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Cucumbers Versus Grapes

Since we’re writers, we are to blame. The narrative arc is so ingrained that we only tell our stories of struggle when we have a resolution. We start with after. After we overcame. After we picked ourselves up off the arena floor. Whether relating an anecdote to a friend or curating our online “museum of me, me, me” (copyright Andre Dubus III), we relay the success that came from the struggle and reserve the thick of the struggle for select few, if any.

I get it. It’s hard to take a selfie when you're face down in the muck. It’s hard to be vulnerable. Hey, I’ve had a number of vulnerability hangovers after sending out these letters. I get it.

So, this isn’t a call to overshare. But it is a call to be aware of the trouble that comes when we read the struggle-to-success stories of other writers’ writing lives and cue the comparisons. By the way, this applies to both negative and positive comparisons.

Such comparisons generally happen with writers we consider our peers. A friend gets her manuscript picked up or wins a writing contest, and a thought creeps in, Why her and not me?

At lunch with a poet the other day, she told me about the experiment where all the monkeys are given a cucumber as a reward. They are happy to carry on performing a task for this payment...until one of them gets a grape.

I don’t always like grapes—they can be too sweet or too sour—but I have seen writers with grapes that I want, just because they have one. Why did he get that great distribution for his novel and not me? (Hmm...could it be because I haven’t written a novel?)

Thinking like this is always an indication that my writing life has lost its bearings. I am not even aware of what I want. I just cast a jealous net, and get tangled up in other writers’ success stories. I don’t pay attention to myself, the world, or to where I want to be in it.

Yet, paying attention is our gift as writers. That’s the good news. Along with our propensity for narratives that resolve, we have the tools of compassion and understanding. We can remind ourselves that behind every polished post is someone’s struggle to show up and write.

We can listen to ourselves and pay attention to what we want to achieve with our writing.

Last week, I interviewed vital, funny, deeply thoughtful, Eufemia Fantetti about a bunch of writing things for Room magazine. After our conversation, which veered into the comparison trap, she shared this quote with me:

Never compare your journey with someone else's. Your journey is YOUR journey, not a competition.

Never compare your journey with someone else's. Your journey is YOUR journey, not a competition.

Of course, I immediately compared myself to “Anonymous” and started thinking about how much more succinct she is in her writing advice. Then again, I don’t know the struggle that went into writing that epigraph.