Click here for an explanation of the The Ways We Struggle guest post series.
This week I’m pleased to welcome Deva Fagan, my long-time friend and critique partner, and the author of three MG novels: the fantasies Fortune’s Folly and The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle and the science fiction-y Circus Galacticus. She lives in Maine with her husband and her dog, and loves tea, gardening, and playing the fiddle. Today she talks about the problems with seeking validation in numbers.
When I was in school, I loved report cards. I was a shy, bookish, industrious kid who always did her homework and studied faithfully for tests. And every semester, I’d get back a piece of paper that proudly proclaimed my GPA. That thin slip of paper was my proof that I was doing okay. That I was worth something.
(I also had bushy brown hair and front teeth that stuck out a bit. It will perhaps come as no surprise that Hermione is my favorite Harry Potter character!)
There were other numbers. My AP and SAT scores. My class rank. My orchestra seating. And they defined my life! I remember breaking down into tears one day in the practice hall, because I was worried I might slip back from fourth to sixth spot in the violin section.
Even after I left school (with, ironically, a degree in Mathematics) I looked to numbers to tell me how I was doing. My salary. My weight. The number of books I read each year. The number of words I wrote each day.
But it wasn’t until I published my first book that it got really bad. Because up till then, I’d been pretty good about not comparing my numbers to those of other people (well, except for that day in Orchestra). I just loved the validation of “good numbers.”
After publication, though, it became horribly easy to start comparing my numbers to those of other writers. Amazon ranking. Number of Facebook friends. Advance size. Print run. And, as Leah Cypess describes so eloquently and honestly, in her own The Ways We Struggle post, that way lies madness.
Thankfully, I pass a certain dance studio on my daily lunchtime walks. (Okay, maybe not daily. I also struggle with laziness!) One day I noticed this quote in the window:
I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself. — Mikhail Baryshnikov
It was one of the few actual epiphanies I’ve ever experienced. Numbers were never going to tell me whether I was truly successful. Sure, of course I’d be happy if my books were best-sellers or had perfect 5.0 rankings on Goodreads. But “good numbers” are a byproduct of something much more important: pushing myself to be the best I can be.
I’ll admit that I haven’t entirely shaken my addiction to numbers. I still get a little thrill when I go to Worldcat and see how many libraries have copies of my books. But I don’t compare my numbers to those of others.
I don’t worry about trying to write better than anyone else. I only try to write better than myself.
(Thank you, Mikhail!)