The Comparison Game


Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Recently, I found myself deep within a writing slump. It starts with winking, conspiratorial denial: you've been working hard, you deserve to take a couple of days off, don't feel bad! Then it goes to self-flagellation: you haven't written in a week, what have you been doing with yourself? Then excuses: well, we had that big trip, it's not as if I was going to work while we were on vacation. Then distraction: oh! A new project? One I'll be getting paid for? Well, clearly this takes priority! Then guilt again, a whispering accusation: when was the last time you worked on your book? Denial: no way, it couldn't possibly be that long! Then laziness: God, I'm going to have to read the whole thing just to get back in the flow, to remember where I was going. Which is ultimately a flimsy veil over fear: what if I read it and it's not as good as I thought it was? What if I don't actually have it in me to finish it? What if I finish and it's only a shadow of what I thought it would be? What if the idea in my mind--indeed, the idea of myself as a writer--is always greater than the reality?

My slump lasted three months. Three. Months. For three months, I worked on other things. I traveled. I was there for the birth of my niece. I clung to every excuse I could give myself. But eventually, I had to face the facts: no one was going to write this book for me. As long as the story still energized me, challenged, me, and excited me--which it did--it was my responsibility to return to.

A few weeks ago, I got back to work. I started by reading the 60,000 words (about 240 pages) I'd written, making notes and editing as I went. I found mistakes, inconsistencies, structural problems, plot holes, and character issues without easy fixes. But I also found that I liked what I was reading! There were lines that startled me with pleasure, which I couldn't even remember writing, and surprising insights that I couldn't imagine arriving at any other way than by telling a story. I wanted to know what would happen next. I wished the book were finished, just so that I could read it all. And that's saying something, right? I always remember the Toni Morrison quote: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." I think this is among the most practical, inspiring writing advice I've come across, because it reminds us that writing fiction isn't--or shouldn't be--just an intellectual exercise. We shouldn't write to meet others' expectations, or to satisfy the critical voices in our minds, or to prove ourselves, or for any other reason except that there's a story that hasn't been told, and if we want to read it, we need to write it.

But here's where it gets tricky. As part of my campaign to pull myself from my slump, I went to the bookstore and bought three different books, plus an audio book. They were Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, The Daughter, by Jane Shemilt, Zero K, by Don DeLillo, and, on Audible, The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty. Each of these books promised something I hope to achieve with my novel. Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers, period. She achieves what I can only dream of achieving--sentences of crystalline clarity and beauty, elevating the everyday to the epic, exploring a culture with reverence and wit, and simply telling a damn good story. The Daughter is Shemilt's first novel (written while working full-time as a physician, no less), and, as a suspense book, at the very least promised tight plotting (and delivered more), which I can always study more deeply. Zero K (which I haven't read yet) takes us into a world similar to our own and yet not our own--I wanted to see how DeLillo handled the extraordinary, the nonexistent, and grounded it, making it not only believable but inevitable. And finally, The Last Anniversary would be fun. Liane Moriarty is a bit hit or miss for me, but the ones that hit, like Big Little Lies, hit big. They're page-turners of the most delightful variety, the kind I consume in a daydream of a weekend. From her, I remember not to take myself too seriously and that the origin of my love for reading and writing is rooted, very simply, in fun. And there's nothing wrong with that.

The question is, how can we, as writers, read others for inspiration and fun--for influence--without being overly influenced? How can we absorb the qualities we love from other writers without feeling we need to match up, or perhaps, distressingly, becoming convinced that we'll never match up? How can we be inspired, rather than defeated, by writers we admire? How much is too much reading when we're writing a book, and how much is too little?

When I'm writing in a vacuum--that is, without any outside reading--it's sometimes easier to plunge forward, to keep creating. But when I read books I admire, I hold myself to a higher standard. I remember that once a book is written, it enters into a conversation with every other book that's been written, and remembering that keeps me both grounded and ambitious. I'm one voice of a great many voices, but that doesn't diminish the power of one voice. The necessity of it. It only pushes me to make my one voice count.

On the other hand, there are times, like last night, when I read writer interviews and excerpts of new releases and think, crushingly, They are so much better than me. It's hardly a new thought. It emerges when I read even one sentence by Erdrich and a thousand other writers. It's just that there are times when the thought is an awareness, calm and even inspiring, and other times--like last night--when it's a judgment. A hissing condescension that made me slink back to my laptop to reread the day's pages in order to see if there was anything good there--a memorable line, an interesting scene, an unexpected insight. Was there something smart, something beautiful, or something fun there? I wasn't sure. I'd briefly lost perspective. I'm one of a great many voices, I thought, and it didn't feel powerful.

Then today, I went over to my sister and brother-in-law's house to visit them and my new niece, Charlie. (As you can see, she is perfect.)

We were sitting on the couch, chatting, when Amanda said, "Oh! I'm almost finished reading your book." I looked at her, surprised. I'd forgotten that she asked me to send it to her, I guess because I never expected her to find time to read it in the first few weeks of motherhood. But she's been reading when she pumps, she told me, and it makes the time fly by. She's read a full 200 pages, and she likes it. We talked about it for the next twenty minutes, me peppering her with questions about her reading experience and her asking me about specific parts that interested her. Was there really such a man who claimed to have died, seen purgatory, and returned to live as a monk? What about the prologue? Was the book ever going to go back and revisit Mademoiselle X, and how she fit into the larger story?

The conversation was vulnerable and joyful--vulnerable because, in the moments before she said she liked it, I was thrust into the crippling writerly anxiety of waiting for feedback, and joyful because talking about the book with someone who's read it brought it to life in a new way. It made it feel real and valuable and exciting, the way it usually does for me but sometimes, briefly, does not.

So here's where I am: 68,350 words (almost 275 pages). About, I think, 70% done. At least three days out of the week, I'm able to write six pages a day--the other days maybe three or four pages, if I'm doing more reading, editing, or outside work. My goal is to produce about 25 pages per week, with a revised-and-revised again deadline of September 15 for completion of the first draft. Wish me luck, and stay tuned for updates!

Writers/artists, I'd love to hear more about your process. Do you look to others for inspiration/influence when you're creating? If so, who? If not, why? How do you deal with self-doubt and the inevitable comparison game?

#writing #writersblock #novel #process #influences #inspiration #louiseerdrich #lianemoriarty #janeshemilt #dondelillo #tonimorrison