Shall I compare me to a summer’s day? The Pitfalls of comparisons in writing

Just like musicians, painters, sculptors, actors or whatnot, writers have their influences. Those influences on the artistic process of writing comes from those writers we read and admire most. We take ideas, maybe some of their style into our own, we take quotes sometimes, and quite a bit of inspiration from their work.

Luckily for us, scholars out there have invented the wonderful term intertextuality to make it sound better than stealing ideas and stuff, but we all know that that is exactly what we’re doing, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. It can only become wrong when those attempts at stealing/intertextuality result in hampering our creativity.

Writers, especially young writers pick out more than influences, they want role models. For many, including myself, there is a single author they’ve read that sparked that first foray into writing with that special je ne sais quoi, or mastery of the art. For me that was E.A. Poe who inspired me to write my first few poems and short stories, all unpublished, but of which I am very fond. I didn’t even try to get them published not because I didn’t believe that they are good, it’s because they seemed so small and weak when I compared them to the brilliance of the works that inspired them.

Of course it was unfair to compare the poems written by a 19-year-old to the most well-known works of one of the greatest American writers of all times and the de facto inventor of the short story. I knew that at the time, but that didn’t stop me from making the comparison, and that was unfair to myself, not to mention counterproductive.

We were all obviously inspired by something great, something that we saw as brilliant and transcendent, and of course that we will not be able to capture that same magic to our own eyes (especially when we just start out) so why let it discourage us? To put it simply: trying to capture the same feeling we got from reading those Greats and getting inspired to write is like trying to replicate your favorite cake that your grandmother used to make; it might be exactly the same in empirical reality, but that special feeling won’t, it’s a form of irreplaceable nostalgia.

To give another example: One of my favorite authors for the past six years has been the late Terry Pratchett. I often read his work and am gobsmacked at the ease and subtlety in which he took apart our world with all its problems, and made sense of it through satirical fantasy, especially in his Discworld novels. I am continually amazed at the eloquent way in which he takes real world issues, like the monetization of ideas and beliefs, or social and cultural phenomena like rock music or Hollywood, and brilliantly parodies and lampoon those things so cleverly.

Now, instead of reading the Discworld novels and saying to myself “Well, I could never do that!” I let that inspire me, unlike my comparison of myself to Poe. I attempted to write a science fiction satire along similar lines to the Discworld, and even though it isn’t as good (Pratchett did have a bit more practice than I did) I let others read it, and they thought it was funny and insightful, i.e. good.

So maybe that is the bottom line of this post: Let people read your work before you condemn it as mediocre. Don’t compare yourself, especially as a beginner, to the greats; no one starts a Shakespeare. Let yourself develop with your writing. Find your own voice, but don’t be afraid to take a few pointers from those who came before you, because that is what any art form does; it takes the old, and makes something new of it. It shows how the world, and the people living in it, change their perspective on things. Don’t believe me? Read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Now there’s a guy who wasn’t afraid to take on the greatest of the greats of English literature, and he came out of it pretty well off, didn’t he? So can we.

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