There is no right way. Everyone is different.
I’ve written about comparison and how dangerous comparisonitis can be before. However, I tend to look at comparison from the bottom up, from the perspectives of those who compare themselves to writers who are further ahead in their careers.
Here, I always stress the importance of being realistic, of knowing where you are right now, and how that impacts what you can and cannot do today.
I never really talked about the other side of the coin, about how those we look up to and in whose footsteps we want to follow compare ourselves to us. Do they have a full grasp of where they are right now compared to where they’ve been when telling us how it’s done? Are they aware of the privilege that comes with being further ahead when talking about writing or publishing to a group of people desperate to get to that place too?
Some do and I’m lucky to know quite a few. Others don’t, unfortunately, and it can be quite unnerving to listen to their often unbendable dos and don’ts about writing, especially when you’re not aware that what they’re doing is speaking from a place of unchecked privilege.
Last summer, when I still took travelling for granted, I had the pleasure—or privilege, I should really say—to participate in the only ever European 20Booksto50k conference and writing retreat.
I didn’t necessarily like the vibe in the Facebook group (I saw lots of comparisonitis and people giving their unchecked opinions about how you should or shouldn’t do things), but when I heard about a conference taking place in Edinburgh, I didn’t think twice.
First of all, it was a great excuse to meet up with my co-writer. I’d also never been to a writing/publishing conference before, and I knew somewhere deep down that meeting people at a conference wasn’t the same as being in a Facebook group together. After all, I had seen some rather nuanced comments in the group; their voices simply weren’t the loudest.
I truly missed Scotland as well, and I’d never visited Edinburgh properly before. Worst case scenario? I could explore the city instead.
Everyone is different
Guess what? I did not get to explore the city.
Now, I need a small disclaimer here. I might have been lucky and talked only to the right people. That’s entirely possible, especially since I am too much of an introvert to interact with many, fellow writers or not. But, even on the stage, where I’d expected to hear a lot of opinions I couldn’t really agree with, the general atmosphere during the conference was exactly like what Michael Anderle said on the first day:
‘There is no right way. Everyone is different.’
It was the exact opposite of what I thought to be hearing. What was more, there was plenty of room for disagreement and a multiplicity of voices. Because everyone is different, so what works for one author doesn’t necessarily work for others.
The entire week, I felt surrounded by people whose very words demonstrated just how self-aware they were of their process, the choices they made and had made in the past, where they were right now, and so on. I heard a lot of ‘this worked for me then, in my particular case’, ‘it took me ages to get to this point and I’m still getting it wrong’, ‘I know this worked for me, but the exact opposite worked for this and that author so you just have to try for yourself and see what sticks’, and ‘if this is not realistic for you right now, that’s OK. Do what you can right now and do things better as soon as you’re able to’.
Of course, a few unbendable comments were made as well, but most participants seemed very in touch with and aware of themselves.
A little self-awareness goes a long way
To me, there is no greater pleasure than learning from those who:
- are acutely aware of where they are right now and how that affects the choices they are now able to make, and
- haven’t forgotten where they came from.
I find that a magical combination, which might be due to my own background as a teacher, because that’s exactly how I’ve always tried to teach myself.
Whether or not you came from a privileged position to begin with, remembering where you’ve been and how you ended up where you are today does so much. It can help with not judging those who aren’t where you are (yet). It can also make you more empathic to those who are still struggling to reach your kind of success.
Such a level of self-awareness can also make room for gratitude. If you keep reminding yourself where you came from, it becomes so much harder to take for granted where you are now.
As I said before, I might have only interacted with the right kind of people at 20Booksto50k Edinburgh. However, at the end of the first day, Ram Dass’s ‘We’re all just walking each other home’ kept going through my head. Because that’s exactly what it felt like, what the whole week felt like. That most of us were simply comparing notes, trying to learn and help each other out wherever we could, with none of the judging I so often encounter online.
(Of course, it’s much easier to outright judge people or not be nuanced when you’re not in the same room with them and get to know them as actual breathing human beings ;))
But what if you aren’t that self-aware?
Let’s first acknowledge that privilege is a complex thing and somewhat of a double-edged sword. What’s privilege in one situation can be utterly unhelpful in another situation and I can’t help but wonder whether that is why some people are so adamant to not check their own. I guess we all have examples of when our privilege didn’t do us any favours.
(Like that one time you found yourself in a gay bar and you being straight didn’t go unchecked for once. Or when you walked into a room filled with BIPOC and your whiteness suddenly became very, very real to you.)
Of course—and this is very tricky if you’re nowhere near ready to admit you have any privilege whatsoever—such examples are exactly what emphasises just how unchecked yet real that particular privilege is.
Privilege is complex and contextual
Because privilege is contextual, it’s not always easy to pinpoint when what is or isn’t a privilege. For example, I’m white, but I’m a white woman in a world that’s mostly run by white men. Being a woman is not a privilege. Being a white woman, when compared to BIWOC, is very much a privilege.
