Friday, February 05, 2010

The Comparison Trap

The first time it happened was after reading a book that was everything I wanted my novels to be. The plot moved me, the characters were real, and the message was powerful. You’d think I would’ve been inspired to head to my keyboard, but instead I felt like throwing in the towel. Every time I sat down to write my own fiction I would think about this other author. There was no way I could write like her. My characters were cardboard. My plots lame. What was the point? How could I possibly write that well?

I didn’t realize I’d fallen into the comparison trap. All I knew was that I was miserable and ready to quit. In desperation I asked for advice from novelist James Scott Bell. He’s been my writing mentor for almost ten years, and as usual, his words hit home. He assured me I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. All serious writers and artists have been in my shoes, he said. What I needed to understand was that no two writers are the same. I had my story that no one could ever write like me.

Doubts come to all of us. Even best-selling, award-winning authors like Francine Rivers or Frank Peretti. It helped me to realize that others who are much further along on this journey still struggle at times. It showed me feelings of inadequacy are just that—feelings. They often have no bearing whatsoever on the real quality of what I write. We’ll always need to improve in our craft, but there are times when we must forget about what we lack and ignore the negative thoughts swirling in our heads.

As Jim Bell said, we all have a story to tell from our own unique perspective. Several years ago a bunch of CBA novelists got together to prove it. They decided to each write short pieces of fiction based on the same strict guidelines. All the stories had to include the same first and last lines. They had to include a case of mistaken identity, pursuit at a noted landmark, and an unusual form of transportation. Do you think these stories ended up sounding similar? Hardly. The authors wrote an amazing variety of tales (one even wrote in the point of view of a dog). Why were none of them the same? Because all the authors came to the challenge with their own toolbox of life experiences, and they wrote from their one-of-a-kind view of the world. (Those stories were published in book form, by the way. Check out What the Wind Picked Up.)

Jim shared something else with me. He compared writing to what God does with spiritual gifts. Not everyone has the same gift, but when we develop what God has given us, it contributes to the whole tapestry of the body of Christ in the world. He told me I needed to be the best C.J. I could be. And if I gave my full attention to my own writing, not comparing myself to anyone but just digging deeper into my story, the doubts would go away.

What would happen if we stopped looking to others for validation? My writing is never going to be like Karen Kingsbury’s. But on the other hand, Karen’s writing is never going to be like mine. Or yours. That’s the way God designed it. We’re all different, to reach different people. Someone who will snatch up the latest Ted Dekker might never crack open a Janette Oke.

In his latest writing how-to book The Art of War for Writers Jim says: “One of the biggest obstacles of all comes from comparison with other writers and worrying about your status in the publishing world. This is the way to ultimate madness. The writing life is crazy enough without you making it worse on yourself.”

Escaping the comparison trap is not only vital to your mental health as a writer, it’s also biblical. “Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else . . .” Galatians 6:4. So dive into your writing without distraction. There are readers out there God is preparing right now to read the stories only you can write.

[Originally posted on Rachelle Gardner's CBA Ramblings blog]


Gayle Gresham said...

Excellent post, C.J.! I'm needed to read it today. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

Good advice. Thanks for sharing. I'm enjoying poking around your blog.

Kay Dew Shostak said...

Hey C.J. - had to tell you this - I just got home from a women's retreat in North Georgia. At lunch yesterday one lady said she was going to read during free time. I asked her what she was reading. She said, "Thicker than Water." I said, "C.J. Darlington". She's loving the book! I just knew how much you would enjoy hearing that you and your book were being discussed this weekend at Red Top Mountain State Park!

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for all your comments, everyone. And Kay--thanks so much for telling me this. I'm honored!

Koala Bear Writer said...

Very inspirational. Thanks!