Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Competition and Writers

At the end of last year, I'd spent a lot of time pondering Criticism and Writers. This week, having reread those reflections, I realized I didn't have much to add to them after another year amidst the thrill, the chaos and the frequent insanity of being a part of the publishing industry. What was true for me 12 months ago is still true for me now. Although I have to admit, my determination to pull away from the gossiping maelstrom wasn't without consequences...

Two friendships I'd valued came to an end in 2010, both due in part to our having different approaches to dealing with life stressors and criticism. Letting go is rarely easy and that was certainly true in these cases. However, there are times when the path on which we're traveling splits and we have to make a choice if we hope to move forward and live a healthier life. This year was, for me, a reevaluation year, and while there were a couple of losses, there were quite a few more gains. I met some awe-inspiring people and had the pleasure of getting to know better or reconnect with some wonderful friends -- online and off. This year made me even more appreciative of the insightful, compassionate, secure and genuine travel companions who are sharing the journey with me...and I thank you all for that.

Now, as 2011 approaches, my thoughts have turned to a different but marginally related theme: Competition. I had an interesting, somewhat unexpected experience with it in recent months. I was taking part in a multi-author booksigning event and a reader came up to all of us to ask about our novels. Since the reader questioned me specifically about one of my books, I was in the midst of explaining the story's premise to her when the writer to my left jumped in and launched into a description of her own novel. It was a noticable interruption, but I liked the writer and attributed her behavior to a combination of over-eagerness and the simple desire to make a sale.

The reader, however, raised her eyebrows, took a step back and laughed uneasily. "What? Are you guys in competition or something?" she asked. I started to shake my head, but the writer jumped in again and immediately said, "Yes!" Before I could respond, another writer near us said emphatically, "Oh, no! Reading one of our books makes readers want to find others that are similar. It's not a competition." I nodded mutely in gratitude, but found I couldn't put into words all that I was feeling at the time. The issue is complex. It has logical and emotional components, real-world battles pitted against internal, intensely personal ones -- and rarely are all of these addressed. As a result, I haven't been able to get the incident out of my head.

Looking back, I probably should have been offended by the first writer trying to horn in on a potential sale, but I wasn't. I just thought it was ineffective, if it was a strategy (in the end, the reader chose to buy my book anyway), and merely strange, if it wasn't. I'm aware it's a mindset some people can get trapped by -- that whole zero-sum game where all the world is classified into winners and losers. In the realm of the arts, it tends to perplex me more often than not because, IMO, it may be an unavoidable business reality on one level, but it's a fallacy on a dozen others. Yes, there are Amazon rankings and, if someone else's book earns the #1 spot, that means mine will inevitably be lower. If someone else sells the most copies that means mine will sell fewer. If someone else's novel wins the fill-in-the-blank award that means mine won't.

Okay. That's true -- literally. But that's not the only game that happens to be in progress. And in the game that's most often in the forefront of my mind, the win-lose construction is almost...laughable.

Because I already won. I won years ago.

And so did many of you.

I won when I decided to pursue a passion rather than do something I hated. I won when I chose to write stories as honestly as I could whether or not anyone else on the entire planet liked them, understood them or cared about them. I won when the side of me that is grounded in self-belief chose to stand up to the side of me that isn't...or, rather, I've triumphed in a handful of battles against Lack of Confidence but the war is far from over. This much I can tell you about it, though: The end result won't be determined by a royalty statement. Or by the number of GoodReads raves or bashes. Those are irrelevant in the heat of such combat. Tell me, how many "wildly successful" (in the eyes of the society) actors, musicians, writers, athletes, etc., do you know who've crashed and burned when forced to face themselves? That have lost their fortunes, their families, their sobriety or their sanity? Yeah. A lot. So, a focus on comparing sales figures as a measure of success -- while not a wholly worthless endeavor -- is limited in scope when placed alongside all of the truly significant conflicts fought within.

I physically cringe when I see someone setting him- or herself up as some kind of opponent against me. I want to tell them to chill out ("Here, have a cookie!") and to please use their energy more productively. Out of fairness, they should know there's no external competitor in the universe more powerful than somebody's internal demons. The notion of a mere human rival being strong enough to turn my attention away from Fear...well, that's absurd. I wish the real battles were so simplistic.

Alternately, how can anybody put a price tag on having done what one set out to do? On reaching one's intended audience -- no matter the size? What author could possibly "lose" by overhearing a reader tell another author that his/her novel touched them? That a character the other author created was one the reader closely identified with? That the author expressed something for that particular reader that this person couldn't express for him- or herself? How do you quantify meaning and slap a win-or-lose label onto it?

