10.17.2014

I Want What She's Got: The Disastrous Comparison Game


There's a thief among us in the writing community: this thief is insidious, harmful, and causing an enormous amount of heartache, pain, and angst. And worst of all, this thief is stealing writers' ability to write.  What is this thief?   
       
credit: chibird.com
The compulsion to compare oneself to others.                                                                                               I write, but they write better. I have completed a manuscript, but they have an agent. I have an agent, but they have a publishing deal. I have a publishing deal, but they have marketing. I have marketing, but they have a publicist. I have...but they have. I have...but they have. I have...but they have....                                                                                             Where does it stop? It has to stop with the writer who decides not to play the game. It has to stop with the writer who decides to trust themselves and their decisions. It has to stop with the writer who decides to turn off the noise. It has to stop with the writer who is able to say, "The only writer to whom I should be comparing myself is the writer I was yesterday." The cost of the obsessive, high-stakes "I have...but they have" game is just too great: Creativity is floundering. Craft is being overlooked. Imagination is impotent. Dreams are being derailed. 

I suppose there is such a thing as "healthy comparison," but I don't know anyone who's healthy enough to master such a thing--is anyone really that healthy? Theodore Roosevelt cautioned, "Comparison is the thief of joy," and I think we must take heed. We must, as a community, be diligent protecting ourselves from such a thief. We must recommit to nurturing and nourishing something extremely delicate and precious--the artist's craft, the artist's imagination, the artist's vision, the artist's dream. Something extremely delicate and precious...and incomparable. And if you find yourself being dealt a hand in the "I have...but they have" game? Fold, walk away, and go back to that place that matters most: your writing. There's nothing in the world worth putting that in jeopardy.



(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc

83 comments:

  1. Love this. I am on a constant rollercoaster of doing a great job of keeping my eyes on my own paper (the highs) and looking at everyone around me and comparing myself (the lows). It's so hard to stay focused on only your own journey when we're trying so hard to market and promote, but to do so in a way that includes engaging with others and that means being on social media and seeing everyone's posts and successes. Which I am so happy for, of course! I love seeing my friends succeed and books doing well in general. But then you start comparing yourself, and whammo. The cycle starts over. Le sigh. Comparison is truly the thief of joy, no doubt about it.

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    1. It's so very hard! Thanks for your honest and thoughtful comments.

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  2. I think it's normal - but honestly - I quit a long time ago. I remember thinking "wow - she's published" and "Wow, he's got it made and . . . ." as I've come to know people and their careers intimately I realized that every book for most authors - even those who are published - feels like starting at square ones. Some of my well published friends still pile up rejections in volumes. Those i put on a pedestal are having to face "yes - but what's your ROI" every time they go to acquisitions. And the sitting at booksignings wondering if anyone will line up. Or wondering if you should spend your advance on marketing - or the mortgage and food. a

    And the biggest problem with all of this is I've seen people so desperate to have what they think is the prize - that they sign with the wrong editor or agent, compromise their vision and writing, and end up worse than if they had not sold anything.

    This is a wonderful joyful business. It can also be a lonely one fraught with insecurities. Butt in chair - eye on your own paper - is probably the best advice. Coveting what someone else has often means we don't fully understand that we "project" success on to someone who may not be feeling it (or even experiencing it) with the same technicolor vibrancy that we think is there when viewing from the outside.

    If people want to see a "film" version of the "game" - Watch the older film Hollywood Shuffle by Robert Townsend - especially when he almost compromises himself to get what he's always thought was the holy grail. Best - movie - ever! :-)

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    1. Terrific, thoughtful comments, Christine! Thanks very much for adding to this important discussion - your approach is commendable. And thanks, too, for the reminder about "Hollywood Shuffle"!

