The Competitive Edge
I’ve been thinking a lot about competition lately.
I’d like to share a story from my childhood: When I was very young, the town we lived in held an Easter Egg hunt at the local park. This was in the mid-Seventies, the era of “Free to Be You and Me”. The concept of childhood self-esteem was just getting started. Our mayor made a brief speech, reminding the children that there were enough eggs for everyone as long as you only kept two or three. I remember my father patting my shoulder at that.
The father standing next to me told his son, “Don’t listen to that BS. Go take everything you can.”
What a miserable thing to do. Right? For eggs, of all things. It didn’t look to me like the family couldn’t afford a few dozen eggs at the supermarket. But there’s this grown man, telling his son to push other kids out of the way and take everything he can lay his hands on.
I’m sure he thought he was teaching his boy a valuable life lesson about being a winner. About being a competitor.
That’s not competition. That’s childish and selfish.
That viewpoint is not about winning. It’s about making other people lose.
But it’s the kind of competition most of us have been brought up to believe in, isn’t it? And that impacts many of us to this day.
I think writing used to be more competitive, before the internet and Amazon’s self-publishing mechanisms. When the marketplace wasn’t immediate and your platform was heard only as loudly as your publisher could trumpet it.
And I think in a lot of ways, that kind of competition was a good thing. Having publishers act as judges may have been difficult, hurtful, and sometimes prone to abuse, but it kept your goddamn dinosaur erotica at bay.
Being older than the internet meant cranking out my adolescent short stories in privacy, in my room, and sending them to Dragon and Argosy and Asimov’s. I never got published, but I often got good pieces of advice from people who, I presumed, knew what they were talking about.
- Don’t try to tell three stories in six pages.
- Your characters need to need something.
- Your mis-use of tense makes my sphincter tighten.
Well, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.
Now there’s obviously still competition like that. I’m still not in Argosy, I’m still not with Tor. But to be honest, I’m not making a lot of effort in that direction right now.
That’s partly because my focus on work for Apocalypse Ink trumps it, but also partly because there are so many more places to publish online. Paying markets, markets which are the equal of the big magazines of my youth.
I’m going to tell you another story. In Junior High school, despite my feelings about competition, three things combined to make me join track and field: I liked to run, I knew I was fast, and I noticed that girls liked guys who played sports.
I spent about six months running races before I quit.
Because I never beat anybody. Because even though I improved my personal time in every race, I wasn’t winning. So I gave up.
I’ll say it again: That’s a pretty immature view of competition.
Today, I’m writing to beat myself, not anybody else. I’m writing to refine a skill, a craft. I’m writing to learn more about the effort of writing, and in the process, I’m learning more about myself.
That’s a competition I can get behind, because honestly, I know my competition’s weak points.
How does competition sit with you? Is it something you embrace, something you look for in your craft and your work? Or is it something you avoid as a matter of course?
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