Avoiding the inferiority complex

This week I’ve had a couple of experiences that happen on an all-too-regular basis.

Yesterday, I read the opening of Donna Tartt’s recent book The Goldfinch. Earlier in the week I finished Jodie Picoult’s The Storyteller.

Both left me feeling not inspired to write, but depressed – because I can’t write like that. Here’s why that’s a dumb reaction to have.

They’re two very different authors. Very different genres, audiences etc. I don’t usually like Jodie Picault – her twisting endings don’t usually feel like they fit the book as it’s been developed, but I really enjoyed this book; I thought the narrative was interesting, the different voices were good, the story stayed just the right side of cliché (something I’ve also disliked in some of her other books) and the ending was great. It’s Picoult’s 21st book. She’s been writing for over 22 years according to her website www.jodipicoult.co.uk. The Goldfinch is Tartt’s third book. She’s been writing for a similar length of time, and this book’s taken her at least six years to write, because it was originally scheduled for publication in 2008.

The numbers matter, and here’s why: I haven’t been writing that long. They have. I’ve written a handful of short stories and, when I read them objectively, I do think they are getting better each time.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of judging yourself against someone else’s progress and find yourself wanting. To compare yourself to someone else and think “Why can’t I do what they can do?”

The answer is: lots of reasons. But at least before you start making those comparisons, make sure the comparisons are fair. Think about the last time you compared yourself to someone else and thought they were so much better. Did they have more experience? More professional guidance and support? A better work ethic? More practice time?

If you asked me in chit-chat how long I’d been writing, I’d say “forever”. It’s an easy word to throw around in conversation that doesn’t mean anything. I studied a writing course at university, but as I’ve said elsewhere it shattered my confidence so I have barely written since, until about two years ago when I dusted some stuff off and started writing something new. And since then? I’m trying, but I still don’t have the daily habits that are so important in building skills. So when I read something published by someone who’s been writing professionally, seriously, daily, for twenty years, it’s ludicrous to measure myself against that standard.

What about the debut novelist? The bright young thing who at 21 is the crowned darling of the publishing industry? Age is irrelevant. I can’t rewrite what I’ve done for the last ten years. She’s still probably been seriously, diligently, writing longer than I have. She’s had professional support and guidance from editors and publishers and agents. She’s good, but she wasn’t always.

My reading tastes have been developing literally since I was a child – I genuinely have always read voraciously and widely. My writing hasn’t yet caught up to that taste, which sometimes leaves me thinking that what I’ve written is sometimes a bit rubbish. But as I firmly told myself this week, that’s not incentive to give up. That’s incentive to work out what it is I like about them, to get started improving my skill to match my taste, to steal like an artist and get on with things.

What do you think?