I can pass as straight, too. A straight white woman. I’m not a straight white woman, which means I cannot marry the woman I love in the country we’re currently in, but it also means I don’t get any strange looks or get called names when I’m out on the street either (for being gay, anyway).
I went to university and even taught there for just under a decade. That’s privilege as well, especially considering I come from a working-class family—I was the first and still am the only member of my family to graduate from university, let alone teach at one. That my dad passed away when I was only nine makes my background even less privileged. And this is why privilege is such a double-edged sword.
And it can come at a great cost, too
Because my father passed away, I received part of his pension. While it obviously didn’t make up for losing my dad so young, it did pay for most of my education. I also received extra money from the government to help pay for my studies because my mum never remarried and wasn’t earning enough to pay for my tuition fees herself.
In the past, there were times I refused to see that as privilege because that extra money had come at a great cost. If fellow students or friends complained about me receiving more money than they did, even though their parents weren’t paying for their education either, I was quick to throw the old ‘At least you still have both your parents’ at them. (I know, it’s not pretty. I’ve grown.)
It can be hard to admit you have a certain privilege if you ‘paid the price’ for that privilege in some way or other. Being able to pay for most of my education because I lost my dad felt far from privileged for a long time. Now, I can see that that disadvantage—growing up without my dad—doesn’t negate the privilege that came from it—it being easier to afford higher education.
(What is more, in a way me getting that higher education is why I am here today, on my island, writing, editing, and coaching full-time. If being able to move to paradise and sustain yourself while doing what you love most isn’t a privilege, I don’t know what is.)
Likewise, to give just a few examples around having the privilege to write full-time:
- Having enough money to write full-time and follow all those expensive courses on publishing and marketing because you have wealthy parents can feel like quite the opposite of privilege if they aren’t the most loving and raised you in the strictest way possible.
- Similarly, if you’re in that same position but because your beloved grandmother—the woman who raised you!—passed away and left you all her money, that might not feel as privilege either.
- Or, maybe your husband works all the time and, since you never had the chance to have kids, you can do whatever you want during most of the day, even though that was not the life you initially wanted.
Inherent privilege versus gained privilege
None of the examples above make any of their current situation any less privileged when we’re talking about writing specifically, but it might explain why it can be so difficult to check one’s own circumstances for any signs of privilege, especially when some sense of loss is involved.
The same goes for privilege that is gained through hard work. I often hear ‘But I worked hard to get here!’ when someone points out someone else’s privilege. I don’t think anyone is saying you didn’t (although it really doesn’t hurt to double check whether you might have gotten where you are because you do have a few certain privileges working in your favour). After all, even if you do have all the time and money in the world to write full-time without having worked hard for it, it’s still hard work to write.
Whether your privilege is inherent or was acquired (or a combination of the two) doesn’t make your privilege any less of a privilege. All it means is that there are different ways to get into a place of privilege. Some are simply born into a certain privileged position, others work tremendously hard to get there, and again others might resent the very reason why they acquired it.
There’s no need to apologise
Nobody is asking you to apologise for where you are. Similarly, no one is asking you to apologise for what you can’t help but have nor is telling you that you don’t deserve what you worked so hard for.
‘Checking your privilege’ simply means you take a moment to ask yourself what position you are currently in, and how that might or might not give you certain benefits compared to others.
If the name on your book sounds male and white enough, congratulations. In a lot of popular genres, you will be picked up more often than any female and/or not-so-white sounding name.
If you make millions every year, I’m so excited for you. As long as you keep in touch with that version of you who wasn’t successful yet, who fought hard to get where you are right now, so you don’t go around looking down on fellow authors who haven’t made it that far (yet) and spreading tips and tricks that truly aren’t realistic for them right now.
The same goes for the successful author who, for whatever reason, has been able to devote most of their time to writing from early on in their career. Kudos on the head start but please don’t forget where you came from, so as to not advice your fans and followers from the assumption that they have the same means as you.
Don’t take anything, including your privilege, for granted
No matter where you are today, how high or low you are on the ladder of writing success, a little reflection now and again to check in with where you are and to remind yourself of where you’ve been will go a long way in checking your privilege. As the example of the 20Booksto50k example above, shows, such an approach might just create a space where the learning is mutual and the support pretty much unconditional.
It could also help you remain realistic, which any author willing to listen to you will benefit from. After all, if you give your checked, contextualised opinion about matters, there won’t be any need for authors to apologise or make any excuses for not being on that same level (which is the vibe I sometimes get when unchecked people give their point of view).
If you’re actively trying to dismantle existing power structures within the field of writing and publishing, even better. At the very least, try to not contribute to any of the prevailing dynamics that privilege you, for whatever reason, over others. Because everyone is different and it’s so much more fun if we would all just walk each other home in this.