I was having a talk with a writer friend the other day about jealously and how often we compare ourselves to other writers. No matter what, there’s always someone doing better and there’s always someone doing worse. It reminds me of this great quote in Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer”: “In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.”
It’s the “unfortunately” in the quote that’s always stuck with me. Without it, the sentence is something else entirely. It’s not a good thing, this constant comparison, but how do we get past it? How do we start to see that where we are is where we are and other people’s careers don’t really affect that? If they have success it doesn’t take away from ours, and if they have failure, that doesn’t make us any better. I had a friend in grad school who used to say, “A publication for one of us is a publication for all of us,” and I thought that was such a generous, wonderful way to look at success and the literary world. I had another friend who used to say, “It’s not enough that I succeed, but my friend have to fail.” It was a quote from someone else, and I’d say about ninety-percent joking.
If we can’t avoid the comparison entirely, maybe a better approach is to ask yourself this: how can X-writer’s success motivate me to work harder, and how can Y-writer’s success help me appreciate what I’ve got? It reminds me of another quote I’ve always loved from a cross-stitch that hung in my kitchen when I was growing up: “Imagine how happy you’d be if you lost everything you had and just got it back.”
I bet I think of that quote about gratitude twice a week, and have for twenty years. Last semester I had a student lose a bag of library books and freak out, and while I was helping him look for it, I told him the quote. Turns out it’s only a quote that’s helpful once the items are already back. If they’re still lost, it can be taken as hostile.
All this to say, be better to yourself. With writing, the work is its own reward.