Friday, August 3, 2012

Is Writing a Competitive Sport?

Maybe it's because the Olympics are on, but I got to thinking the other day about competition. I was raised by a father who believed that competition was not only beneficial, it was necessary to survival. As he saw it, we inhabit a Darwinian universe in which those who successfully compete for food, water and mates prosper and reproduce. The others die.

 Winners and losers.

 The strong and the weak.

 My father wasn't alone. Look around. Our culture is all about competition. Television networks especially manage to turn every imaginable activity into a competition. Singing. Dancing. Home decorating. Cooking. Losing weight. Even crafting. Even visual arts. (A couple of seasons ago there was a competition show to discover the best young artist in America.)

 I know why they do it. Competition makes any activity more interesting. It gets the juices flowing. Creates people to root for and against. (Have you noticed how there are always people you love and others you hate on competition shows? You say, "He needs to go. Why is she still here?)

 It's supposed to be about quality: the best person wins. But of course, it isn't just about quality. It's about luck. It's about the subjective opinions of the judges. It's about having an especially good or bad day.(I remember one cooking show where a finalist had the flu the day of the final cook-off and could barely function.)

Which brings me at last to writing. (I'm sure the only reason there hasn't been a TV competition show for writers is because it would be terminally boring to watch the competitors hunched over their laptops for hours at a time. Not to mention how time-consuming it would be to read all the results aloud.)

There are plenty of writing competitions--even if they aren't on television. And winning one is very prestigious for a writer, as it should be given that there are usually thousands of entries. But writing should not be a competitive sport. None of the arts should be.

Competition is not limited to contests. Writers also compete for readers.

Creativity is about taking risks, stretching boundaries, challenging assumptions. That's how great writing happens

Competition is about doing what is safe so that judges and readers are not jarred. That's how mediocre writing happens.

When writers compete, we consider each other rivals for praise, fans, readers, sales. And as the readership for novels and short stories shrink,s we fight over a smaller and smaller audience. "How did that piece of trash get published?" we ask ourselves and/or a loyal follower, "when my work languishes in a slush pile somewhere? I'm so much better than he is!"

Maybe we're right, maybe we're wrong. It doesn't matter. The point is, envy poisons good work. Writers deal with envy in a number of ways. We

  • Give up entirely and stick to our "day job"
  • Try to create a carbon copy of the rival's successful book(s)
  • Stick our nose in the air and declare, "I'm writing literature so I don't care what trash Mr. and Mrs. America want to read.

But there's an alternative--we can see one another as comrades in arms, all struggling to create something worth reading. That way, we can learn from one another. Be inspired by one another. Help one another.

Does this sound Pollyanna-ish? I suppose it does. After all, we're human and how can we not feel at least a tinge of jealousy when someone succeeds where we have failed? Or feel triumphant when it's us in the winner's circle?

Many of us imagine we're in a race, looking over our shoulders to see who is gaining on us, looking ahead to gauge how fast we have to be to catch the leader.

But we're not running a track with other writers behind and ahead. Each of us has our own path, our own course to run. Some are running up a hill, others down a mountain. Still others are on a straightaway. We may meet each other, but we're never running the exact same course.

Think about it. Each of us has a different gift. Our task is to nurture and develop our own, unique talent. We do that by writing. We do that by studying other writers. We do that by freeing our minds and imaginations to flow wherever they want to take us. We do that by welcoming the companionship of other writers we meet along the way.

Some have been where we're going and can tell us something about the place.


  1. very interesting concept,thought provoking

  2. Great post. It definitely makes you wonder. I never thought about writing as a competitive sport, but there are many similarities.

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  3. I don't think that sounds 'Pollyanna' at all. Even if I pick up a book that I don't enjoy, there's a reason why it was published and a reason why it has fans. It's a great exercise to pick it apart, find the elements that do and don't work and see how those ideas can translate into my own work.

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