When Competition Gets Ugly

Tuesday, September 16, 2014
I suppose some folks can watch a football game and knit or fold laundry or write a blog post. But I’m not the kind of fan who can cheer for my team and do something else. When I’m watching football, I’m all in. Screaming, yelling, dancing—well, let’s just say that I’m invested in the outcome of the game.

I call it “competitive.” (The mister calls it “annoying.”)

Competition can be a good thing. It pushes me to work harder, to keep trying, to always give the best that I can give. As a writer, I love the competition of a good literary contest. I love to win prize money and I love the validation from my peers. Every time I make a pitch to a market, every short story I send out in the world, every agent who gets a query, it’s all competition. I want to win acceptance. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there’s another kind of competition in the writing world, the kind that can go wrong in a snap, the sort we don’t often talk about: the not-so-friendly competition among our writing peers.

Maybe it’s our writing group. Or maybe it’s the writing friends we’ve made from attending the same conferences, or a bunch of writers that have come together to form a group blog. Heck, it might be a passel of writers we’ve never actually met. And honestly, we might not even realize that we’ve slipped into competing with them. Until the day when a writer in one of our groups has achieved success and we think, “Are you kidding me? Her?” Because what we’re really thinking is, “But I’m the better writer. It should’ve been me.”

Uh-oh. Competition is fixin’ to bring out something ugly in us.

Because once that competitive mindset kicks into full gear, it’s not long before we get…well, fanatical, obsessively dwelling on another person’s writing journey, constantly comparing achievements, allowing someone else’s business to become our business. Ultimately, we can waste a whole lot of hours and energy and brain cells that could’ve been used much more productively. And as grammatically incorrect as the expression is, it comes down to this: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.

So if you’ve found yourself sliding down that slippery slope, call a time out. The end game is about what you want to achieve; it’s about working hard and believing in yourself. It’s about sticking to your game plan and not worrying about anyone else’s game.

Give a cheer for your friends when they have success, and then get back to your journey. Make competition work for your writing, and before you know it, you’ll be screaming, yelling, and doing the happy dance for your own success!

(But don’t blame me if you’re also a tad annoying.)

~ Cathy C. Hall


Anonymous said...

You're always right. That, too, must annoy the Mister. :)

You're in great company with your observations. Anne Lamott talks about this in . . . well, one of her books. Can't recall which one. What I came away with then (and now, reading yours) is that while being competitive is normal and even healthy, our journey IS different than everyone else's, no matter how similar they seem to be.

To all of that I would add also that we never know what the next tide will bring. Yeah, it might be driftwood. Or it could be a bottle with a contract in it. The only way to find out is to keep showing up.

sally said...

Perfect timing on this post. I'm working today on some key note speeches I have to give in two weeks. And the one I'm just about to start work on is all about writer envy and how we can be content with our own writing speed and our own audience size and we don't have to worry about how fast others are or how big their audiences are or how many awards they've gotten. So thanks! I agree with you here and I take this post as affirmation that this is, 1) a problem and 2) doesn't have to be a problem. :)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Yes, sometimes I look at others' successes, and wonder why I am not at that point. And really truly, the only person I should be competing with is ME. I need to become a better writer this year than I was last year. I need to submit more than I did last year.

Thanks for the reminder.

Linda O'Connell said...

I think competition is a good thing. I am always in competition...with myself. I try to write more, better, and on time. But my best efforts don't always pan out or pay off. As a group, we need to generously support and affirm one another. Kudos to you. Now put on your cheer gear and go-go-go for it!

Anonymous said...

I share the approach of two authors with the same problem you cite, hoping it helps you. One is a by Madeline Sharples entitled Leaving the Hall Light On. The other is a book I wrote. In both cases, like yours, the real question is “…does the good you can accomplish with the book far outweigh a reasonable negative impact it might have on others.”

Ms. Sharples book was about the loss of a son to suicide. The blunt honesty in her writing about the dysfunctional impacts on a family as they painfully work their way through it is what makes her book so effective. One potential negative was that she pulls no punches and does not sugarcoat when describing the pain, anger, blame, helplessness, and unfairness that can destroy even the best families. The positives are clear. On Amazon alone there are many reviews grateful for the impact the book had on them. I know, one of them is mine. I had never been able to get past the loss of my older sister and best friend 25 years ago. We had both grown up the target of a vile pedophile stepfather. Decades later that still colored our lives. We could only talk to each other about those days. Shame, guilt, and anger all combined to make us unable to tell our own spouses -- the exact same emotions Ms. Sharples described. Her book did changed my view away from only looking back in anger at the unfairness of those times and Karen’s death, to doing what Ms. Sharples family was able to do years later-- I also now looked back in fondness at the good times, smiling at remembrances of my sister. Many reviews share the same sentiments. I have to believe when I look at the potential negatives, that her family was completely behind her knowing where she was going with her narrative and all the good it has done and will continue to do. The positives overwhelmed the negatives.

My book exposes actions of unqualified school administrators and DoE career bureaucrats that are destroying the education of our high school children. One possible negative was embarrassing those administrators and bureaucrats by exposing their actions, and their anger that I showed things they work so hard to hide. I also risked embarrassment for me and my family because I needed to disclose the pedophilia of my stepfather. Why? Criticizing education, especially SPED or inclusion classes, often gets dismissed as racist, or uncaring about children. By sharing how those events ended up driving me to help inclusion children, and that I volunteered for inclusion classes, I hoped people would look past the emotions to the real issues. The positives of fixing the real problems destroying education have a powerful impact on our children’s lives. Embarrassing administrators and bureaucrats by exposing the harm they are causing because not seem like much of a negative, especially since I never identify the person or school being described, and everything was vetted by lawyers to ensure accuracy, and met the whistleblower standard of “a reasonable person could come to this conclusion.” I could live with the shame of my children and others knowing what happened to me.

These two examples might help you come to a conclusion about your own book. Your family and daughter have already been through the events, and their love and respect for you means your daughter is proud that it meant so much to you to include it. Since you only use indirect references attributing your antagonist with his characteristics and never identify the name or location, a reader five states away who didn’t happen to know about that exact accident would have no clue who was involved. As to positives, a compelling and entertaining book that also makes your readers sensitive to what made that antagonist who he was, can only be a good thing.

I do have an opinion, though. I think you should pick up your pen, walk over to the computer, and start typing.  Writing is obviously your passion, and your book concept has a great deal of potential good far outweighing the small potential negatives.

Lynn said...

I really do love it when my friends and others succeed as writers...

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for this post, Cathy. It is so fresh and honest.

I have to admit; I'm the competitive type. I've have been known to yell and scream at my favorite sports players on TV.

With writing, I'm also competitive, mostly with myself and my personal goals. But I'm thrilled when a writing friend or critique partner wins a contest or gets published. But I have to admit that on occasion when I've entered a contest and didn't win I've thought "Why not me?" I think that's just being honest--and being human. I've found the best cure for feeling sorry for myself is to write then write some more.

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