I’ve promised myself I’ll be honest on this website, to offer my advice and experiences for self-marketing purposes (again, honesty) and to help other writers in the creative and technical industries as much as I can. I’ve been to many panels on the ethics of nonfiction, have heard countless reports from people I very much respect, and they all amount to the same thing: we must tell our stories, the way we know them, regardless of others’ opinions. (That being said, we have a responsibility to use our words wisely, to avoid degradation.) I bring this up – offer this disclaimer – because to truly talk about competition in the literary community, I must begin at my first encounter, which involved another student in my university. Please note that names have been changed.
My freshman year of college, I was a recluse. So recluse, in fact, many people in my dorm didn’t know I existed. And, in similar fashion, I didn’t know them either. My second semester, I won a humanities division poetry award for “Death” – a poem inspired by The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Next to me, an Honorable Mention was named, Emily ****. Leaving my dorm the day of the announcement, a girl congratulated me in the lobby, a girl I would later learn was Emily.
This was the beginning of our “rivalry.”
Emily was also a writing and English literature double major, which meant in the following years we shared many classrooms. To keep the story short: Emily decided that we were in constant competition with each other, going as far as to come to my dorm and complain about me. To me and my roommates. I am not a very confrontational person, though I admittedly talk a big game, so I never truly reputed her accusations of making our classes “all about me” or taking over the school literary magazine for “publishing too much.” I usually let her vent, offered the critique I received she didn’t seem to hear, then ranted to my friends to let off steam. Interestingly enough, Emily was friends with my friends – Pitt-Johnstown is such a small school that most groups run together somewhere, so we saw each other often and even hung out on occasion with civility. At times, I helped her with pieces outside of coursework.
To me, the entire competition was imaginary, made up in her mind because of insecurities that all writers have. The poetry award freshman year sparked something in her that made her want to defeat me. Because I agreed to be honest, Reader, I’ll tell you that there were times my anger got the best of me. There were moments I lost my composure, moments my ego was bruised and my insecurities exposed by her desire to “take me down” (Emily’s own words). More than a year since graduating, I’m still aggravated writing about it.
Fast-forward now to graduate school. Because of my experience with Emily, I very much expected to find rivals rather than friends at Carlow University. Being one of the youngest in the program, I expected many people to count me out or look down on me and my novice skills. To my surprise and satisfaction, Carlow has a different mantra than other MFA programs. Their philosophy is that building each other up builds us up as well.
Yes, the sad truth is that we are competing for publications and awards. There may be times we run into each other in situations that involve a “loser,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy for those who win. Rather than tearing each other down, we are taught to learn from each other’s strengths and help each other overcome our weaknesses. Carlow is a safe place, a small literary community dedicated to getting you where you want to be.
Writing is a solitary sport, and no writer will tell you differently. Sure, we collaborate sometimes, but for the most part, it’s you and your characters, your plots, your decisions. Either the story works out or it doesn’t. Writing is also something you can never completely master – there is always something to learn, always someone to emulate, always somewhere to go. The community you join and the writers you choose to surround you should always be encouraging you to do your best and celebrating your victories. And you, Reader, must always celebrate theirs. There are plenty of magazines, plenty of publishers, plenty of opportunities for us all.
Other writer’s success does not take away from your own. You aren’t handing over your chances of publishing by supporting your fellow author in his goals. We’re not slicing up a pie.