When The Writers You Don’t Admire Get You Down

It’s one thing to feel disheartened by the greats. At the end of the day you admire them and they’ve earned their stripes. They’re part of the canon.

But then there are the contemporary writers. The ones who are aspiring for greatness just like you, only they’re a little further along in their journey. Scratch the little – they have CVs that cram twenty years’ of achievements into two. Somehow, while you were still scratching your head about whether to take this writing business seriously, they’ve been nominated for more awards that you knew existed. And it seems like they live entirely off fellowships and grants.

As for their actual writing, well, it’s…fine.

Or maybe it isn’t fine. Maybe it’s less than fine. Maybe it’s so palpably not fine that to even use the word ‘fine’ in connection with it is an insult. Maybe it reeks so badly of gimmickry, of overdone themes, of groan-worthy caricatures, of obviously bad prose, that you want to take the next inter-dimensional flight to wherever the Creator lives and demand the last twenty minutes of your life back.

And yet somehow – through black magic, bribery or both – those writers have become literary sensations.

*teeth-gnashing*

I exaggerate, of course. There are many gifted writers out there today, young people several of them. And if they do have stellar publication histories and fellowships and the like, they obviously deserve it. I don’t have to like what they’ve written – they don’t need my approval.

I admit, though, to often feeling jealous of them.

Here’s the deal. The path to literary fame is a lot more democratic than it used to be. You don’t have to toil away in the dark until some bigshot notices you. You can start on your own by sharing your stories online, even if it’s on a personal blog. And honestly, there are so many more literary magazines out there than before that you stand a high chance of getting published somewhere as long as your prose has merit.

At the same time, though, gateways do exist. People with certain backgrounds are likelier to make it as writers than others. For one thing, most of today’s successful writers have literature or writing degrees. Does a degree automatically make one a better writer? Not necessarily. But it is true that people who studied literature, journalism or creative writing in college are much likelier to engage in allied activities after college, and are thus likelier to get in touch with editors and publishers who can give their writing a home. The more they’re published, the likelier they are to get accepted to fellowships or MFAs, which means the likelier they are to get published by major houses (because let’s be honest, getting featured in Random College Grad’s Literary Review is unlikely to make any reading committee sit up with excitement), which means the likelier they are to get award nominations…you get the picture. Meanwhile you’re toiling away at your fiction, spending fortunes on submission fees hoping to get published somewhere (forget Random College Grad, I’ll even take High School Dropout’s Literary Review), spending hours writing application letters for fellowships where the minimum criterion for entry is a Booker Prize shortlist, all while juggling the stress and the sense of inadequacy that inevitably comes with the writing territory.

Jealousy? Completely understandable. At the same time, the usual rules about jealousy being an unproductive green-eyed monster apply. (Plus, it’s plain exhausting to feel venomously negative for more than five minutes at a stretch.)

So how does an ambitious-but-less-advantaged writer move on from their jealousy of the up-and-coming scribes who seemingly have it all?

Remind yourself that their success isn’t at the expense of yours.

You might not want to believe this, but it’s true. Other people being successful does not mean you have a lower shot at making it. It isn’t personal. There’s no pie they’re stealing more of. The world is always open to more fiction, as long as it’s good, and that good fiction could just as well come from you as from Highly Decorated Twenty Something.

Remember that an MFA/Residency/Fellowship is not a guarantee of success.

Lots of people study literature in college, and a fair fraction of them want to be writers. And yet the number of literature students with writing dreams who go on to make waves is actually much lower. Sure, some MFA programmes are better than others and give you more contacts and more exposure. But even at those programmes, not every graduate does equally well. Some end up as one-hit wonders. Some produce a series of semi-successful books that occasionally get long-listed for awards. A whole bunch more simply fade into obscurity. Only a very few really make it to the top – major awards, prestigious teaching appointments, national grants and the like. And those people would likely have made it anyway, even if they hadn’t done the MFA or residency. If you’re here, I’m assuming you want a more enduring career, one that translates to actual, substantial fame. And while you should undoubtedly aim for all the residencies and MFAs you can get (if nothing else for the financial security they offer), bear in mind that they will not guarantee your success. You still need to write excellently – which you can do anyway.

Don’t feel entitled.

This is the part I struggle with every. Effing. Day. That feeling of ‘I’ve been working so hard, I deserve this! How come those writers are getting it and not me?’ or ‘God, a ten-year-old can write better prose, how could a terrible story like this win the award? The jury must have been high on something!’ This is where you have to show yourself some tough love and remind yourself – you don’t ‘deserve’ anything. There are no special allowances for anyone. Within you may lurk enough talent for the world to someday hail you as the next F Scott Fitzgerald, but you need to earn that title just the same. Just like the original F Scott Fitzgerald earned his own repute in his time.

Accept that those writers may, in fact, be great writers.

Here’s something to always remember, now and later, even if you do someday become the next F Scott Fitzgerald – there will always be people ahead of you. Maybe they had better connections, maybe they were in the right place at the right time, maybe what they wrote was thematically in line with what the jury wanted, or you know what? Maybe they’re just better than you. They’ve worked harder at their craft, they have a better sense of rhythm, they can come up with stronger plots. After all, so many prize committees all over the world can’t be dumb, right? Those writers evidently have merit, even if you can’t see it. So you might as well move on from agonising over why they won and not you, and think about how maybe you can improve your own craft so that you have a better chance at winning next time.

Try to learn from those writers.

As if not feeling entitled and having to accept their merit was hard enough, right? Hear me out. Take up a story you don’t like, read through it carefully, and while you do so, try to identify exactly what you don’t like about their prose. Maybe their plot doesn’t move much? Maybe they use too many metaphors or adverbs? Maybe their dialogue is static? The point isn’t to gloat over those mistakes (although no judgement if you do πŸ˜‹). The point is to see what goes into making a story fail – which is, if you think about it, just as important as knowing what makes a story succeed. And the takeaway for you is a better foundation in the things to avoid when putting your own fiction out into the world.

Focus on your unique story.

When it comes to writing, I have neither education nor connections nor work experience. I studied Economics and then Business Management, for reasons that had nothing to do with choice, and I currently make a living writing business articles that are entirely un-creative, albeit interesting on occasion. No one in my family or friend circle has anything to do with the literary world, and most people thought I was stark raving mad to want to be a writer when I could have a cushy job instead. And honestly, I sometimes think I’m mad too. At the same time, I know there is absolutely no rule that says I can’t make it as a writer because of my non-literary background – I just need to work harder to get my first break, that’s all. Plus, I now have unique life experiences that can add flavour to my fiction. Several of the people I met at B-school and my first workplace, for instance, would make highly interesting story characters (for reasons both complimentary and less so). And the loneliness I felt back then makes it much easier for me to write about things like solo travel, living in a remote place, dealing with the loss of family, being a fish out of water, or entering a new job/university/institution with a strong sense that this might make you or mar you. In other words? Think about the perspectives you’ve gained in your journey so far, and apply them – either directly or indirectly – to produce fiction that only you could have written. And trust me, you don’t need MFAs or accolades for that.

What have your own tussles with the green-eyed monster been like? Have you ranted for hours on end about the million ineptitudes in a single prize-winning story (guilty) or have you withdrawn your own submissions to a magazine after discovering that they feature people who’ve basically published the compositions they wrote as a twelve-year-old (guilty)? And what are the things that helped you bounce back again? The floor is yours.

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