No one will convince me that what's meaningful to 5 people is worth less than what's meaningful to 50. I don't believe that the thoughts and emotions of those 5 can be dismissed just because more people happen to agree on something else. I think of all the times I saw a film or read a book and LOVED it and, yet, my positive opinion was in the extreme minority. Is the fact that it changed my life of less significance than the fact that another film or book changed someone else's? I know more than one book and more than one film have influenced me, but I fail to see where the competition is between them. They were each a gift to my mind and my soul. Each brought me something I needed. Each shared with me a message of value -- even if it only illuminated a tiny corner of some concept. There is no ranking that can be stamped on illumination. Am I the only person that finds such attempts futile?!

Sigh. (Yeah, I'll get off my soapbox now... ;)

Of course, on the materialistic, tangible plane of existence, competition abounds and it's often hard to ignore. Writers can't afford to go on writing if our books don't sell enough copies. Publishers won't take a chance on a debut author without a P&L statement that's in the writer's favor, and they won't pick up our option books if the financial pros don't outweigh the cons. But just because I can't completely close my eyes to the reality of competition in the literary world, it doesn't mean I have wrap my heart around it. I know what I'll remember in old age about being a writer in 2010 will have far less to do with my novels' placement on one list or another than the thrill of knowing I fought off Fear or Lack of Confidence long enough to write something a few people told me they loved...

Wishing you all a 2011 filled with important battles won, meaningful memories created and peace throughout the process. And joy. May the New Year bring you much of that, too!


Pamela Cayne said...

Like your Criticism and Writers post, I'm printing this one off to hang over my computer. And just like last year, I am amazed by your grace and patience, your support and goodwill. If every author were like you in both amazing writing and selfless spirit, this publishing world would be a more beautiful place.

Here's to a wonderful and happy 2011 for all of us!

Marilyn Brant said...

Pamela, you know your friendship and supportiveness has been a gift I've been so grateful for over these past few years...thank you!! I wish you the best 2011 imaginable -- personally and professionally -- and send you virtual hugs and a steaming mug of chocolate chai from Chicago ;). xo

Brett said...

You make so many good points in this post, Marilyn! Most humans do tend to be very competitive by nature, and it's frustrating when soooo often it pans out in such meaningless ways. I always get a chuckle when people "battle" over the climate in their part of the country/world in a conversation that goes something like this: "It's X degrees here today. It's so cold!" "You call that cold? It's Y degrees HERE." (or insert "hot" or "snowy" or whatever in conversations happening all over the place).

Anyway, thanks for reminding us to cherish things that REALLY matter in our lives and ourselves and let go of some of those exhausting battles.

Much peace, love, and happiness to you (and your readers!) in the new year, Marilyn!

Edie Ramer said...

Marilyn, I went back to read Criticism and Writers, and then this one, and Wow! You know how to dig deep.

Perhaps because I'm the middle child of 5, all of us close in age, that I don't feel in competition with other writers. I'm not denying envy, but I don't feel another writer's success will mean that I won't achieve success one day. On the contrary, I think if I'm celebrating the success of an author, that means I believe it can happen to me, too. So the more friends of mine who become successful, the more likely I will be a success.

And, Marilyn, I hope you'll be WILDLY successful. You have the talent and the grace, and I'm grateful to know you.

Maria Geraci said...

Marilyn, this is exactly what I needed to hear (or rather read) today. You are the best:) Thank you for everything.

Marilyn Brant said...

Much peace, love and happiness to you, too, Brettski!! And thank you for our 20+ years of friendship -- priceless ;). p.s. You think Madison has a lake?! I was once in Minoqua and...LOL.

Edie, thank you. Your positive, supportive attitude toward other writers has been inspirational to me ever since we "met" online. I'm honored to count you as a friend and wish you wild success in EVERY sense of the word! To me, you've achieved a tremendous amount of it already, but I hope 2011 has many happy surprises for you, too ;).

Thank you, too, Maria!! You've bolstered my spirits on more than one occasion this year...and I'm so fortunate to have you in my life. Happy New Year :).

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

This was really pretty perfect, and should be required reading, LOL. Thanks for writing it.Happy new Year! Hope to see you in NYC. :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Maggie, it's wonderful to hear from you!! Thanks so much for stopping by, for your lovely New Year's wishes and for being such delightful company at that RWA dinner this summer! And YES on NYC -- looking forward to catching up with you in person again ;).

Susan McBride said...

