I had a few thoughts to add to yesterday’s post, in which I railed against motivating oneself as a writer by looking down on other writers. I want to clarify that this doesn’t mean I think all writing is created equal, or that there’s no such thing as bad writing. Instead, I’m thinking about what I learned when I was a serious (albeit poorly rated) chess player. You don’t get better by playing against people who aren’t as good as you. If you want to become a better chess player, you find players who wipe the floor with you, and you play against them all the time, while studying technique frantically on the side. You also have to do things like look over your games and try to figure out why that better player was able to squeeze you out from move 11 on.
The analogy with writing is that, while I do believe there are things to learn from bad writing, I try not to waste time playing against it. That just encourages overconfidence, arrogance, and laziness. In chess, if I get used to playing against people who aren’t as good as me, I get used to getting away with using tactics that would open me up to merciless punishment at the hands of a better player.
I am willing to be a bad writer in the interest of learning what I need to know. I accept rejection slips and writing lots of revisions. But I’m not going to lie to you: I want to write things that will be remembered after I’m dead. The weird balancing act of writing is that I have to acknowledge that and work for it while also being humble and accepting lots of setbacks. My belief is that the best way to accomplish this balancing act is to surround myself with people I find a little intimidating.
If I send out a submission and feel certain it’ll be accepted, I suspect I’m not reaching high enough and am possibly training myself to settle for lazy habits. If I talk to another writer and don’t feel a little in awe of their work, they may let me get away with less than the best in mine. I want to be damn, damn good, and I don’t get there through the comfort of scorn. I think the way to greatness is to make sure I’m always a little out of my league.