Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Positive Jealousy: When Comparison Helps

You've heard it said that comparison is the thief of joy. In many ways, I feel that I could look in the corners of the Antipodes and not find a truer saying. When I give in to comparing my life to other peoples' lives, my body type to that of other women, my income to others' income, my relationship status to someone else's, my indie-publishing to that blogging-friend's big-publisher book contract, the joy ebbs like a low-tide. But there is one way in which comparison has served as a catalyst for inspiration. See, the amusing burden of being a reader and a writer is this: one spends half one's time thinking:
"Golly, what a phrase. Wish I'd thought of it first."
My most common thought while reading is not, "Oh, what a lovely book! I'd like to read more like it." Rather, it's much more of a, "What a killing plot. I'd like to write something like this in my genre before anyone else does." I am only halfway in jest. My best ideas are always already in the works. Isn't that terrible? Two days before hearing about Liam Nisson's film, Non-Stop, I said to a friend while crossing a downtown city street:
"You know what'd make a great mystery? A murderer committing his crimes on a plane."
Well thank you, Hollywood, for stealing my thunder. So although I still appreciate a good book for a good book's sake, I try to harness that honest enjoyment and make it work for me. Wild horses may not be able to drag secrets, but they can certainly drag me a few miles before giving it up as a bad job. I have learned to use this "positive jealousy" to understand more about a given genre. I keep a list when reading mystery novels to note what tactics this author seems to be using to reveal clues, corral suspects, and work out the denouement. By this, I hope to learn how to write a better mystery novel.
Obviously I don't intend to copy any author wholesale but I see nothing wrong in learning where their road went right and benefitting from the general trailblazing spirit. What a stupid lot the pioneers would have been if they insisted on cutting their own Oregon Trail. Rather, the whole group worked off of their own and others' prior experiences, wisdom, and knowledge of the way. The ruts of their wagon-wheels can still be seen in some parts of the prairies today. That's called teamwork. Avail yourself of it.

Perhaps the best moments of this useful jealousy come to me when I am standing in the children's section of Barnes & Noble or other bookstores like it. Try as I might to be a grown-up, there is something about children's books that I find utterly irresistible. I never walk down the contemporary fiction aisle. I skip science fiction entirely. Romance? I wouldn't know where to begin with all the covers that look identical and promise hunky heroes and willowy heroines who, no matter the direness of their circumstances, always inherit a dukedom and the arrogant duke to go along with it. Of course the heiress ditches the duke in favor of a humble peasant who, after the suitably humble wedding, realizes he is a marquis in real life. Bad luck, Duke-y darling. Anyway. Groping my way to the children's section via P.G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, and the mysteries, I stand strangely dry-mouthed in the presence of my childhood incarnate. The feeling that my creative and artistic breakthrough which, like the Fountain of Youth or Eldorado, must be just around the next cape or continent or end-cap, is nearly palpable. Have you never felt it? It thrums around me...
The sense that I could write The Book With No Pictures if BJ Novak hadn't done it first.
That Harv Tullet simply beat me to the fingerpaints with his Press Here.
That Lemony Snicket's wit is only my own, rather scalded by life and choosing to laugh through the pain.
That A.A. Milne is my kinsman.
That Newberry Honor Medals are handed out like gold stars for participation.
Of course I soon realize that success is not quite as even-handed as indie publishing would have me believe. The Book With No Pictures is brilliant because BJ Novak did the nearly-impossible and made accessible to millions something so obvious none of us could see it. A way to teach children to adore the written word for mental pictures it can conjure: show them a good time with not a single picture by putting the adult on display and pointing out the fact for the kid's edification: "You just had a blast without asking once to see the pictures. Get it now?"
Making an obvious abstract tangible for the laymen and children among us is a terrific and talented effort. I applaud Novak and Tullet and Mo Willems and so many other authors of the children's books coming out today for their creativity in story-telling, art, and an understanding of children. Their work reminds me that there are authors as talented and inspiring as Margaret Wise Brown, or Margaret and H.A. Rey, or Ludwig Bemelmens, or Kay Thompson in the present day. And more to come. We are still going strong, we race of authors. Not all of us will gain a place in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of children...not all of us will so impact someone's childhood that they stand in that section Barnes & Noble reliving their childhood through the dear book-faces on the shelf. But some of us will. Some of us will....and I could be one of those.
That is why I say comparison is not always the thief of joy. I am given a gift when jealous inspiration thinks, "You know, if I just keep working, I can do that too." Harness it. Follow it. Let it drag you across genres and art mediums and indie publishing and query letters and rejections and contract offers. Let it have you. Experiment. Enter contests you'll never win. Write in a tone that is unlike anything you've used before. Choose a chancey subject and write it well. Or try. Fail and try again. And again. You never know when you'll find that Eldorado. The brain has so many, many trails to blaze.

So here's to standing gape-mouthed in book stores. Here's to relentlessly pursuing creativity. Here's to blazing the trails together. And here's to applauding those who have written the literature that has affected our lives from the moment we realized what stories were. May we all try our hardest to be like them and add to the beauty of literature.


Abby said...

So true! I really agree. I especially like your point about the pioneers. Why oh why couldn't I have written this post first? (Kidding, kidding :)

Joy said...

BRAVO, Rachel! I agree so much :D
When I feel jealous of an author's skill, or what he/she was able to achieve in a great work, it simply inspires me to try and do what I can too, to one day write something amazing and brilliant and breathtakingly stirring like that. . . :D

Anonymous said...

This post is so beautiful and inspiring, Rachel. Thank you so much for it! I agree that healthy competition can really help. Good books inspire me to write, but they can also be a discouragement if they "stole" my idea. However, this also forces me to come up with a way to put a unique twist on my idea, which ends up making it so much better. And of course no matter what I think, there will always be new ideas that send me straight to my notebook or laptop to write.