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  3. Because I agree 100% with what you've written and now you've generously provided me a place to send people who get so green they can't see straight, I'm going to take a stab at your quest for healthy comparison. I nominate this: It's okay to note what your publishing friends have and put some of those things on your own To-Do / To-Work-Toward list, with the caveat that things don't completely translate from one person's path to another's. So it's healthy for me to strive to make my books *worthy of* review stars, acclaim, awards, etc., like my friends' books are. Seeing what my friends can achieve gives more insight to what I can achieve.
    On the other hand, I have never met another writer or illustrator whose success is so fabulous that I'd be willing to trade all I have for all they have. Keeping a wider view of all that can accompany success (anxiety, for example) keeps me from coveting what my neighbor has.

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    1. Keeping the wider view of all that can accompany success is critical. I would agree with you that comparing oneself to others for the sake of deepening one's own skills and setting new goals for oneself could certainly be that healthier form comparison. Thank you so much for your comments; I think they will inspire others.

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  4. I get caught up in this whenever I see a writer who is actually able to spend most of his/her time writing. It steals my peace, turning the accomplishment of publishing my first novel into a frustrating reminder that my second novel is still awaiting publication while I work out marketing for the first. But "all in good time" doesn't necessarily mean "my timing". Patience takes practice. If I chip away at a little marketing each day, and continue to write as much as I can, eventually both will happen.

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    1. The notion of something stealing our peace is powerful - and something worth recognizing, so that we can do what we have to do to get our peace back. Patience absolutely takes practice and your idea to put writing first, as much as you can, while chipping away at the other stuff, will assuredly deepen your craft. Keep going!

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  5. Excellent post. Thanks for the reminder.

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  6. Thanks Emma for the raw truth. A few too many times I compromised and took the short-cut to get “the destination.” I learned the hard way that my journey is a long and winding road. Sometimes, it is challenging to stay in my lane. But, I know I’m on the right road.

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    1. Lisa, thanks for your honest comments. The journey for each of us is indeed long and winding and the journey for one is going to be different from the journey for another. Knowing you're on the right road is key - and just right.

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  7. "Comparison is the thief of joy." Isn't that the truth. I prefer to remind myself that we all struggle with the business side of writing and we will all find our place on a bookshelf, given enough time. I try hard to avoid comparing other writers' successes to my own, but I don't always succeed. When I do start envying others, I try even harder to shut those thoughts down. It only results in feelings of inadequacy and who needs that when you're attempting to finish the 17th rewrite of your manuscript?

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Jodi. Exactly!

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  8. great post. even though I know in my heart that my writing is my journey, and each of us has a unique voice, it is too easy to get sucked into the comparison game every now and them.

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    1. It is indeed easy to get sucked in. One tool that might help us avoid playing the comparison game is to remember that every author and every book has a backstory we can't begin to know, one that's full of struggle and hard work. We're all experiencing so much of the same stuff behind the scenes -- so the only thing over which we have control is our own journey. Thanks for your comment.

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  9. Another game, very similar, is the "yeah, but" game. I have a poem in Highlights. Yeah, but it's not a STORY that covers several pages. I have a story in Ladybug. Yeah, but it's not a book. I have a book. Yeah, but it's not a novel. I have a novel. Yeah, but it's not kidlit. I do this to myself ALL THE TIME and it's so hard to stop and appreciate where I am instead of where I'm not. I don't do it by looking at other people -- but it's just as quick to steal the joy of the accomplishment du jour.

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    1. Jan, thank you for adding to this discussion! You're so right that the "Yeah, but..." is the same toxic game as the comparison game. Appreciating where we are on our own journey is so important - and so hard to do - and so worth doing!

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  10. Thanks for posting this piece, Emma. I struggle with this more often than I care to divulge, especially when I'm tired or stressed, and find that FB frequently feeds the envy. To combat it, I take a step back from my favorite gathering place, until I'm fit enough to dive back in.

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    1. We all play this game - in various aspects of our lives, not just writing - and it's darned hard to escape the swirl of it. Your notion of stepping back until you feel fit enough to dive back in is really important, and helpful!

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  11. Emma,
    I love this post. I know I have been guilty of it from time to time. I try to refocus on my own writing goals and buckle down. I also remind myself to celebrate the victories. It's so easy to lose sight of what you have accomplished.
    Happy writing everyone!

