Writer’s Eye: Baby Bear & Competition

“Your novel? My opinion is I hate it. If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing; If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer. Writers are competitive. Midnight in Paris


Maybe it’s just me. But more likely, it isn’t.

I guess I noticed it for the first time when I was in high school, though there wasn’t ever a “moment” of realization. Pressed with paper deadlines, I’d procrastinate. I’d do everything but write — I’d clean, organize, or re-arrange my room instead of writing. (But don’t I love writing?) I would go for a walk, or play sports, or listen to music, or — my personal favorite — sleep. But I wouldn’t write.

And then the paper would be due. In a matter of hours. And I would get cooking. I’d write.

Fast forward to the present day, where I am older, more mature, and have a much better perspective on what writing means.

I still procrastinate. I want to write in coffee shops. Or book stores. Or libraries. But I don’t want there to be people around. Or, I want them to be there, but to be silent. Or, I want to write at a specific time — any other time would be much too early, or way too late. And I need coffee…or hot chocolate…or a fireplace…or…you get the point.

Until I’m pressed with a deadline, or I force myself to move my fingers. In that way, writing really is work.

But there’s another thing that can spur me into action, and it’s something I think a lot of writers identify with. It’s competition.

When I was completing my undergraduate studies as an English major, there were small classes. 25 was usually the maximum class size, with a few exceptions. In those classes, there were probably between three and five of us who considered ourselves “writers.” You couldn’t tell us apart before or after class — we were all friendly, cordial, helpful, and kind. It was a mark of the English majors at Stony Brook. Yet, in class, there was a subtle change in our continence.

First and foremost, we were outspoken. We had our opinions about the work we read, and we made sure that our professors heard them. Secondly, we would often engage and challenge each other’s observations. And finally, we were constantly anchoring our analysis from the position of the author, and qualifying our experience reading through the lens of the author’s intent.

There were smaller differences between “us” and “them” too. Differences that extended beyond class participation and analytical filters. It was in our work. We were lazier, or more reluctant to complete assignments that didn’t involve writing. And when we were faced with writing assignments, we revised and sought feedback at an alarming rate. That was because we were obsessed with writing the best paper in the class. It was about out-doing everyone else in the room, as much as it was doing the best we could for ourselves.

Some people might deny it. That’s fine. They don’t need to be honest. I just see no reason not to be. And I fully recognize that these ideas might be unique to me. That’s fine. I’m still going to say what I’m thinking:

The driving force behind the improvement of my writing during my undergraduate years as an English major was largely born out of arrogance. I thought I was better at writing than everyone else in the room, and if the professor agreed, well…then I was vindicated. Sometimes, it wasn’t about the best structurally sound paper. After all, once a writer knows he or she can write with flawless prose, they’re likely to never write with flawless prose again. (What’s the fun in that?) Writing became about finding the most compelling thesis, to challenge myself and the class to see things, and express them the way I saw them.

And I think if anything stunted my growth as a writer during my time as an undergrad, it was that I wasn’t in writing classes, but rather English classes.

That’s why I believe so wholeheartedly in an MFA. Because when you take the enviroment I described at the beginning of this post — the 25 or so students — and you turn 3-5 writers into 25, all of whom are declared, you create a competition. You size each other out, and you discover what you and your peers are really made of. What’s more, the litmus test isn’t an in-class discussion, or a professor’s opinion on your thesis topic. It’s the writing. It’s producing that work.

And all of those small preferences — the fireplaces, the two half-and-half’s, no sugar’s, the light, and the time of day — they are all thrown out the window. Because as a writer (a competitive individual), the only thing that matters is the desire to win. And to be the best, you’ve got to produce the most compelling work. That’s why I can’t wait to begin my MFA, or similar program. (This is a big change from my thoughts when I wrote Death of the Butterflies).