Dani Shapiro
December 12, 2008

On Competition

At the silent retreat, once each day there was a question and answer period–the only time that any of us spoke. I didn’t have any questions–or rather, I did have questions but had grown quite accustomed to the silence, and couldn’t imagine hearing the sound of my own voice. I was interested in what others had to say, and one woman’s question, in particular, struck me. She was a very young woman–I’m guessing twenty-four or twenty-five–and wore glasses, her hair in pigtails.

“I work in a very competitive field,” she said. “And I’m having a hard time when a friend of mine succeeds. A friend told me the other day that she had just signed with an agent, and it was hard to be happy for her.”

So she was a writer, I thought to myself. That wasn’t surprising. She looked like many of my students, with her retro-hippie downtown vibe. But…a competitive field? Thinking of writing as a) competitive and b) a field struck me as just plain wrong. I wanted to go up to this girl–but of course I didn’t. I’m not sure I would have, even if I could have spoken. The teacher responded with a brief discourse on sympathetic joy– and the ways in which we’re able to feel joy for the success and happiness of others only when we, ourselves, are filled with that elusive Buddhist trait: equanimity. As the teacher was speaking, I found myself thinking about competition among writers. How was writing competitive? A writing life involved many difficult feelings, certainly: isolation, frustration, impatience, loneliness, obscurity, disappointment, rejection — was it really necessary to pile competition onto this already long list? Especially when it’s a useless feeling–one that brings along in its wake that dreadful feeling, envy?

I have had moments, flashes of envy about another writer’s success. Someone gets a prestigious grant that I also applied for. Someone else gets nominated for a major award. Someone makes a boatload of money. It’s only natural to feel a pang of desire, of longing–of thinking, I want that. Give me that. And I know that other writers have felt these pangs of envy about me. I know because I can feel them. Envy is such a palpable thing. But competition? The only competition I feel is with myself. I want to be better than I am. I want the book I’m writing to be better, deeper, more powerful than the last. John Irving once said that writers are lucky because we have the chance to get better as we get older. I want to be that kind of writer — the one writing at the height of her powers, as they say, well into my eighties. If only I should be so lucky.

I wanted to go up to that girl and tell her this. I wanted to tell her that if you think that way, it only gets worse–because nothing will ever be enough. The stakes are so high, the emotions so intense. There’s always more to want, and there are always people doing better. Horse racing comes to mind. Why do horses wear blinders when they race? I like to think that it’s so they don’t look right or left. So that they don’t see who’s coming up behind them. So that they can run their hearts out.

So pigtail girl from the silent retreat, if by some strange coincidence you’re reading this–I want to say to you: write your heart out and compete with yourself.