Previously, I discussed how comparing yourself to other writers can be valuable. This week, I wanted to say something about how you shouldn’t make such comparisons. This is the point where any robots reading will have a paradox-inspired meltdown, but as Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Or, as I once said, “I’m contradicting myself? Huh. That’s very interest… LOOK OVER THERE.” [Footsteps. Car peeling away. Car crashing. Sirens.]
Self-doubt hampers the trancelike flow that generates great writing (or even the painful stop-start that generates pretty good writing). Why do we doubt ourselves? One reason: because—and here comes a controversial statement—writing is easy.
Calm down. Don’t revoke my guild card. I’ve come to rely on it for my steady diet of films about Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife issues. Writing is also incredibly hard (Contradiction two! I’m doubling down on that foolish consistency thing.) A brilliant script requires a rock-solid understanding of structure, a keen ear for dialogue, and a superhuman ability to stare at a glowing screen through twelve revisions. A great joke requires a lateral mind and a theasauran’s ability to pick exactly the right word. Or to make the right word up—a word like, say, “theasauran.”
And most folks can’t write at all. Believe me, my dad was a professor. I saw him suffer through enough papers to know. (Actually, for proof just read any YouTube comments section. We’re all professors’ sons now.) But for writers, writing is just a little bit easy. If it wasn’t, we’d get into something more stable, like dictator of Egypt. We started writing. We had a knack for it. We enjoyed it. So we wrote more and more, and got better and better.
Hard? Hard is talking to strangers on the phone about anything that requires a confirmation number. When it comes down to basic life skills like knowing how to fill out an insurance form, I thank God I have a wife who’s willing to take lead. I’d rather imagine a hundred imaginary worlds and write a script about each than to deal with the daily nonsense of the real world.
Add to this the pervasive myth that writing skill comes from talent and not practice, I think it’s easy to internalize the feeling that you’re getting away with something—that writing is some sort of racket. Writers find all sorts of ways to beat themselves up (yes, there are arrogant writers, but arrogance usually masks poor self-esteem). If you devalue writing in general, you begin to devalue your own writer’s instincts. You begin to look at other people, convinced they have it figured out. Instead of tapping into the flow within yourself, you worry that you need to be doing what your peers are doing. They know something you don’t. They’re really working.
Maybe they are. If comparing allows you to diagnose deficiencies in your own work, then by all means draw on that and improve. You’re not going to find all the answers magically waiting within. But don’t indulge a counterproductive wallow, either. Don’t allow an obsession with exterior things to drown out your own voice, and don’t let other people devalue your worth. There’s a lot of noise buzzing at us, all the time, and one of the ways to get to a place where writing is fun and—yes—easy, is to give yourself permission to zone out those distractions. To not worry, for once.
After all, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to compare yourself unfavorably to your friends without actively going and looking for them. I’m sure they’ll helpfully post all their successes to Facebook.