Many times, I’ve seen interviews or posts in which a writer says she decided to make a serious go at writing and publishing after reading some godawful novel, throwing it down in disgust, and saying, “Surely, I can do better than that!” This has always turned my stomach, and the feeing of superiority has never been helpful to me.
I once had a lover who could barely stand to go into a bookstore because he compared himself with every writer on the shelves, thinking of all of the books as books he hadn’t written. Was he better than those writers? Was he worse? Was he younger than Writer X when Writer X published a debut novel? Older?
I think that kind of paralysis is exactly what this tendency to comparison creates. I was useless at taking my writing anywhere beyond the drawer as long as I worried about what Writer X was doing. If I look down on Writer X, and then I get a rejection slip, what does that say about me? I think this attitude leads to bitterness and contempt for the industry.
The last couple years, a different feeling has been growing on me. I’m finding myself inspired by seeing writers who are making progress, winning awards, and getting published. It started with writers I’ve learned to recognize online. Watching Matt Bell go from winning the Million Writers Award to publishing chapbooks to being about to release a story collection has been inspiring. Watching Jordan Lapp, who is one of the editors of Every Day Fiction, win a Writers of the Future award and go to Clarion West has been inspiring.
Lately, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some writers in person. Ken Liu and I have talked over various aspects of the writing and publishing process, and it helps to see how serious he is about this, and to meet someone who’s spent years studying markets like I have. (Ken has also won a Writers of the Future award, and has published some excellent stories, including this one). At the featherproof books event, I got to meet and talk briefly with Amelia Gray, who’s an extremely nice person whose book AM/PM I just finished devouring, and who won the FC2 prize.
Seeing that human beings can be persistent, develop their craft, and be recognized for it is what makes me think I can do this. When I was a child, writers were some sort of extradimensional being to me. I’d rather keep myself on this path by recognizing people’s humanity, not by feeling contempt for what people have done.
That doesn’t mean I love every piece of fiction out there. It just means that I don’t find it useful to focus on the ones I don’t like, and they certainly don’t help me stay motivated. I know it can be intimidating to look at Flannery O’Connor or George Eliot or Neil Gaiman or Maureen McHugh or whomever and wonder how they write like they do. I think any serious writer has to get over the fear and figure out which writers to admire, look up to, and learn from, not which writers to scorn.