I’m a writer. I’m nineteen years old, unagented, practically unpublished, and I’m afraid I’ve already peaked.
This isn’t a new fear, but it is a pretty dumb one. It crops up every few months, after I reread the comments on a Figment contest entry from a couple years ago or go over a critique partner’s thoughts on an old novel, and suddenly their compliments and gushing praise don’t feel like they’re directed towards me, but a different girl who wore the same face and hands but somehow, despite knowing less about writing, was better at it than I am. That Little Ol’ Past Julia was better at everything.
I don’t know why that girl was, or how, but Past Julia seems to have had a lot more figured out than I do now. After all, she was the one who wrote Dreamcatcher–a novel that needs so much work it’s barely worth rewriting, but my critique partners raved would be taught in classrooms someday as the Great American (Young Adult) Novel. She’s the one who wrote “The Things I Leave Behind”–the first short story ever penned by Julia Byers for a college-level creative writing class, which went on to receive hardly any critique, an “excellent” from the professor, and first place in the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition–whereas everything I’ve written since then has received a “very good” and nothing more.
No matter how hard I try, it has been impossible for me to match the response of that first short story. The people who’ve read it compare everything else I do to it, and always their response is, “Good, but not as good as the Colorado Story,” or “Well-written, but I prefer the voice from the Colorado Story,” and always, no matter what I do, “The Things I Leave Behind” comes out as the best thing I’ve ever written, period. I can’t beat it.
When I wrote that story, I was just afraid of my professor telling me I sucked and that I shouldn’t be a writer. I had just finished the first draft of Cadence a week or so earlier, I’d never had much instruction in creative writing before, and I was used to being a big fish in a little pond, after spending so much of my childhood as Julia the Wonder-Kid-Writer, with constant support and very little competition.
It was pressure, but it wasn’t personal–so it made me nervous, but it wasn’t a big deal.
Now, when I write a story for creative writing class, the game is different. It’s a competition against Past Julia–against the person I was at the beginning of winter semester 2013. I open a blank Word document, and the only thoughts running through my mind are, “Will this one be good enough? Will this one live up to the bar set by ‘The Things I Leave Behind’? Will this one finally beat Past Julia, or at least fall even with her abilities?” Every time I go to work on a novel, the questions become, “What will my CPs think? Will they read this and still tell me Dreamcatcher was better? Will I ever be able to write something better than that?”
It’s been almost two years since I wrote Dreamcatcher–I was seventeen. I wrote “The Things I leave Behind” when I was eighteen. And now, at nineteen, I almost wish I hadn’t written them at all, because they have made it impossible for anything else I’ve written since then to be “good enough.”
Everything I write now is a comparison that falls flat. Anything that is not as good as Past Julia’s best is bad.
What did Past Julia have that I don’t now? I’ve studied those pieces, tried to replicate the parts that readers praised. And when that didn’t work, I tried to write stories that were so entirely different that it should have been impossible to compare them to their predecessors–but still the comparisons came.
I am chasing a shadow that I will never see solidified. Even if I do manage to write something better now, why do I have to be in competition with the things I did in the past?
I want to be proud of my best work, not resent it. My past-self should not be someone I feel like I need to live up to, but instead someone I am proud to have been.
I want to be proud when people ask me what’s going on with the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition, not ashamed that I haven’t written anything better since the piece that won first place. I want to be proud when my critique partners ask me if I’m going to start on the Dreamcatcher rewrite soon, not disappointed that they aren’t as enthusiastic about my current projects too.
I am done. chasing. excellence.
It doesn’t matter if my critique partners like Dreamcatcher more than what I’ve written since. It doesn’t matter if “The Things I Leave Behind” remains the best short story I have to my name. Because while I want to believe that someday those statements will no longer be true, my chasing after that elusive “excellent” scrawled at the end of each story I turn in for class is not helping Present Julia become a better writer, or Future Julia be the best writer she can be. All it’s doing is making me look back at someone I can never be again and wish that I had never left her behind to become who I am now. And that isn’t fair to anyone.
I’m doing amazing things with my life right now. I’m living out dreams I never thought I’d be able to realize, and I’m sick of the paralyzing fear that comes with looking back, trying to reach into the past to shake some answers out of the memories I never thought would be important at the time. I’m sick of people comparing me to Past Julia, but more than anything I’m sick of the comparisons that come from myself.
Maybe what I’m writing now isn’t as good as what I wrote back then, sure. But that doesn’t mean I’m not good enough. Because I am. And it’s time I let Present Julia admit it.
I’ve changed. My writing has changed. I’m done chasing after the writer I used to be. It’s time to chase a new kind of excellence–becoming the best writer I can be now. No comparisons attached.
I will continue to get better with every short story and novel I write. I will continue to grow, and improve, and someday I will stumble across “excellent,” just like I did before. But it’s not going to happen as long as I’m sitting here drowning.
I wrote this on the whiteboard on my desk the other day:
It’s time I started living by it.
No more comparisons. It’s time to let Past Julia stay in the past.
I know where I’m going. I’m not looking back.