Sometimes I feel very strongly that I truly cannot rest easy until I have… oh, I don’t know… a couple million words-written to my name. To know that I was able to do it. And not bullshit graphomaniac word vomit either; but rather, creditable efforts I can be proud of. Such will be the exorbitant price of admission for a moment where I can finally just breathe and be content. Because I’ll be able to point to that body of work and say: look at that! that proves I’m worth a damn! that retroactively gives my life some meaning!
(Out of curiosity, I looked it up. That moment has five out of five stars on Yelp. But that’s sourced from relatively few reviews. And the reviewers kind of seem like a mix of bots and fakers. Hmm. Weird. Oh look, a moment called ‘the strangely comforting victory of learning to be okay with what you already have’ only has three stars but it does have a shit-ton of reviews. From what seem to be nice, normal, well-adjusted people. Its popularity is enticing, I have to say. Damn it. Choices, choices.)
Okay, so… my motivation for this goal sounds insane, I know. And in a sense it very much is. But stick with me. I’ll try to explain. Hopefully it may make infinitesimally more sense by the time I’m done.
I suffer from jealousy way, way more than I’d like. To an unseemly and humiliating degree really. I feel it in many aspects of my life, but most often and most especially when it comes to the craft of writing.
In my worst moments, I am operating on a hair-trigger. Upon reading even a single particularly well-turned phrase, I seethe that I had not written it first. And, in fact, cannot ever write it now. For it has henceforth been placed in an impenetrable vault secured by a forcefield of loathing for even the faintest hint of plagiarism. Meaning it’s gone from the realm of possibilities. Forever. Because that person beat me to it. (Sometimes even by many centuries, which just compounds the insult. How rude of them it is to lay claim to that pretty formulation before I was even born and had a chance to nab it first instead.)
I’ll then feel an impotent frustration at myself for this ostensible failure. As well as a silly desire to avoid reading anything which might ‘rob’ me in this fashion again. By which, of course, I mean good writing. Yet to lose out on reading that would be grievously counterproductive in a way which is so obvious it needn’t even be pointed out.
And, my god, how things are even further intensified when you get hit with one of those… supreme… sucker-punches. You know, when you read one of those paragraphs which are so incredibly good, so masterfully wrought, that you do not even know what to do with yourself. Existentially, I mean. And your very entrails resound with a cacophony of questions. Who is this goddamn writer? What the hell do they think they’re doing showing me up in an idle moment with their brilliance? You can’t help but think it very unsportsmanlike that they should ambush you while you are still and doing nothing, while your eyes and mind are held hostage by the act of reading. For you are so vulnerable then. You’re not even also writing in that moment, which would grant you at least the chance to go tit-for-tat and wield your own prowess (such as it is) as a defense. You have none of that. So when you encounter the sea-mine comprised of some gorgeous tangle of perfect words that writer set adrift into the languid waters of the future to find you someday? Well, it catches you utterly unarmed and unequal. And then… boom. A detonation whose shockwaves buffet your self-confidence something fierce.
In those few seconds of helplessness, you are beaten. You are bested. You are broken. The melodramatic words ‘fuck you and your very fine prose’ are caught in your throat. You do not let them fly. As they are ridiculous. And they make you ridiculous. But you still feel them deeply.
Yes, this reaction is a hideousness. And I hate it. It arises from a terrible part of my psyche. A part I wish – very, very dearly – did not exist.
Because when it comes down to it I do not really begrudge any other writers their successes, either in their careers or even just in the microcosm of a single piece. I know full well that, as a vocation, writing can be a hardscrabble affair, demanding a lot from oneself. It is very difficult to write artfully, to write honestly, especially about important things. And so when I see instances of that, I grasp the effort and commitment required to do it. And part of me is mature enough to just admire the achievement in a nice neutral, abstract way. ‘Man, that was really fucking well done, good for them,’ I think to myself. And the entire topography of my sinews does not ache with petty, stupid, baseless resentment. How wholesome.
But that is not always. The maddening problem is that that’s not always.
So my only recourse is to at least try to interrogate the why.
To be sure, sometimes our own psychological foibles stand before us as inscrutable mysteries. Just irreducible, inexplicable brute-facts of our own particular roll-of-the-die mental make-up. However, this is not one of those times. Not at all. I know, and have always known, that this personality flaw comes from a deep-seated insecurity about my own skill and quantity of output as a writer. That self-anxiety is hardcoded into my every neuron at this point. It can be a useful stimulant, once in a while. Albeit providing only the jittery junk-energy of refined sugar or the like. But it can also be a paralytic. Staying the hand, dulling the mind, making you resigned to not even trying. Such has been its most frequent effect, I must confess. I wish to remedy this, and am indeed aggressively trying to. Alas, hopefully-sometime-soon is not now. And so I am in the barren liminal-wilderness of the now for the time being. Consider this essay a postcard sent from my huddled crouch in a little tent there.
