Last weekend was probably the busiest ever in my town of Nashville. The picture above shows what Broadway looked like on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
The two biggest events of the weekend were the NFL draft (200,000+ people per day) and the Nashville Marathon and Half-Marathon (19,005 runners, plus at least that many spectators). Both events were highly competitive, and both involved athletes who had worked very hard for the big day. But two different kinds of competitive spirit prevailed at the NFL draft and the Nashville Marathon, and the difference is relevant to the writing life.
The NFL draft is all about establishing hierarchies. It matters quite a lot who goes in the first round and who goes in the second round. Within the first round, we pay attention to who gets picked first, who gets picked second, and who gets picked thirty-second. We talk about who were the first, second, and third quarterbacks to get picked. I saw an article this morning ranking the college football conferences according to how many of their players got drafted (the winner: the Southeastern Conference, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores).
The last player to get picked in the draft is dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant.” It’s all in good fun, and being Mr. Irrelevant has its perks: every summer a family in Newport Beach, California, hosts the new Mr. Irrelevant and his family for a week of sun and sand and a trip to Disneyland. To put this in perspective, about 3500 college seniors are eligible for the draft, and about 250 get drafted. That means Mr. Irrelevant in the 93rd percentile of a pretty elite group of athletes: something like 4% of high school football players go on to play college football, so that means the last guy to get picked in the NFL draft is in the 93rd percentile of the 96th percentile. And he gets called Mr. Irrelevant.
But let’s forget about Mr. Irrelevant for a minute. What I find more interesting is the fact that an event like the NFL draft creates a situation in which the secondguy to get picked can be plagued by self-doubt. The guy in the 99.7th percentile of the 96th percentile can, if he is so inclined, feel slighted. (And even the overall number-one pick isn’t immune from that other phenomenon of any hierarchical system, imposter syndrome.)
A few hours before the fourth round of the NFL draft started on Saturday, 19,005 runners gathered a little further up Broadway and started the marathon and half-marathon. A few dozen of those runners had hopes of winning the race, or maybe just their age-division. Let’s call it two hundred runners who were there to win. The other 18,805 people were just hoping to finish, or perhaps to finish under a certain time that had no relation to anybody else’s time.
The guy who took three hours to finish the half-marathon was not the least bit bothered by the fact that the guy who won the half-marathon was already back home watching the NFL draft. That had nothing to do with him. The huge majority of marathoners and half-marathoners are competing against Resistance—all those voices offering up reasons to quit—not their fellow runners.
Last week one of the members of the Field Notes for Writers book club wrote,
For a long time what held me back from writing seriously was that there are so many people that could do it better than me. But recently I’ve taken up a different mindset, one that focuses more just getting in the game and loving it, just like people do when they train for a marathon, knowing they might never be the best but they have a chance of finishing if they put in the hard work and discipline.
That’s exactly right. Writing, like running (and, for that matter, like football) requires discipline and work and a willingness to do hard things when a thousand easier things present themselves. But the goal of all of that work and discipline is to get better, not to get better THAN. Other writers are your allies, not your adversaries. Their excellence can inspire you, it can teach you, it can give you good ideas. But there is no reason it should discourage you.
In The War of Art (the book we’re currently reading in the Field Notes book club), Steven Pressfield talks about switching from a hierarchical orientation to a territorial orientation. A hierarchical orientation is fueled by comparison. And comparison, as you know, is the thief of joy. Comparative, hierarchical thinking comes very natural to us (or, perhaps I should say, it comes habitually to us), but that kind of thinking simply can’t sustain a writer.
If you’re a writer, forget about your place in the hierarchy. You don’t have a place in the hierarchy because there is no hierarchy in any meaningful sense. What you have is a territory—a little patch of ground that is yours to cultivate. Your patch of ground is your unique combination of experiences and perspective and voice and loves and longings and community. Tend that patch of ground. Work hard. Be disciplined. Get better. Your patch of ground and your community are worth it.
Your hard work might result in widespread acclaim, but it probably won’t. More likely it will result in the kind of fame that Naomi Shihab Nye speaks of in her poem, “Famous”:
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.