What’s worse than not achieving your goals? Watching other people attain them, exceed them, blow past you on the freeway of success.
The single biggest driving force behind my writing has been my competitive nature. Actually, that has been the driving force behind just about everything I do since the days when Ronnie Freeman and I raced, neck-and-neck, to be the first ones to memorize all the way up to the 12 times tables. (We tied, by the way, igniting a silent feud that would last until the final day of elementary school).
To be clear, when I compete in writing, it’s not against any specific person or persons, it’s against myself. And, yes, I know how cheesy that sounds but that doesn’t make it any less true. When I set a writing goal, I will break my neck trying to achieve it. It took five years, and a load of stories, between the moment I decided I would win the Surrey International Writers Conference writing contest and the day I walked up to collect my prize from Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte. But I never took my eyes off that goal.
I believed that nothing could ever feel as good as that kind of hard-won success.
And then everything changed.
Not long after I’d been roped into volunteering for the Kootenay Literary Competition, I started taking the lead. I’m an organizer and a dreamer, and in this little homegrown writing contest I saw big potential. With a small, dedicated group of volunteers, we put together a fun and friendly awards ceremony that turned out to be a standing room only event. I had my moment in the spotlight to ham it up, as usual, but passed most of the rest of the evening in the back of the room listening to our key note speaker and watching the winners collect their prizes and read from their work. That’s when it happened.
As each contestant accepted their award, I watched their beaming faces and felt…happy. Really happy. At least as happy as I had felt collecting my own awards, maybe happier. I hadn’t won anything but it felt amazing to make this happen for other writers. Maybe they would go on to write professionally, maybe this would be the peak of their literary journey, but no matter what happened, for one night, these writers enjoyed some of that all-too-scarce recognition and praise for their work and I was lucky enough to share that with them. This was a new kind of success, the kind that lasted long after the cheque had been cashed and the certificate had been filed away in a box of memories.
Without that night, I think my decision to indie publish would have been a lot more difficult and a lot less rewarding. In fact, I think everything about my writing life would have been “less”.
One of the hardest parts of choosing the indie author life was the acknowledgement that I would have to walk away (at least in the short term) from a long list of dream goals. The choice was not an easy one—though I know it was the best choice for me—and I think part of me will always mourn for what could have been. My goals have changed, by necessity, and indie life holds plenty of challenges for my competitive side, but it still pinches, just a tiny bit to watch other authors achieve the old goals I had to leave behind.
Most authors battle imposter syndrome in some form and I’m no exception. Honestly, it will always sting for a nanosecond when I read about authors winning awards that I can’t begin to hope to win as an indie, or heading off on book tours, or getting picked to speak at big events, or receiving glowing reviews from notable publications, or hobnobbing with other big name authors. Of course it will. Luckily, though, that feeling passes faster than a blink and, in the case of authors I know, is replaced by something incredible: joy.
I’m writing this because one of my author friends shared some good news today (which I will also share far and wide when the green light is given) and it struck me how genuinely happy I was for him. It struck me how happy I am for all my author friends whenever they share good news, something I wouldn’t have believed at the beginning of my journey.
It’s easy to be envious—not just for writers, either. It’s easy to let despair and jealousy take over when you see someone get something you wish you had or, worse, something you feel you deserve. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that someone will always get something you wish you had or think you deserve. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, someone else will always be more successful. Someone will always get a bigger, more prestigious award. Someone will always get a better review. Someone will always sell more books or make more money. Someone will always have more readers and fans. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, the trick is knowing when the game can’t be won.
I’ve also learned that for every up there is frequently a down. Today this author is winning an award but tomorrow their publisher could decide their sales aren’t strong enough and cancel a planned novel or series. There are no guarantees in this business. Appearances can be deceiving too. The author you think is basking in the glow of the spotlight could actually be battling anxiety or depression, believing they are a fraud and dreading the day the rest of the world figures it out. You can never know what demons someone else is wrestling.
I’m so grateful to the universe for giving me that night of epiphany because what came afterward was friends. I have met some extremely talented people along the writing path, who I am lucky enough to call my friends. Every time something good happens for an author friend of mine, it’s as if I’m right back at that awards ceremony, cheering and clapping from the back, feeling nothing but happiness. I celebrate my friends’ success because, weirdly, it feels like my success too. It feels like we’re all in this together and when one of us wins, we all win.
When I dig back into my memory, I see two things clearly. One: as competitive as Ronnie Freeman and I were in the classroom, we were also good friends and neighbours. Two: Ronnie Freeman helped make me who I am. I learned my time tables at lightning speed, and much more, because someone smart and competitive pushed me to be better. I need other people out there pushing hard to succeed. I need that motivation and inspiration.
I need my Ronnie Freemans and, I hope, they need me.