Why Does Writing Feel Like a Competition?
The experience of writing is unique for all writers—some write at the kitchen table with the bustle of family around and some rent a cabin and write in seclusion.
Some write with excellent posture at their beautiful antique desks, and others write from the comfort of bed with a 15 year old whiteboard as their make-shift desk (guilty).
The writing community is full of independent people with independent writing processes—and so it can be easy to feel that when you succeed, you succeed alone, that when you fail, you fail alone... and by extension, that it's your writing up against everyone else's. Hierarchies permeate every aspect of life, and while they serve a purpose, I find the competition they create gets in the way of what writing is supposed to do—connect people.
In a world where resources and opportunities feel finite—after all, there is a limited number of bursaries, writing awards, mentorships, contests, and publishing opportunities—it's easy to get swept up in the idea that other writers are the competition, even the enemy, and that only one can get the gold.
Sometimes it feels that there is a cap on praise in the world, and that if your work doesn't get gold in the eyes of a judging panel then it isn't worthy of being told at all. I think this belief is an illusion. If you've written something that touches someone else, that reaches someone else, you've got gold. You've done your job.
This culture of competition can cloud writer's view of themselves; it can amplify the self-doubt that writers are prone to feeling and it can bring out an ugly, bitter side born out of the desire to be validated, to be good enough.
Jealousy is a normal feeling, especially where passion is concerned, but it can be easy to let those feelings get out of control and develop into bitterness that the voices being showcased aren't yours, that the stories being told aren't yours.
I've seen jealousy, disappointment, and self-doubt drive a lot of nasty behavior in writer's circles—writer's ranking each other, questioning the talent and commitment of each other, tearing each other down. I've been in plenty of creative writing classes where some people let the power of the critique get to their heads and use their moment of authority as an opportunity to cruelly criticize. I've seen people sit back and accept detailed and helpful critiques but give back blank stories—as though their own work is worthy of help but not anyone else's.
A Note on the Benefits of Competition:
There are indisputable benefits of a competitive environment for some people, writer's included. Some people are driven to be the best of everyone, and some people are driven to be the best they can be themselves. For some, a competitive spirit pushes them to new and greater heights! But for others, it can drive them into the pits of despair.
I think competition done right in a writing context is taking inspiration from the success of other writers and letting it drive you to improve your own craft in order to outrank yourself! Just remember that constantly comparing yourself to other people can also be damaging. No two people write the same. So don't try to be anyone but yourself. The world needs YOUR stories, written the way YOU write.
So, What Is the Solution to Competition?
The solution to the feelings of isolation and self-doubt faced by every writer is simple. It's community.
A supportive community that collectively recognizes the beauty of story-telling in of itself, that encourages you to continue developing the art and craft of writing despite where your work falls on a judging panel, and that helps you bounce back after failure and celebrates with you when you find success is vital to combating the loneliness, bitterness, jealousy and negativity that competition tends to inspire.
This is how I see it—all stories deserve to be told. All stories deserve a fair chance. And as a writer, you can choose to tear down other writers or help them. You can choose to be inspired by the success of other writers, or you can choose to be jealous.
So, where does building community start?
For so many of us, it starts in creative writing class either in primary school, secondary school, or post-secondary school. Truthfully, I remember exactly who gave me balanced feedback, commenting with kindness, sincerity, honesty, and encouragement and who tore apart my writing, wrote cruel and thoughtless comments, or handed back blank drafts. I remember who suddenly went silent when I entered the classroom and smirked to their friends on days when my critique came, and who smiled at me and said they were excited to discuss my work.
I am positive you can guess who I choose to reach out to now, and surround myself with, and bring into my personal community.
These exchanges are the first chances you have to build a community—to bolster others, support them, and find a common purpose through the deep-felt desire to tell great stories. You can choose to develop friendships or alienate others. The fact remains, the choice is yours.
Just because the experience of writing is one often done alone doesn't mean that it needs to be a lonely pursuit. Writing is not done in a vacuum—writing responds to writing that came before. Stories respond to stories. So don't be afraid to make connections.
How to Create Community!
1. Attend literary events / Volunteer at literary events.
Here in Calgary, there are two major annual literary festivals—When Words Collide & Wordfest.
In the past I volunteered at When Words Collide and was able to meet some wonderful people with similar interests. And, I was able to talk with writing experts and purchase products that help me write to this day—for example, I met Angela Ackerman and purchased some of the Writer's Thesaurus's she created with Becca Puglisi, such as The Emotion Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Check our their website, www.writershelpingwriters.net for truly excellent writing advice.
Last year, I purchased a full pass to the Wordfest festival, held in October, and attended as many events as humanly possible so I could learn about what is going on in the broader literary community, get the chance to hear and support marginalized voices such as Indigenous voices, and of course, support writers through purchasing books!
2. Join a writer's group—either in person, or on facebook!
There are usually plenty of writers groups you can find through Facebook that either meet up in person in your local town or city (usually at coffee shops!) or meet online (homemade coffee!).
3. Attend creative writing class / writing retreats & keep in touch with people.
I love creative writing classes, and I think they can help writers of every level improve. Writing retreats, like creative writing classes, are a time to focus solely on the craft. Further, some writers benefit from having deadlines set by these types of classes or retreats. The people you will meet in these environments share an important common interest, and if you connect with someone you meet there, keep in touch!
4. Intern, volunteer, or work for a literary magazine—get involved!
Virtually every city has some form of publication body, whether it be a newspaper section, a lively blog, or a literary magazine! I encourage writers looking for a sense of community to volunteer or intern for the local publishing body. There are levels of community, so why not start with the local level!
5. Join your local writers' guild.
Writers' guilds can guide writers towards valuable resources—such as beta readers and editors—and provide publishing or mentorship opportunities. Further, they organize writer events, such as webinars, open mic nights, galas, and so much more. They also usually send out original newsletters with information about the local literary community. If you are located in Alberta, seriously consider joining the Writers' Guild of Alberta! (Check them out at https://writersguild.ca/).
At the end of the day, I truly believe that the positive aspects of a writerly community are the best anecdote to the negative aspects of competition.
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