The road to publication, from what I’ve observed, is composed of long-distance endurance runs, a few sprints sprinkled in, then periods of pausing to wait. And wait, and wait. For some, publication has happened, but the road goes on, with more long-distance runs, more sprints, often more waiting. At the moment I’m engaged in waiting (KINDRED) and running (WILLA), a mental image that bends this writing/road journey analogy back on itself like a pretzel, but never mind!
There are lots of other writers on this road, each running their own race. No one is in competition with anyone else. We run against ourselves. Or that’s how it should be, and how I want it to be for me. Recently I had an email conversation with a writer friend, about reading novels by writers who we see as having traveled farther down that road of learning and perfecting the craft than we have. Then there are those writers who seem to have started out with more natural talent than we could ever hope to possess no matter how hard we train.
When I’ve encountered such novels, I’ve noticed a pattern of response. Part of me is thrilled to have found a writer that stirs in me a longing to have written that book, that passage, that sentence, even that phrase. And another part of me simply, basely, is envious. There usually comes a moment of thinking “why do I even bother? I’ll never be this good.” But that brief discouragement is quickly replaced by, “But maybe I could be….” And I’m fired up to do that much better with my own writing. To dig deeper into character, or pay more attention to craft, to throw out that tired simile and find a fresh one, one that only my character, in her time and place and circumstances, would use. To do my utmost to (in the words of Madeleine L’Engle) “serve the work.”
And I think this is a perfectly natural part of the growth process, as a writer. I won’t say don’t compare, because I don’t think that’s possible. I can’t help but do so with nearly every historical I read, but it’s important to keep a right perspective when I do. When I compare myself to another writer and feel my own work is wanting, I try to figure out exactly what they’re doing that I want to be doing and if I can, let it expand my horizon. Are they using dialogue more suited to the time period than I do? Then I need to refresh my inner ear by reading a few more letters or journals from the time period, to better capture its flavor. Is there such rising tension, chapter by chapter, that I can’t stop turning the pages? Then I need to study how they pulled it off, and probably read all the Tension chapters in my writing craft books again.
I accept that this writing journey is a never-ending road. Seeing other writers way ahead of us on the journey shouldn’t discourage, but inspire, and provide a point to aim for (and not with our arrows!). I want to be stretched, painful as that can be sometimes. Reading prose that sparkles and sings and fills me with joy and reminds me why it is I ever wanted to write a book in the first place is one of the best means I know of to make it happen.If the work comes to the artist and says, “Here I am, serve me,” then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve…. And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully. ~ Madeleine L’Engle