Writer Wednesday: Compare and Despair

A few days back I was chatting with my high school buddy, who is now a top Broadway producer. Cool, right?  And he, of course, knows tons of amazing actors who have differing degrees of success on Broadway, on TV and on film.  And most of them are hard on themselves, and don’t view themselves as successes, even though they definitely should.

My bud and I shared how similar this is to the world of writing.  How as a writer, you can be one of the few that finished a book manuscript, yet not see yourself as a success if it isn’t published.  Or how you can be published, but not by a top press, so you don’t see that as success.  Or you can be published by a top press, but then you don’t get a second book contract.  Or you can get great reviews, but you don’t hit the best seller list.  Or you can hit the best seller list, but your next book doesn’t do as well.  Or you can do well all around, but never get that movie deal.  Or you can get that movie deal, but the movie is a flop.  Or you can be up for the Pulitzer, but not get it…

At any stage, we crazy writers can see ourselves as failures, where any sane person on the outside can view us as incredibly successful.  My friend calls this syndrome: “Compare and Despair.”

Actors do this when they look at Patti LuPone or Ryan Reynolds and they think, “What’s wrong with me? Why them, and not me?”  Writers do this all the time too. Part of it is our natural drive to push ourselves. Our internal critic who tells us, “Really? Is that all you got?” And we answer by pushing ourselves to do even better, to work even harder.  That’s all good.

When it’s bad is when it stops us. Depresses us. Makes us want to give up. And some people do give up. That’s a shame.

Recently I had a birthday, and a well wisher posted on my wall: “You are one of the lucky ones. You have several published books and are an agent. Congrats!” Wow. I tend to not fall into the compare and despair trap too often, but that comment took me by surprise.  Lucky? Me? Why?

Even though I’m an optimist, I do have my moments of deep dark writerly despair.  I think about authors who debuted the same time as I did, but whose books weren’t orphaned, and how these authors now have many more books published along with the financial comfort that provides… Jeesh.

But then I do try to see how far I’ve come, to be grateful for what I’ve earned, and to remember to respect myself for who I am.  This is all an important part of the writer’s toolbox. If you don’t feel good about stuff, well…

It’s about perspective.  Comparing your writer’s journey to how far you’ve come personally. Like metaphorically heading to the Jersey shore and thinking, damn girl, my ass ain’t that fat.  It’ll boost your drive.

ANYHOW, if you love writing, you should do it. Work hard, of course, and shoot for the stars, but don’t forget to value where you are and every little achievement along the way. Are you better than you were last year?  Did you improve on a story that a few months ago you thought perfect? Then you are growing. Did you finish a manuscript? Try a new genre? Get the guts up to go to a writer’s conference? Dare to submit? Survive rejection and dare to submit again? Are you still writing even though the forces of the universe seem to be telling you to stop?

Celebrate.  And when others around you seem to be hitting the road to big success faster, remember that’s life. There is skill but also luck involved, and others’ success doesn’t always make sense to you (I’m thinking about Snookie, here). But that’s okay. Let it inspire you. Motivate you.

Just don’t compare and despair. Okay?

12 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Compare and Despair

  1. It’s all about context, right? I got my Ph.D. and was nonplussed because EVERYONE around me had a Ph.D. Of course, get in a group of non-academics and they think it’s super cool. As we have successes as writers, we tend to move into those circles of “successful” writers. We are in critique groups together. We teach at conferences together. Thus, the context (and the comparing) is very hard to ignore. When I get down, I focus on how I can best “serve the story” (thanks to Colleen Mondor & Sara Zarr for that idea). My greatest responsibility is to tell the best story I can. Or as Sara Zarr says, “Do the work.”

    • Hi Amber,

      So true. And you’re so right. As you move through your career, you find yourself surrounded by more and more accomplished people. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that a certain writer sat at her first conference in the audience, afraid to even ask a question.

      Serve the story. Words for writers to live by. Thanks!

  2. It’s amazing how generalizable the concept of Compare and Despair is to all art forms. And also how we, as writers, find inspiration at unexpected times: your friend’s comments about actors, and you applied it to writers. Useful, enjoyable post, Marie.

    • Hi Gerri,

      Thanks! You’re right. Artists, writers, actors, creative people probably all go through this at some point. At least we writers aren’t alone…even as we sit alone in our spots to create.

  3. Another great post, Marie. It’s so (so) hard not to compare – couldn’t agree more. What I try *not* to do is despair. I just turned 40 on Friday and am now a decade away from my cancer diagnosis, so I’m always grateful for the bad days as well as the good ones. My work life is not perfect (do I wish I was a best selling author? Hell, yes! Would I like to see Jennifer Garner play my MC? You bet!), but the only thing I can do is keep at it, keep trying, and do everything I can to learn more. I really appreciate your introspective posts – they always give me something to think about : )

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