This past weekend I had the honor of judging work for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, a prestigious 90-year-old program for identifying young artists whose alumni include Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates. I am pleased to report that the future of American fiction looks bright. Very bright indeed.
Honestly, I read some work that took my breath away. Written by teenagers. And I couldn't help but think, "Holy Cow, I wasn't this good at their age." I mean, I was already starting to get serious as a writer but I was not that good. In fact, when I think back on my creative writing courses in college, courses that were filled with very talented people, some of whose names you would recognize because they've gone on to deservedly successful writing careers, I'm still somewhat humbled, because I don't remember any of us writing anything as good as some of the pieces I read this weekend. (Well, perhaps one of us did. William Lychack, I'm looking at you.)
It's downright daunting to stare down that kind of talent. But if you're a writer, it's something you simply have to get used to, finishing George Saunders' latest short story or Nicole Krauss' latest novel and thinking, "Well, crap. I wish I'd written that." The truth is, you can't, because in reality, only George Saunders can write like George Saunders and ditto for Nicole Krauss, because a beautiful, brilliant primordial soup of education, experience (including reading), nature and nurture came together to make them the writers they are, just as it will for you. The only way to succeed as a writer, besides dogged persistence and incredible hard work, is to focus on tapping into your own luminous broth, taking it all the way and finding your subject, the one only you can give to the world.
Finding your subject can take some time; it's akin to finding your voice, something that some writers find earlier than others. This explains the wunderkinder I read this weekend and the writers in my college creative writing courses who would also find their sweet spot, albeit later on. While you're searching you must keep writing; you won't find it without doing the work. But if you do the work, you will.
Trust me on this; it's a matter of faith. Because years will go by while you put in the time, put down the words, all the while thinking, "I wish I could make a sentence sing like Ann Patchett," or write a paragraph with the force of Richard Bausch, or, even more likely, rack up the awards, or publishing credits or advances of [insert name here] who sat next to me in graduate school. You'll have to be really really careful not to get caught up in the envy because you simply don't have time for it. You have to be able to admire the beautiful sentence or the forceful paragraph and be happy for your grad school colleague (well, unless he or she is a nasty SOB, in which case you don't have to be happy, you just have to be patient and wait for karma to make its way around) and keep attending to your own work through it all, because if you don't, no one else will. If you don't tell your stories, they won't get told and the world will lose a critical voice it needs to round out the chorus.
My friend, novelist Tom Williams, put it best when he was a visiting writer where I teach and a student asked him if he ever got discouraged when he read writers who were better than he was. Williams shrugged off the question by explaining that he was already used to dealing with that kind of competition because he went through college on a basketball scholarship and, as he put it, "when you're an athlete, there's always someone better than you."
As I've said before, I've been writing for decades, trying on different voices and personas with varying degrees of success, your typical highs and lows. But I've found my groove in the last ten years because I've finally found my voice and my subjects, not by bemoaning or envying the success of others but by keeping my eyes on my own work, the way our elementary school teachers used to tell us to do. I've written passionately about the teaching of creative writing, writing that resulted in three books, the last of which, Rethinking Creative Writing has been hailed as both beautifully written and pretty entertaining for an academic tome, two qualities that make me enormously proud. I've written a novel, The Lost Son, that brings my German-American Queen's (NY) ancestry, my preoccupation with loss, resilience and love, and my family history, as well as on my own experiences as a wife, mother and a citizen of the twenty-first century, to bear on a story only I can tell, one which has found an incredible champion in my agent, Anne Bohner at Pen and Ink Literary. I've also started a new novel that plumbs those very same depths. My depths. And finally, I've started writing these essays, where I get to give pep talks to my tribe, to the writers who are struggling along with me, as well the ones who are just starting and even, perhaps, the ones who are further along on their journey.
If you put in the time and the energy and, instead of worrying about the competition, celebrate the fact that someone else is doing wonders with words, wonders that will continue to build a reading and writing future for all of us, you'll find that sweet spot too. I promise. And it will be all yours.