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    1. So true, Tracey! Celebrating the victories is essential - and it's hard to remember to do that sometimes, particular when our victories may not feel as victorious as someone else's. But stopping to think about the highlights of your own journey is so critical to your craft. Keep going!

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  12. So this post hit me hard. I had just finished reading about the success of not one, not two, but three author friends of mine and man I was playing the game. Envy reared her ugly head, followed by her ever present bff, guilt. I mean what kind of friend isn't jumping up and down at the success of people she cares about? And I'm happy for them. I am. Oh let's be real, I want to be happy for them. And so there begins the spiral and all of it lead to this creativity drain that gets me convinced I'm not enough. Sigh. On days like this, I now have this amazing post to remind myself I'm not alone (helps with the guilt) and my song. Some days it's on endless loop. It's by Jana Stanfield and it's called, "Somebody Else's Road." And it reminds me to remind myself that's somebody else's road. This is my journey. And for all it's pitfalls. It's mine. And it has to be valid too? Right? So back to the chair. And my butt firmly planted in it. And losing myself to the work which is truly what matters. Thanks dear Emma and to all the comments.

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    1. Many thanks for your very personal and helpful comments. "This is my journey" is exactly the right approach to take as often and as completely as you can, for the sake of keeping the creativity well full. Keep going!

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  13. Hi Emma,
    this is such good advice.. I just attended an SCBWI conference yesterday and that's sort of how I feel after. Thanks for this uplifting post. Not good to compare. I'm going to tweet it! Penelope (www.penelopeannecole.com)

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  14. Loved this post, Emma. I'm going to bookmark it for the times I slip into the miserable comparison abyss (and not just about writing, alas). Thank you for the reminder!

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    1. Thanks, Linda. Sadly, the comparison game infiltrates too many aspects of our lives...

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  15. Wonderful words of wisdom, Emma. It's a great "snap out of it" slap. I will be sharing this one!

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  16. Emma this is so, so good. I get stuck in this regularly and the joy gets sucked right out of my everything. I get to the point where I can forget to look at how amazing this life I get to live is comparing my career to someone else's career - whom I know NOTHING about. We actually make stuff up and decide it is better than what we have! In those moments (that can get me pretty low, I'm not gonna lie) I have to literally go outside and breathe in fresh oxygen to help get rid of those thoughts and remind myself what I have is so amazing. Sometimes I am shocked at how easy and (scarily) natural it seems to want what we perceive others have. Thank you for this. It is a constantly needed reminder. As always, you ROCK.

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    1. Exactly, Michelle! It is SO easy -- to easy-- to get caught up in this toxic game, and to completely warp our own realities. Thank you for your honest comments and contributions to this important discussion.

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  17. Sincere thanks for this vital post, Emma. Spending time comparing myself to other writers has robbed me of precious time I could have used to better my own writing or enjoy the goals I've already achieved. All best to you!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Lori. So important to recognize when we fall into the comparison trap so we can get ourselves out as quickly and safely as possible to get back to our creative work.

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  18. Dear Emma,

    Appreciations for your & T.R.'s nourishing comments here, which I found via Alayne Christian's SUBMIT SIX blog.
    This post feels close to the thought that although I'm not contracted with an agent or publisher for my mansucripts - There is always plenty for everybody. There is. There is.

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  19. Perfect timing. I've been comparing myself lately to writers who are selling many more books than I may ever sell. I need to stop doing that and focus on why I write - because I enjoy it so much.

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    1. Exactly, Linda. Keep enjoying it!

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  20. Amy Burton Storey10/20/2014

    Emma,

    I needed this blog post now more than you know. Like Sara, I have problems focusing on my own paper. And like Penelope, I just got back from an SCBWI conference with feelings of blecchhh instead of the feelings of rejuvenation and joy that should come from being among our people. Artists are often the worst kind of perfectionists, and even though I try daily to shake those impulses, they somehow take firm hold and won't let go. My goal for the year is to enjoy my path...wherever it takes me.

