Writing And The Lie of Better-Than

I saw on Twitter the other day a friend post something to the effect of “I just read a piece by author X. He’s so much better than me it almost makes want to quit writing.” Such thoughts have crossed the minds of most writers whether widely published or not. We might be loathe to admit it, but it is true.

Well, if you’re intent on worrying about those who wrote better than you, yes, by all means, quit writing. Because that concept, the idea of better-than, is poison for writers. It is an aspiration that cannot be reached. It is not unreachable because you cannot get better but because it is not really real and definitely not the point of writing.

You will never have the voice of that better-than writer. You will never live her life, share her experiences, or see the world through her eyes. Better-than thinks differently than you and has different inputs. You will never be her, be like her, or be better than her. And that is ok. It is better than ok; it is good.

Writers are playing an infinite game. That sounds grandiose, so let me explain. Simon Sinek did an interview a few months ago in which he discussed game theory. He explained that there are two kinds of games, infinite and finite. In finite games there is a single winner and the sole objective is to come out on top. Think: sports, board games, first person shooter video games, etc. In infinite games there is not a clear winner; there is simply improving and growing.

When we worry about which writers are better than us we have taken the infinite game of creating and lowered it to the finite world of win or lose. When we do this we lose ourselves and our unique ability to say or create anything that matters. We become derivative and soulless – precisely the opposite of what makes the most significant writing significant. Our game is not to defeat other writers but to continually grow as writers.

Instead of being better than we should focus on:

  • Contributing to readers – What are we giving them? It should be a gift of thought, story, expression, feeling, or phrase that will in some small way enhance their lives.
  • Improving as writers – focus on being better every day but not better-than. We can always tighten our prose, enhance our vocabularies, connect more with felt realities in order to bring them to light, and explore ideas more thoroughly in order to see what had not.
  • Explore and experiment – A writer who only writes one thing becomes a parody of himself. We must explore new genres or styles and take on challenges that intimidate us. We must be stretched, and it will only happen if we stretch ourselves.
  • Learn from other writers – Those writers we though of as better-than? They are likely better than us at some things, things we can learn. Make them your teachers instead of your objects of jealousy. Sit at the feet of their pages and listen to their lessons.

We cannot play at writing to “win,” for if we do we will lose not only that game but also ourselves as writers. There is no winning, only growing and saying better things better. Put aside the lie of better-than and simple seek to be better.