Regular Writers & Artists blogger Lia Louis returns to talk about the ill-effects of the dreaded Comparison-itis, and how it can be overcome...
While the rest of the world seems to be suffering with colds and coughs now autumn germs have scuttled out from hiding, I am suffering with something that can’t be eased with Olbas oil, paracetemol and a long, hard mope: I am suffering with Comparison-itis. Yep. Comparison-itis. You may have never heard of it, but chances are, if you’re a writer, you’d have suffered with it at least once in your life. Or like me, you have an attack of it regularly.
When I talk about comparison-itis I mean to suffer from the following symptoms: the unnecessary, unhelpful, pointless... but totally tantalising action of comparing yourself to published writers, and the subsequent convincing of one's self that you have no earthly business in even attempting to reach their levels.
It's a nasty little bugger, and can be difficult to shift from your system once the ill-effects of the virus take hold. These usually come in the form of thoughts telling you that to quit now before you disappoint and embarrass yourself; that you’re in no way good enough at this writing stuff; that you’re definitely not a proper writer and you should probably burn your manuscript so that you'll finally be free to do something worthwhile with your time.
I have suffered with Comparison-itis ever since I started writing. I have experienced every symptom of it, and been pulled under by it, stopped writing because of it, had days and moments and buzzes killed by it, and had bad, doubtful days made even worse by it. But there’s some good news: unlike a cold or a cough, Comparison-itis is solely self-inflicted. And because we so easily bring it on ourselves, with determination and strength of mind, we can just as easily get rid of it when it strikes.
If you’re a sufferer of Comparison-itis like me, then remembering these four things might prevent those little sparks of doubt taking hold before they become damaging flames:
You can’t compare your final draft to a polished-by-an-army-of-professionals draft
I have never fancied myself as a masochist, but then again, I often do the following: write something I like, that I’m proud of, and then make for the bookshelves, pull off one of my favourite books of all time and compare it to the thing I’m really proud of, which then makes me think, “And I was proud of this ten minutes ago? What? It’s awful. Terrible. The worst thing ever written in history. Why bother? I will never match up to this.” But this is a nonsensical self-destructive thing to do. That thing on the shelf, that you adore, is not just in its final draft state. It’s in it’s polished-by-an-army-of-professionals state. It’s had beta readers, an agent, editors, a team, all working together to help make the book miles better than the final draft. You cannot compare your first, second, third or even final draft to one that’s been through the literary equivalent of an industrial bowling ball polisher, so don’t even try.
Your voice is not their voice, and that’s a good thing
When you have done the above, or if you’ve stumbled upon a winning short story, or an article, or even read a writer friend’s first chapter, and you're convinced that – compared to yours – theirs is a masterpiece and “What’s the point because my writing will never be like this, it’s nothing like mine, and oh, where’s my laptop sledgehammer?”
Remember that it’s actually a good thing.
We can definitely learn from reading others’ writing, look at what they did, how they did it, but every writer has a unique voice, and nobody wants to read something that sounds like someone else. Voices are like fingerprints; each one is different, some similar, but never the same. Your voice is what makes you sound like you on the page, and while we can admire others’ voices, comparing your voice to someone else’s is pointless. You couldn’t sound more like someone else without having to let go of writing in your natural, how-it-comes, authentic way, and that “way” is what will set you apart on your path to being an author. Copying or trying to be someone you're not will not. So don’t. Be true to you, your voice and story at all times.
You’re just on a different rung
It’s easy to see someone’s book deal announcement or competition win and feel a pang of upset – it isn’t you. You’re sitting there, working your arse off, submitting and writing and pissing off your friends because you’ve declined yet another coffee date because you need to hit your self-imposed deadline, and these people are popping up everywhere with their exciting announcements and books in shops. And it is hard, especially when you’re still tapping away, wading through the "thanks, but no thanks" replies, but remember this: you are just on a different rung of the ladder. You may be on the first or second and they're on the eighth, but they – without a doubt – were on those first rungs once, too. They also slogged away, collected rejections like stamps, and were working in silence, watching announcements and books appear around them as they did. Just like you. And they kept at it, and climbed higher and higher, step by step. You’re just at a different stage. Just like a medical student wouldn’t compare their skills to a doctor who has been working for 20 years if they wanted to keep an ounce of sanity, you should not compare yourself to someone who appears to be doing better than you. Podcasts such as The Worried Writer and The Honest Authors' Show are hugely insightful when it comes to the stages (often grueling) authors go through. They’ve been where you are. You’re just on different rungs, and you’ll get there, where they are, if you just keep climbing.
Everything you see is a highlight reel
And finally, a general go-to doubt-stubber-outer to remember above all else when Comparison-itis strikes: everything you see is a highlight reel. The polished books with beautiful covers, gorgeous chunks of prose that are so lovely you want to weep and never write again, winning competition entries, book prize ceremonies, book parties, agent announcements, book deals – all of it – is a highlight reel. Everything you see – everything that makes you compare yourself to other writers writing “better” and doing “better” than you – is a highlight reel. Behind every single one of those dazzling, glistening things is a writer that worked hard – blood, sweat, tears – through all roadblocks and rejections and just kept on trucking. You just don’t see those bits, all the gnarly stuff behind the scenes. You only see the best bits. And you cannot compare your behind-the-scenes, to someone else's highlights.>
Lia is a busy mum of three and currently in the process of writing her second novel. She is the winner of the 2015 ELLE Magazine writing competition and is also studying for a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. Lia lives at home in Hertfordshire, with her boyfriend, four year old, baby twins, and stacks of clothes and books. Find her on Twitter here