Friday, February 14, 2014

Competition vs. Contribution

This spring I'm serving as a paid mentor to a four-member Boulder children's book writing group. They invited me to join them for their monthly meetings to offer my insights into their works-in-progress. Each month, from February to May, one member will submit a completed book-length manuscript to the rest of us for critique. Then we meet over dinner to discuss it.

I was flattered to be asked to share whatever expertise I've accumulated in my thirty-year, fifty-book writing career. I adore mentoring anybody who wants to be mentored: students, fellow writers, those seeking life advice (the latter, my specialty!). As I transition away from my university career to a life as a full-time writer, income is going to be a significant concern. So how lovely to be able to make some extra money by doing something I love.

I spent all day yesterday reading the February manuscript and making detailed notes. I congratulated myself on the brilliance of these notes. Was I good, or was I GOOD?

Then I went to the meeting. I heard everyone else's comments. And I was blown away by the brilliance of everyone else in the group. My brilliant comments were just so-so on the collective brilliance scale. This group totally ROCKS it in the critique department.

I came home afterward and wailed to my husband, "Everyone else's comments were so much smarter than mine!" And he said, "You're always so competitive." So then I had to think for a while not only about being a not-so-brilliant critquer but about whether I was an unattractively competitive person. And then, because I always have to find a way to come up with a story to make myself feel not-terrible about who I am, this is what I told myself.

I don't think I'm a competitive person. Of course, I want recognition for my work. Almost everyone does. But most of all, what I want is to feel that I'm making a contribution in the world. This group paid me to come last night. I want to feel that they got good value for their money. I want to feel that I contributed something extra to their gathering to justify their having invited me. I want to feel I earned my keep. I feel this at the philosophy department, too. When I marvel at the dazzling intellect of most of my colleagues and feel bad about myself accordingly, I don't think this is because I'm competitive; it's because I want to feel that I deserve to be there, too, that I'm not a fake and a fraud (which just about every academic thinks himself, or even more so, herself, to be). I want to be able to cash my paycheck without shame.

That's the first thing I told myself.

The second thing is that different people contribute in different ways. At the philosophy department, I finally accepted that while I was never going to equal some of my most amazing colleagues in their world-class research, the articles I published were not without their own quirky charm. I could pride myself on the fact that if the thesis I argued for was sometimes, in fact, false, it was never uninteresting. I'm a good teacher, particularly of first-year students. And I've been an outstanding mentor to graduate students, especially ones who battle the same demons of self-doubt that I do.

Last night I contributed just by being a different voice. Even if what I said was mainly in confirmation of the wonderful points already being made, that kind of confirmation is valuable, too, coming from someone who has a long career behind her. As we talked, I thought of new things to say that I hadn't thought of on my own, but that always happens whenever I'm in a critique group. It's a highly interactive process. The author of the night ended up getting an excellent critique from all of us together, and I did contribute. I wasn't the star of the evening, but I wasn't supposed to be. I was supposed to be a smart, thoughtful writer who had read the manuscript carefully and thought about it deeply, talking about it with other smart, thoughtful, careful, deep-thinking writers.

I was. All of us were. My goal is not to be the best, but to do my part. Then it's up to others, really, to decide whether or not I did.


  1. Claudia, this is perfect. I've been agonizing for a few weeks (months?) over the fact that I haven't quite made it to where I thought I would be at this point in my life--and I finally realized that what I was really worried about wasn't failed potential, but a more fundamental question: do I matter? And then I also realized that "mattering" (or contributing, as you put here) is less about my individual importance than about what I have to offer the world . . .

  2. Beautifully said, Rosalyn. And there are so many different ways to matter, too. And most of us matter to others in ways that we will never even know.