It's human nature to compare ourselves to our peers. It starts in grade school, or even earlier among siblings. We look to others to see whether or not we measure up. We do this in school, in jobs, in parenting and in our creative endeavors.
Last week a writer I'm working with started telling me about a woman she knows, a fellow mom. In the time my client has been working on her memoir, her friend has published two books -- both specific to her trade, but still. A mix of awe and jealousy was coming up for her as she marveled at how this was possible. But this little cocktail of emotion was spiked with something else: rivalry. And it's the nemesis of writers everywhere, who compare themselves to others who are more prolific, more disciplined, more widely published, more successful, more everything.
Comparing yourself to others can even come in feeling like others are more inspired than you are. Another of my clients recently said she was worried about completing her book because she didn't know what her purpose was. "How can I write my book if I don't have a purpose?" When I asked her where this was coming from she said she'd heard somewhere that you had to have a purpose to write a book. Vague? Yes. But it's a cultural value held among writers, and when you read interviews with famous authors, nine out of ten of them nostalgically recall having always known they wanted to be writers. Since they were three years old. Since they came out of the womb. Not everyone has that story, though, and you're not wrong or less than or a problem if you're writing for other reasons -- like wanting the achievement of getting published; for people to read your story; or even to be famous or make money. Some of these motivations may be less valued by our culture. Some may be more deluded. But they're not wrong. You do not need to have a higher purpose to be writing a book. And you don't have to carry the burdened of shoulding yourself if you don't.
I work with a lot of writers for whom writing is nothing short of painful. It's a grind, and they live with the deep desire to just finish the book already and have it over and done with. When I interviewed best-selling memoirist Mary Karr last month, someone in the audience asked her what it was like when she finally got her published works out into the world, and to have them received by millions of people. I'm sure the audience was expecting her to say she was happy, that she felt relief. Instead she said:
Mostly it's a lot of discomfort. I always feel deeply ashamed when I turn in a manuscript. I feel like, this book is horrible and it's worthless. By the time I have to go on the road I've sort of accepted what the book is, and I just let it go.
I don't know whether or not Mary Karr feels that she has a higher purpose to write. She's a God-fearing woman, so maybe she does, but if purpose does not motivate you, let it go. And if you feel you should have a purpose because other people do, or because someone you admire had or has one, and look at all they've done, then beware that you might be searching for reasons to explain away why you're not doing what you have committed to do.
More than a purpose, you need commitment and follow-through to write a book. No one glorifies the grind because it sucks. No one waxes poetic about it because it's boring, and no one cares or feels inspired by a complaining, tortured writer. Save it for your journals, but know this: You're not alone, and if that's all your writing process is to you -- a grind you're dying to get through -- that does not make you less of a writer. You are not a bad writer or an uninspired writer or a wannabe writer if you feel sometimes resistant or uninspired. If your process is different (ie, seemingly harder than others you talk to), resist the urge to compare. Heck, resist the urge to share. Don't look for mirroring about how hard it is. Instead focus on one thing: butt in chair. Bite off little bits at a time. Set realistic goals and don't judge the grind. You'll get there, but the more you beat yourself up, the rougher the journey will be. Be kind to yourself. You are a writer. You are exactly where you need to be.