Comparison is the thief of joy

Jan 23, 2023 | Writing

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this saying, lately. I can say with certainty, at least in my own case, it’s depressingly true.

Here’s my own recent experience: 

I’m now working on my second Peter Churchill forensic linguistic mystery while my first, A MAN OF TWISTED WORDS (working title), is making the rounds at several publishing houses. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this waiting game is anything but angst-producing. Waiting is hard. Harder than hard, for someone who hates to be in limbo. And that’s ME.

During Christmas and New Year’s, with all the hubbub and busy-ness that is part and parcel of that time of year, I was having a crise de confiance… a self-confidence crisis. Words wouldn’t flow. My characters felt like cardboard replicas or stick figures. My scenes dribbled tension into stagnant puddles on the page. As I re-read my five daily pages the next morning, I’d shred four-and-a-half. It felt as though my Writing Muse had vanished, and I found myself whinging, “This is all pathetic drivel. I can’t write a decent sentence. I’ll never get an offer from a publisher!

I felt like despairing of EVER finding that joy in selecting the perfect word, the heat-rending scene, the tension-grabbing action.

Did I mention that I hate being in limbo?

After a day or two of “Poor Me’s,” I changed course. How can I find the excitement and fun of writing GOOD PAGES, once again? I decided to give myself three weeks filled with the sublime luxury of reading just for fun. Reading favorite authors… old, new-ish, and debut. Three weeks of reading for fun. I turned it into a game. I made a list of authors and books that I wanted to read—or re-read—and wrote them on slips of paper. I pulled them out bingo-style from a Waterford crystal bowl. (This was a gift to myself—and I figured I might as well do this activity with some style).

In no particular order, nor rhyme, nor reason (I feel the need to specify this as I have so many favorites, of which the below list represents a very small number) I drew out the following:

  • Agatha Christie (Murder of Roger Ackroyd)
  • Dick Francis (To the Hilt)
  • Ann Cleeves (Raven Black)
  • Tana French (In the Woods)
  • Paula Munier (Blind Search)
  • Louise Penny (How the Light Gets In)
  • G M Malliet (Death at the Alma Mater)
  • Richard Osman (Thursday Murder Club)
  • Deborah Crombie (A Share in Death)
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan (Her Perfect Life)
  • Elly Griffiths (The Crossing Place)
  • D. James (Cover Her Face)
  • Damyanti Biswas (The Blue Bar)
  • Mary Kubica (Just the Nicest Couple)
  • Arturo Perez-Reverte (The Club Dumas)

It was a lovely hiatus from conjuring up my own words to luxuriating in the brilliant examples of the mystery genre by these authors. It would take forever for me to comment on all the gifts that the reading/ rereading of these books gave me. Let me just say that none… not a one… disappointed me. All gave me insights into different aspects of great mystery writing.

Yet, on one gloomy, gray, cold, Austin December day, I realized I had started wilting… feeling, once again, rather inadequate. I said to my husband, Bruce, who’d been watching me read… happily and daily:

 “I’m a terrible writer.” 

 “And why are you feeling that way?”

“These authors are brilliant and I’m loving their books so much. Then, look at mine.

I’m nowhere near as talented. I’ve gone back and forth and can see everything that makes theirs so compelling. And mine… fall far short.” Whine, whine, whine….

“Nan, you’re looking at their published books, after multiple revisions, some after multiple published prior books. Stop comparing. It’s not a fair comparison. Now get back to work… you love to write. Write your own magic.”

Comparison is the thief of joy. And it was.

I have my own style. I have my own flow, characters, plot and expertise. It’s not theirs… nor should it be. I can love reading these authors. I can get tips as I see how they maneuver their red herrings, characterizations, descriptions, settings, pace and dialogue.

But I now have a newly found joy: Make my own magic. Use my own words and characters to make a page-turning read. And, exuberantly read, read, read, all these incredible authors (and more) with admiration and passion… aware that they have a gift. As do I. 

If you’ve ever felt as I had been feeling… just remember, don’t compare. Make your own story, make your own magic, and believe in your own words.

And while I’m still trudging up the Publication Mountain… It’s my job to find the joy in making my own words sing.

Happy reading and writing everyone… find your own joy in your own—or others’ words.