Rising to the Top

Rising to the Top

Riding up the world's longest escalator

Riding Up the World’s Longest Escalator

Like most creative fields, writing can get competitive. Inside the writing community people may congratulate a success to one’s face and then curse them behind their back. People build someone up and tear others down. It’s my least favorite thing about creative communities, but usually an inevitable element of them.

So why am I talking about this?

Because I feel this is a huge issue that impacts writers of all levels and has a negative effect on our community, because I want to support the successes of other writers and have them support mine. I want us to grow together and expand what is currently out there, what is currently seen as possible.

When you come into a graduate program, the hope is that you make connections to people who will support you as you grow, who will help you professionally, who will be your readers long after you graduate, but there also might be an air of competition. Competition can make you grow and excel if it’s friendly, or can turn writers against one another and grow malicious.

I’m lucky in that I am very close with my cohort and our work is all so different that oftentimes our differences drive us to grow and to succeed. I have heard from friends in other programs in other states or different ones within this city it isn’t always like that. I have seen it first hand in some cases. People don’t mesh for whatever reason and a cloud of negativity lingers and has potential to suffocate.

Today I was talking with a friend from undergrad with who is now attending an MFA in another state. In light of a writer we both knew getting a fantastic book deal, he was frustrated and told me he was tired of knowing so many successful people, the subtext being that he hadn’t experienced this type of success yet and was resentful.

changing seasons

Changing Seasons

I haven’t experienced it yet, either, but I am mostly okay with it. And I told him why:

I get it. I really do. It can be frustrating to see others rewarded and you’re left wanting, despite all the work you’ve put in. I’ve been there. Sometimes I’m still there, but I’ve also come to realize that when people within my community succeed, it gives me greater insight into how to do it myself. It makes me realize it’s possible and pushes me to work harder.

I am absolutely interested in success, in getting that book deal, but I’m also interested in honoring my craft. I want to be proud of what I publish. And if it takes a little longer, so be it.

I told him about a conversation I had recently with a writer who has a book deal with a major publishing house. The writer told me they’ve seen some folks that get their first book picked up very early on, and but that’s the peak for some of those writers, and they don’t go much further, still trying to ride on that first success.

Now, I hope this isn’t the case for either of these writers, and I don’t believe it will be, but success can go to one’s head, especially in a competitive field where public recognition is the main marker of success. If you’re not careful, that lure can become the impetus behind one’s work, and that’s something we all could use a reminder of from time to time when frustration or jealousy rears its head.

There’s a reason I’m here: to learn more about my writing and the writing of others, not just to help me get that sweet book deal down the road, but to help me envision what boundaries I might press against, what conventions I might challenge, and what works my own work is in conversation with. Success isn’t something that you get overnight or after putting in a specific period of time. Commercial success may be a byproduct of solid work, but isn’t necessarily the end goal, though it sure would be nice. Our primary jobs as writers are to honor language and ideas, to connect with readers, to inspire thought, or even to motivate political or social change. Getting a best seller isn’t on that list, though I think we can all agree that would be amazing.

Fall Days downtown

Fall Days Downtown

“Basically,” I told him, “it takes time, so keep going. I’m rooting for you.”