Archive for December 2019

How do you cope with comparing yourself to your peers?

In response to the brilliant writer Mollie Goodfellow, who tweeted earlier:

Q: How do you cope with the whole comparing yourself to your peers and the “what if they are better than me and I should just stop trying” thing

A: Given the conversations I have had with many fellow artists I have had over the years, I think that it is totally normal and natural to compare ourselves to our peers. It can be a way of charting our own progress. Being an artist is a strange thing. It is possible that you will never receive any kind of recognition or payment for your very best work, and if you do receive recognition or payment that can come many years later. I have so many examples of that. It can also be the case, as an artist, that the best thing you ever do is refuse work which to you is unethical. A lot is expected of artists – we are expected to distract and entertain and take moral stands and sometimes all three. At the same time we aren’t funded very well because our careers are often seen as an indulgence, sometimes even by those who commission our work.

As you know, making a living as an artist can be tough, and unending rejection is part of it. So is public humiliation. I have almost lost count of the unsuccessful attempts that I have made at creative projects. Many people might read my work and think, what is he complaining about, he gets published widely, but I can say honestly that the work of which I am most proud has never been published. If I had not published a book of my own poetry, it would have remained unpublished – no-one would touch it. (That wasn’t good for my ego, but at least it is out there.) I am not a literary genius – my God, I wish that I was. Most of the time, the answer to my work is No. 

But back to you, Mollie. I could tell you truthfully that I think your talent is extraordinary and there are many times that I screenshot your work and send it to my friends. “Probably the funniest account on Twitter”, I tell them. I would also know that that would be no consolation. What I will tell you now is the approach that has worked for me, and I hope that it is helpful.

There are several Post-It notes on the wall above my desk as I type this, and the most prominent one says: “We do the best we can in the time that is given to us”. Every day I remind myself why I first became a writer. I became a writer because, long before the days of peer pressure and who got a book, TV or film deal and who didn’t, there was this desire to express endless things about the world, what made it bad, what made it beautiful. I became a writer to express. And the more that I look around at society, at the planet, I see all the people who just never had a chance – not only the ones going through unimaginable hardship in countries far away, but also those in my own extended family, or those friends who passed away many years ago. And I think to myself, somehow I have carved myself out just enough room in this cruel world to find myself in front of my laptop and the opportunity to distract and entertain and take a moral stand, even if that is just on Twitter. And maybe I am not as good as my peers, in fact I can give you a very long list of all the reasons I am not as good as most of my peers, some of them down to their vastly superior work ethic and some of them down to their vastly superior talent, but what I can definitely tell you is that I am still here and I will keep going and I will never ever stop. Even if one day I end up writing part-time I will always find a way to create new work and I hope that you do too. Because a world where someone as gifted and compassionate as you is no longer making work is a much worse world for it.