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    1. Sometimes conferences CAN be as sobering and depressing as they can be exhilarating and inspiring, and we don't arm ourselves well enough in advance to prevent the sobering/depressing aftereffects. We also don't generally talk as a community about these downer/negative aftereffects of a conference - and perhaps we should do so more often, to help each other help ourselves continue to stay on our paths and, as you so rightly point out, to enjoy our paths. Thanks for your thoughtful, honest comment, Amy.

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    2. Bonni Goldberg10/22/2014

      Emma & Amy,

      I'm so glad this aspect of conferences has come up here. I hope we can talk more as a community about the negative aftereffects of a conference and how we can minimize and cope with them. Conferences can be so important. Yet, comparisons, information overload, and being introverted (just to name a few) can stop many from taking advantage of our coming together this way to support each other.

      I had to stop attending conferences for years because of such factors. Now, I limit myself to a single day at our SCBWI conference to be able to stay inspired and not get overwhelmed with information. I hope to find other ways to manage the stressors so I can attend full conferences in the future and help others to do the same.

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  21. Thank you for this timely and very appropriate post. I'm a publicist and see this with authors often. But I also deal with this with my creative writing (as opposed to work-related writing). Being in the industry creates this thick writer's block with a self-defeating need for the work to be awesome right out of the gate.

    Thank you for the visual of "awesome" and "also awesome." There are many ways to be awesome.

    My brain needed to see that today.

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    1. Thank you for your comments and for your unique perspective as a writer and a publicist. I can imagine how differently you see the industry and the world depending upon what hat you're wearing on any given day. There ARE many ways to be awesome and we often forget to recognize this in ourselves.

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  22. Wow, is this perfect timing! I just got back from a conference last night feeling overwhelmed and under-qualified. Comparison is the thief of joy will be my mantra for the next couple of days while I decompress. Thanks Emma!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Robyn. Keep the mantra up until you're able to sort through the noise of the conference to recognize the ways in which you've been inspired to move forward in your own journey.

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  23. Emma you are a mind reader! This is what stopped me from writing for the last 3 months. It took a while to realize that is was not lack of motivation, but overwhelm from years and years of research and comparison - always thinking I'm not "there" yet. It killed my joy for writing. Literally. Thankfully, I figured out what was going on recently, and 2 weeks ago I sat down and in one sitting wrote a complete draft a new PB I've been thinking about and developing in my mind for over a year. It felt good! For the first time in a while I enjoyed writing. I'm sort of cold turkey now with everything "out there" on writing, and focusing what's "in here" with writing - in my heart. What's writing if there isn't any joy? Thank you for being a mind reader and sharing exactly what's been going on for me (and so many others, it seems!). You're so wise.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing these honest thoughts about your own process, Deb. It is often the comparison game that can cause writers block and we don't even recognize that as the reason for the blockage. "What's writing if there isn't any joy?" YES! Exactly! Keep going at your own pace and for your own self.

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  24. Anonymous10/20/2014

    One of the members of my critique group has been very successful writing for two prominent, well respected magazines. For years she kept putting herself down because she was the only one of us without a published book. Well, now her fourth book is coming out from a well known publishers. She told us at our last meeting, she has yet to earn back all her expenses that have accumulated through the years researching things that didn't sell, but now researching those that are selling. She doesn't want to leave this publisher because she likes some of the editors she has worked with. Her books are well done, are getting recognized, but she is still doing "work for hire" and she is not a happy writer. I guess what I am trying to point out is that though it brings me great joy to have been successfully published more than 30 times, that doesn't mean I am a better writer than my friend. But I am not a nervous wreck trying to meet unrealistic deadlines and draining my bank account and my physical strength to track down the information I need to meet an editor's expectations. Maybe what I am trying to say is this: If writing for publication is not giving us joy, satisfaction, and peace, we need to search for another way to spend our time.