Marilyn! So wonderfully stated! You have your head on straight, girl, and that's one of the reasons I like you so much (and think you're one of the nicest human beings on the planet). As you know, I am ever grateful your friendship came into my life this past year. It has meant the world to me. :-) So keep on doing what you're doing, writing and spreading your love of words. You are a bright light for all of us!

Kwana said...

Marilyn, What a wonderful post! You have said so much that I needed and so many folks I think need to hear. This should be our own journey and for me the biggest competition should be with fear and kicking it's butt big time! Nothing else should matter.
Thank you for this and for being such a great talent and a supportive presence.

Marilyn Brant said...

Susan, the blessing of having you enter my life in the past year is one I'll always be grateful for! Hugs and thanks for everything, my friend ;).

Kwana, huge thanks to you for always being so warm, supportive and kind! I'm so glad you thought my long ramble made a little sense... This journey is just so relentlessly hard, I'm really thankful I know you and other wonderful writers who share how they feel during all the ups and downs. May 2011 bring you only good things!!

Pamala Knight said...

The penguin pictures are lovely but they don't hold a candle to the words in this post. Like last year's post, this one resonates with hope, wisdom and pathos. For all the struggles you've endured while pursuing your career, I wish you an double amount of success. And the fabulous thing is that I know you'd be happy with much less and that is truly the key--you're so happy with what you've already been blessed with. I'm sad that others can't or won't see that about you.

Again, I'm so lucky to have your friendship and largesse in sharing your journey with not only me, but everyone who stops in to read your thoughts. May 2011 bring you great joy in all your endeavors.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Marilyn, this is simply a beautifully written and true post. It resonated so deeply with me on so many levels. Here in South Africa 2010 and the soccer world cup showed us how much we can achieve if we all work together despite our many, many differences. The same can apply, I think, to the writing/publishing world. Competitiveness is a sad and demeaning state of existence; personal ambition can co-exist with kindness and support. It's all in the attitude. And, as a published author, your attitude is one that is inspiring and admirable. When I grow up into a Published Author, I want to be like you!!!

May 2011 bring you much joy and happiness and many victories in those personal battles over Fear and Self-Doubt, the real enemies in the writing world.

Hamba khale
Judy (South Africa)

tonya kappes said...

Oh your post makes me sooooo sad! I can't believe another author would do that. I had a multi author signing and I was telling all my peeps about how great the author next to me was and is. This is exactly why I started my new adventure beginning tomorrow! It's all about Karma, quid pro quo, I'll scratch your back....etc....
I love your dignity and composure. AND yes, you have won!!

Marilyn Brant said...

Pamala, I am so lucky to have you in my life as both a friend and a writing chaptermate -- you've shared so much with me over these past couple of years, and I greatly look forward to continuing to celebrate with you every exciting milestone along your personal publishing journey. I wish you a *very* happy one and hope 2011 brings you even more gifts than 2010! You know I'm here for you ;).

Judy, thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing your tremendous wisdom with all of us in your blog posts and comments -- I always enjoy and appreciate your perspective. I especially loved the way you phrased this: "personal ambition can co-exist with kindness and support" -- YES!! I can already picture holding one of your future novels in my hands ;). May many dreams come true for you in 2011!!

Tonya, the author next to you at that signing was very fortunate, and I hope she continued the chain of generosity and supportiveness :). I wasn't upset by the author who was next to me -- she wasn't at all mean or antagonistic (*that* would have made me mad!) -- she just seemed caught in a worldview that struck me as shortsighted. Wishing you LOTS of luck -- and good Karma! -- as you begin your new online adventure. I'll be sure to check it out!

For anyone out partying out somewhere tonight -- please drive safely!! And may you all have fun ringing in the New Year :).

Robin said...

Marilyn, you are a true gem, and your words of wisdom and honesty and caring always mean so much to me. This was another awesome post and I feel so very lucky to know you. I admire you so much and am sending you the very best wishes for 2011. Thanks for being such a special friend to me!

Marilyn Brant said...

Robin, likewise!! {{hug}} Thanks for always being so caring and supportive and for bringing such sparkly brightness to both the virtual and the real world ;). Wishing you only happiness and fabulous things in 2011!!

Caryn Caldwell said...

Well said! That's a much better attitude than the competitive woman had. Lots of authors help promote each other, and it benefits them both. Plus if she alienates people, then that can have serious negative results - on book sales, on her number of friends, etc.

Marilyn Brant said...

Caryn, I agree about the potential for alienating people with that attitude... Everything happened on very small scale at the signing, but I do think the reader that came up to us was taken aback by the writer's comments. It was my first time meeting that author, though, so maybe it was just an isolated incident rather than a consistant behavior. I hope so ;).