One of the bon mots of the positive thinking movement goes something like “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with other people’s highlight reels.” As sayings go and as a product of the positive thinking movement, which can go way too far (The Secret Q.E.D.), this isn’t a bad one as its general intent is a reminder that people tend to show their best to the world and if you compare your struggles to everyone else’s best you are bound to come up wanting.
This is not to say that comparing ourselves isn’t a good thing. It’s a human and absolutely necessary thing in almost any endeavor in life. Comparison tells us whether or not we’re hewing to social norms, or by how much we’re missing them. When done constructively comparison also gives a standard to which we want to aspire or surpass.
Comparison is particularly hard to avoid in a stats-driven society. How does this baseball pitcher compare with other pitchers on his team? In his league? To himself the previous year? What was your grade point average last year? Where does it rank you compared to the rest of your class? Numbers control who wins elections and who loses. But comparison happens even when you’re looking at something that isn’t trackable with numbers and stats.
Comparison is how we determine if we, or something we’ve produced, is “good enough” and while in some forms of art comparison is pointless – try comparing a Monet to a Van Gogh sometime and see how far you get – in some art forms comparison is both useful and necessary because it not only helps you aspire it also teaches you.
“Read anything and everything but particularly the type of books you want to write” is one of the things writing teachers tell beginning and intermediate writers. The idea is to learn from those who are theoretically better than you (they must be better than you; they’ve been published and you haven’t). The idea is also to learn what works and what keeps readers coming back to an author.
It seems kind of harsh but teachers in all artistic disciplines say the same thing; film students spend hours in the dark studying Citizen Kane and Blade Runner not because they are the mythical perfect entertainment ala the film in Infinite Jest. No, film students spend hours watching these movies because they display clear examples of certain cinematic techniques. If you can’t learn how to position a camera to show a character as powerful just by watching Citizen Kane a switch to Accounting as a major might be in order.
So compare myself to the authors I read, I do. I even compare the authors I read to themselves on occasion. Take The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. This is the second collaboration by these two men and while I have never read Baxter other than the first book in this series (The Long Earth) I have read Pratchett…almost all of Pratchett…and I can spot a Pratchett-ism from across the room. They are lovely and comforting even when making you uncomfortable with how you view the world. Pratchett has a way of turning a phrase or sketching a character that is simultaneously clever and organic, which is no mean feat because cleverness is in many ways the antithesis of organic. The Long War while interesting was edited in such a way as to strip out most of those sign-posts of who wrote what. Oh, there are flashes of Pratchett, characters, mannerisms, and phrases that would be at home in any Discworld book. Indeed, I have no problems seeing Sally Linsey and Sam Vimes having a cold one at the local pub.
The problem with reading broadly and comparing myself to what I read is I often find myself measuring against yardsticks that meet all of the accepted markers of success – publication, wide reader acceptance and return rate – but in truth aren’t of that high a quality.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. starring Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Julianne Moore is what I call a “middle of the road” movie, though a fairly smart one about mostly adults struggling with how to be authentic in the world. It has decent character arcs for most of the characters, though Julianne Moore does get a little short-changed. The basic premise: Cal (Carrell) is forty-something and living the dream. Good job, nice house, married to his high-school sweetheart, his oldest child Hannah (Stone) launched successfully into the world and his youngest Robbie (Jonah Bobo) developing into a quirky, albeit nice, teenager, Cal’s world is ripped apart when his wife Emily (Moore) tells him not only has she been having an affair with co-worker (a utterly underused Kevin Bacon) but she also wants a divorce after 20-something years of marriage.
Launched alone into the dating world with no recent in experience on which to draw, Cal is taken in hand by Jacob (Gosling) a player and ladies man extraordinaire he meets one night while sulking at a local bar. Jacob transforms Cal in true Eliza Doolittle fashion opening his eyes to how far he as “fallen” as a man, a husband, and probably as a lover by neglecting his appearance, style, an attitude when it comes to the woman in his life. Through an absolutely beautiful shopping montage, Jacob transforms Cal’s whole wardrobe and his approach to presenting himself to the world though Cal does put up some resistance.
While Jacob starts out as a pure Alpha-male stereotype, a real asshole in fact, he pushes Cal to realize that it’s OK and even necessary to have standards when you’re in a relationship. If you don’t make the effort, there’s no reason for anyone to pay attention to you. He makes Cal realize he’s been measuring himself by the wrong yardsticks.
Nora Roberts is a hugely successful romance author who has had published an obscene number of volumes. Writing as J.D. Robb she created the near-future set “In Death” series of romantic mysteries in which she has published 36 volumes alone with a 37th due for publication this winter. The writing in these books goes down like a Twinkie. Easily digested with a certain amount of pleasure value but very little actual nutrition. Roberts also has a habit of doing something that my writers’ group routinely jumps on when it appears in any member’s writing: she switches point of view in a single scene (aka: “head hopping”).
One of the key principles of good fiction is point of view has to remain consistent. It’s the only way a reader can know what’s going on and to do otherwise isn’t third person omniscient it’s just bad writing, especially when you’ve started out in third person limited and you spend most of your dialogue having characters exchange information. I get why she does it. For the genre it allows her to indulge the narrative trope of giving the reader a glimpse of the internal life of the lead character’s love interest. But even though I understand why it’s there, it’s still bad writing.
If you follow the standard advice to read broadly and that you can learn even from bad writing that is hugely popular, it becomes difficult to pick the right yardstick by which to measure yourself. Aim too high (Terry Pratchett, Elmore Leonard, John Steinbeck) and your writing will never measure up. Aim too low and you end up with the literary equivalent of, well, mom-butt. You end up with “good enough” when what you want to be is “as good as possible.”
For me, right now, Nora Roberts’ work as J.D. Robb is my The Gap. I’ve got a ways to go, but I think I can get there and maybe, eventually, start challenging myself in my comparisons.