Comparison Shopping (or, Dirty Writer Secrets)

Writing is like running, I think. If you’re doing it, you’re winning.

Sounds cliche, but I believe it. For a couple of reasons.

First of all, there is no way to actually “win.” In running, the fastest person in the hundred-yard-dash won’t be able to hold a candle to a marathoner’s pace. And a marathoner won’t be able to touch the explosive energy of the sprinter. He who wins a marathon this year will get edged out next year. There is no “best.” So it is with writing. There are bestsellers, sure, but they rotate as quickly as the windmill blades on that damn mini-golf hole that you can never score less than seven strokes on. And there are popular writers within genres, but the question of who is “best” is always a matter of personal preference. So, in both endeavors, you win by simply doing the thing to the best of your ability.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that by and large, running is an individual activity. Okay, on race day you might meet up with 1000 of your closest friends to pound the pavement in your town, and maybe you run with a group on the weekend, but most of the time it’s just you and your shoes (if shoes are your thing). So, too, with writing. At some point you bring in readers, and if you’re at a certain point you might have editors or agents or reviewers, but most of the time it’s just you and the computer. Or typewriter. Or notebook. Or yellow snow.

And there’s really no point in comparing yourself to anybody else, right? I could compare myself with Meb Keflezighi (yep, I definitely had to google to see how to spell that), but what would be the point? He’s been running his whole life, and I will never perform at that level, so why beat myself up about the fact that I won’t be winning any marathons? Likewise, it’d be pointless to measure myself by such yardsticks as Stephen King, or Douglas Adams, or Jasper Fforde, or Neil Gaiman (and I’m just now recognizing that I need more female authors in my go-tos); I might as well be an ant shouting obscenities at the boot descending toward my segmented thorax.

So you run for you, and you write for you, and if you’re doing those things, and doing them well enough to feel good about what you’re doing, that should be good enough, right?

Well, that’s true. But there’s something else in us, I think, that makes it impossible for us not to compare ourselves to others. We may not mean to, we may actively try not to, but, come on — can you look at the person with a bestseller credit and not feel a little pang of, “man, maybe one day?” Can you watch Meb crossing the finish line and not think, “if only I could do that?”

I think the focus, in writing and in running, should be inwardly-focused. Your concern should be yourself and your improvement, and if you can say that what you did today was better than what you did yesterday, then you’re doing all right.

But. (There is always a but.)

I have a dirty secret. I like to compare myself to those lower on the ladder.

Right? Makes me feel good to see the people struggling with things I no longer have to struggle with.

Okay, so, when I drive around and see people out slogging it in the heat, running at a pace barely above a shuffle, I gloat a little inside. Poor sap, I think. Look how hard you’re working, for so little return. I think about how much faster I am, or how much farther I can go, and I feel better about me. I get a thrill if I pass another runner when I’m out on my own run, no matter what the situation, because in that moment, I’m better.

And I’m no different in writing. In fact, I’m worse in writing. I know a blogger/writer much in the same vein as myself, an aspiring novelist working to get his/her feet on the ground (or off it, choose your metaphor). I read his/her work semi-regularly. And he/she is just awful. Every story turns to over-the-top melodrama. Every character is an unjustified badass. Every turn is so heavy-handed and abrupt that I feel thrown into a narrative ditch while reading. The grammar errors could bleed an old typewriter dry. The spelling makes me want to punch kittens. (No, I won’t name the writer. Or link the blog. I am relatively sure he/she is not a regular reader of mine.) I read his/her work and I think, man, I’m so much better than that! And it makes me feel good about my little pile of turdlets I’ve amassed in my swampy corner of the internet.

I know I shouldn’t. I feel bad as soon as I catch myself doing it. But just like reaching for one more Nacho Cheese Dorito, I just can’t help myself. Because I want to feel like I’m making progress. I want to feel like I’m, if not the best, at least better than somebody.

And I think it’s worth remembering that, while it’s true that there will always be somebody out there who’s better than you, there will also always be somebody out there who’s worse than you. That goes for writing, running, filing your tax returns, animal husbandry, and crocheting. I am probably, for example, worse than you at crocheting.

So use me. Because I’m using you. If I think you’re better than me, I’m using you as motivation; I want to get what you’re getting. If I think I’m better than you, I’m using you as motivation; I want to make sure you don’t catch up to me, or worse, pass me. Because even though I may think I’m better than you, and you may think you’re better than me, we are all better than the folks who always say, “man, I would really like to take up running,” or “I want to write a novel someday,” but still haven’t gotten off their donks to actually try it.

I can’t be the only one that thinks like this. Come on. Admit it.

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