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    1. Thank you for your candor and interesting perspective. This is clearly a rich discussion that's hitting people close to home. I'm often thinking about the difference between writing and writing for publication -- these are two different things, or at least I see them as two different things. When people see them as one and the same, that's when the troublesome comparison game can knock people for a loop.

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  25. Oh, what fabulous comments and continuation of this important dialogue. You touch on something so real and so raw for many of us. I have learnt more from this discussion, too. I am not yet published and one thing I have read and heard from many agented and published friends is that getting a deal/contract doesn't alleviate the pressures or fears we have. So, in my battle against the green monster (and yes, I do have one) I try to focus hard on the story(ies) on which I am working and make the goal to make this the best possible story I can write at this moment and try not to focus too hard on my publishing goals.

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    1. Excellent points, Joanna. While it's great to have publishing goals, sometimes the goals (and our assumptions, rightly or wrongly, about the goals) can actually get in the way of the craft -- and as you know from consulting with me, I am a huge proponent of focusing primarily and first on craft. The rest will come, but craft is critical. And if that means shutting out the noise to stifle the green monster, that may be the very best thing to do from time to time.

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  26. I shared a blog post about this same topic just recently because I found myself sinking into that comparison abyss--and recognized it in so many of the writers I know. And yet, it's one of those dirty little secrets that no one wants to talk about, even while it's sapping all of our creative energy! It's important to talk about, to recognize that constantly comparing--and denigrating yourself--can affect your writing and your spirit. Thanks, Emma, well said!

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    1. Thanks, Cathy! You're right - we don't talk about this enough, and it's really important!

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  27. Just wrote a whole long reply to this, which got deleted somehow. Grr!

    Basically, though, I said that this is a truly needed and important blog post. In my view, comparison can be helpful to writers in a couple of ways: it can help you in terms of studying another person's prose and analyzing what they do well so that you can work on that in your own writing or seek out education to help you improve in that arena. It can also be helpful in terms of watching other authors "ahead of you" in the process to determine how you want to behave on that journey. Some published authors handle the pressures with grace and integrity. Some, less so. Paying attention so that you can model behavior you admire when it's your turn is a useful practice, I think.

    Comparison that leads to envy or scarcity thinking, obviously, is toxic. And it's also based on a really false perception, which has to do with the fact that writers tend to know a lot of other writers. It's easy to feel like so many people around us, in this contained sphere, are having successes we're not having, that we're lagging in some way. But we're looking at a teeny portion of a ginormous population of people. Just putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is a lot more success than some folks are having. Just having three seconds to DREAM about writing time is more success than some folks are having.

    Veronica Rossi once posted a quote that said, "Eyes on your own page," and it's become a mantra for me when I feel the need to compare myself--in any arena. It reminds me to keep focused on what I DO have (which is an amazing abundance) and on those areas I can control. It's tough to do, sometimes, but it's a way to remain sane, happy, and productive.

    Over and out! :)

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    1. Excellent points, Lorin! Many thanks for adding your sound perspective to this conversation. Indeed, comparison to others for the sake of learning, modeling behavior, and setting smart goals is the healthiest form of comparison -- and a form of comparison to which to aspire. I love VR's "Eyes on your own page" reminder --something to live by!

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  28. I maketh of myself what I am these days in self publishing, so it's nose to the grindstone every single day for me. No time to look back to see what opponents are doing in the race. (A sure way to lose any race, btw.) I've got the baton and I'm running at the finish, and if I don't make it, well...there's no one to blame but me. So, every day now I wake with these intentions in my head: best effort, best run, best time every day...switching back and forth between marketing and writing hats. It's my goal, my mantra, my vision statement. You learn a lot when you're suddenly a one man show. It's a big world out there, with lots of competition, but as long as I keep going, I'm in the race! I am what I maketh of myself and my chances, every single day.

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    1. Excellent approach, Jackie! Thank you for sharing these inspiring words.

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  29. Excellent points, Emma. It's a trap that's too easy to fall into. Isn't Envy one of the seven deadly sins?