In terms of the skill-insecurity… well, whatever. In moments of happy clarity, I can believe that I am at the very least competent. And even competency is a hardfought thing. But the grand totem pole and one’s own place on it is probably just always going to be too glaringly obvious to admit of much other recourse. I mean, if you read, say, Conrad or Kafka or Orwell or Steinbeck or Rand and don’t feel even a little ashamed about the absurdity of then sitting down at the keyboard to bash out your own paltry efforts, I dare say that something’s wrong with you. It would be a sort of indictment of your own lack of self-awareness. Because the shadow cast by the pantheon of masters ought to be a frigid place. One is right to shiver and stare at the ground and shift one’s feet awkwardly whilst standing there. That is their due. To attempt to deny them it is laughable. For their accomplishments are spectacular and indubitable. The only real question is how much you let the disparity between yours and theirs discourage you.
Whereas the quantity-insecurity is another matter entirely. Its respective neurosis operates very differently in my mind.
For example, I was on someone else’s blog a few days ago. I saw that their post archives stretched back more than ten years. They must have had, at minimum, a hundred entries. It… irked me. I felt like they’re beating me in some kind of invisible competition.
And the really shitty part about this phenomenon is that it also pops up in a more generalized form. I’ll put it like this. Have you ever been scrolling down the articles on various websites, and – even just on a subconscious, inarticulable level – had their copiousness affect you like they were the prodigious output of one single unknown person? Making, in comparison, your own meagre productiveness seem like but a speck whipped about in a dust storm. You will never be able to compete with that volume. Never, ever, ever. So what’s even the point? Of anything? Why bother putting pen to paper ever again? It’s all just a childish waste of time. Like trying to build a ladder to the sun, rung by rung, a day’s labour each time.
Well, my brain likes to play that devious little trick on me regularly. I know it’s irrational and preposterous. But I still have to emphatically remind myself that I’m not trying to compete against the collective written-word yield of the entire world, and that although it colossally dwarfs the size of my own efforts, that does not mean anything whatsoever. It has no bearing on me. It is not my yardstick.
In that same way, something I have started doing is when I see someone else’s achievement or good fortune which inspires that pettiest envy in me, I simply say to myself: ‘that’s not my story.’ It’s axiomatic and trite and perhaps even corny, but it bears repeating (especially to oneself, by the trusted authority of oneself.) For me, with my OCD, it’s an essential reminder, an essential recentering. A mantra which frees me from a masochistic comparison-addiction. And it sounds like this… Those other people are not me. They have done what they have done because they are on the path they are on. It’s no failing of mine that I was not able to preemptively poach their exact achievements, because it was never even an option.
I do not think this attitude must lead to complacency or a weakening of ambition though. I believe that competitiveness can still be a valuable trait. But I am, more and more, trying to focus on just competing against myself. This is, after all, the truest level playing field one can ever hope to find.
Now, the first thing to do when outlining any contest is to define the objectives. In my case, those are writing well and writing often. Those are the only things I can really control here. So, there we go. Right off the bat, that’s a very useful narrowing of focus. And the way to ‘win’ consequently becomes obvious:
Strive to write the thing today that I could have just lazily put off until some nebulous ‘tomorrow’ and, forgetting about it, neglect to do forever.
Strive to put that extra effort or time or thought into any given piece of writing I’m working on which makes the difference between producing work of quality and not.
Because if I do those things, it’s score one for me. Against the version of myself who didn’t do them. And you best believe he’s always right there, ready to spring into existence and take my place with a cruel grin.
That’s the all-important competition which looms before me. I must try to become the possible version of myself who achieves my goals and realizes my aspirations, and fight tooth-and-nail to avoid becoming its opposite. Because, oh, that ghostly, hypothetical lazy failure is a real motherfucker. He is not just my adversary; I despise him, he disgusts me.
The only way I can live the life I want to live is by murdering him – or, rather, denying him birth – each and every day.
Morbid? Sure is. But… somehow still less morbid than the alternative. Which is watching, as if from afar in an out-of-body orbit, whilst he replaces me like some sinister doppelganger and maliciously squanders what my life could have been.
And, hey, I wish you luck in daily staring down your own evil would-be usurper and stabbing the shit out of him.
With your productiveness, I mean.
Not a knife.
I repeat, not a knife.