel, PS I Love You, which got her an obscene advance and stayed a best seller for 19 weeks.
There are more variables at work here, however, than being published. Cecelia Ahern’s father was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland at the time and her brother-in-law was a Westlife member. Like Pippa Middleton, anything she wrote would sell. Although a commercial success, her first book got tepid reviews and was criticised for being immature.
Some people might consider Cecelia Ahern a success. Some people might think she was done a disservice by being published so young. It depends on what is being compared. The person best suited to evaluate her life is Cecelia herself. The same is true for each of us.
Scientific evaluation is done under controlled conditions to reduce the number of variables. Your life isn’t. When you think another writer is better than you are, remember this isn’t the first draft. This is the well combed version of that writer.
Next, you don’t know what advantages the writer had over you as a child in education, in financial and social status, in emotional support. Life isn’t a level playing field and some writers get a head start. After that tenuous beginning, sometimes it’s one thing in your current situation that slows you down – keeping a roof over your head, a daytime job, the isolation of working from home, a less than supportive family.
Even if all things are equal, some people are better at writing than other people, but that doesn’t mean you give up. I come from a musical family. For all the horrors siblings impose upon one another, none of mine told me not to sing or play during our musical evenings simply because I wasn’t as good as they are. That particular family ethos is what put me inside that penny whistle class in the first place. And it’s what gave me the sense to say, This isn’t fun, and leave.
The most difficult voice to walk away from, though, is the one inside your head. So when that voice stops the writing for a comparison torture, don’t ignore it. (What?) No, you have to convince it to stop or it will sabotage your writing. Take those few moments to calm yourself, connect with what drives you to write (certainly not the pay). Then ask yourself if you believe in that drive more than you believe in that comparison. Not intellectually, but on a gut level. Does that drive to write overpower your doubt? Could you walk away from your writing today and not look back?
If the answer is, no, then you’re in the clear. Latch onto that drive like a life preserver and write with a focus on what you’re writing even if you can only write bullshit. Let that writing be a dialogue with the voice and soon, it will be persuaded that you should write. Rinse and repeat as needed.
If the answer is yes, that you could walk away from that pile of words on your desk and get a job at McDonald’s, become a scuba diver or take up the penny whistle, then your writing life has become starved. You need to connect with other writers, preferably in person. Lots of communities have mentoring programs or creative writing classes or writers groups. There are scores of poetry slams and readings in pubs, small playwright groups who put on short plays.
It’s important to experience other writers as people who are not that much different than yourself. It takes that internal comparison voice down a notch or two, but only if those other writers are focused on creating, not on comparing. Be selective with wherever you take your starved self.
If you can’t find writers in the flesh, connect in a Facebook group, a Twitter community, read a how-to book, a great work of fiction or see a dynamite play or movie, listen to really good lyrics.
Then feed your creativity with non-writing creativity. A trip to the art museum, a craft fair, dance to a busker, sing in the shower, go carolling, sew, carve, knit. Get some physical exercise. Walk the Big Nose Dog. Join a Zumba class. Do Tai Chi. Chop wood. Nurture your mind. Nurture your body. And during all of this, tell that voice in your head that no matter how badly you write, no matter how unsupported or out of luck you are, quitting is not an option.
Your contribution is the only thing you have to offer AND you’re the only one who can offer it. So offer away. To do anything else is not to live. You have a responsibility not to just live, but to let your voice sing as no other voice can sing. Now go write.