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  30. Hear! Hear! It's part of why I don't buy magazines anymore. And don't read Facebook very often. And why I subscribe to very few blogs. Yup. e

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    1. Good for you, Elizabeth. It take discipline to cut back and cut out the noise -- and it's so necessary! Thanks for your comments!

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  31. Do you realize how we are smothering children in a school system based on comparisons? Look what it's done to ourselves and we are adults.

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    1. Quite right, Beverley. It starts so very young... Thanks for your comment.

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  32. Excellent post! I remember when as a little girl I asked my dad for some advice about life and he said: "Just mind your own business." How wise is that! Just do your thing, do it with joy, know that you're right on track and live your life to its fullest and if you do need to compare yourself to somebody else, compare yourself to the person you were the day before!

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    1. Excellent reminder to mind our own business, in the best possible sense of that phrase. Thanks, Alinka!

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  33. Thank you so much for sharing this, Emma. So true, in many aspects of life. Recently, a fellow soccer parent and I discussed what seems to be an increasing number of very unhappy young adults and that their comparing themselves is much too easy, in this age of readily available information. I see this, too, as a writer, and it can be defeating and counter-productive. Your advice reminds to me focus on how I've grown as a writer, rather than what others are accomplishing. Thank you!

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    1. So true that we can use this reminder for all aspects of our lives and efforts. Thanks for your great comments, Kathleen.

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  34. Emma, I know I'm late to this party, but I'm so glad I'm reading it now and I'm so thankful for these words of wisdom that are like salve to the soul of any writer. I have fallen into the comparison trap many times along the way, but this gives me great courage to give it the boot going forward.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Linda. The comparison trap is a constant thing we all need to try to be aware of in order to avoid - and it does indeed take a form of courage to avoid it!

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  36. Amazing and said! So true- being self pub and working harder than any one can imagine-we can always feel that way and quit. Never! or your unique work will never get out there. There is a flame inside of you and you are the one who can put it out-looking at what seems like greener grass- and maybe it is, but you have a gift, too-we are different people, different talents, different results- sometimes we never see the support we hear about or see each other is giving- we can't hold ourselves to that or we won't survive. Take the advice we would give someone else- don't compare-not that easy, when it's you. You can put yourself out there-no likes or support-fear of rejection can set in. Clear your self away,if you have to-your work could be at stake. You have a place in the book world and a place in a child's heart. Thanks so much, Emma for the shining on the light- you have lifted my heart today and I plan to work even harder than ever. For me and the kids I do this for. Take courage! Thank you.

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    1. Thank you for your passionate and true comments, Danna. Much appreciated. I'm a firm believer in the correlation between doing the very hard work and getting rewards as a result.

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  37. Yes. The biggest danger of the comparison game is the corollary. If I don't have [aspect of writing success] like [name of other writer], then I must be a terrible writer. That attitude not only kills joy, it kills creativity. The most successful member of my writing group never loses sight of the joy of writing. And she reminds us to do the same.
    (This is the first time I've made a blog comment in the form of Mad Libs.)

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    1. "Never losing sight of the joy of writing" - exactly right! Thanks, Ann.

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  38. Strangely a writer rarely feels a success, even when others think you are. You just kick along and manage the chaotic world with its ups and downs - with the blessing of have great friends as you go on the journey.

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    1. Defining "success" for ourselves is one of the hardest things to do - and something we need to do more of. Thanks, Susanne!

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  39. As always,wise and inspiring words, Emma Dryden! It's great to hear this after a conference with such successful authors and illustrators. I've always liked this quote by Maya Angelou, "Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it." Also, some laughter is necessary when you find yourself doing unhealthy comparisions. "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest..."- Roald Dahl.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Shelley - and for these terrific apt quotes from Maya Angelou and Roald Dahl. A mighty interesting combo! :)

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  41. BRAVO! And Thank you!!

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  42. Dear Emma,

    I agree that negative comparisons are not healthy for writers or artists. However, we can learn new approaches or skills from other writers. We should focus on what we can learn from other people, not who is better.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is http://www.janetruthheller.com/

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