Dealing with vanity and comparison

Follower counts, blog traffic, Amazon rankings: vanity metrics. Numbers that have cosmetic value, but aren't necessarily meaningful in and of themselves. Have you ever found yourself chasing these numbers just to run up the score? To the detriment of your writing/thinking time maybe? Or, with so many other writers out there doing numbers, does comparing yourself with peers who appear to be "winning" ever become a problem? How do you think about, and deal with, vanity and comparison?   (02.27.16)

“I never lose.”
–Vanity, Action Jackson. A lot of her lyrics were pretty vain, so the name was apt. The word is interesting. No offense to Vanity, but the word means both egotistical and fruitless. I’ve found myself happy, seeing that something I’ve written has garnered a lot of ‘shares’ or ‘likes.’ I’ve found myself deeply troubled when I have nothing new coming out or in the works. It’s hard to separate myself from the idea that I was once writing without imagining being published. 
        One of the pieces I’m most proud of is a story I wrote called Indian Sick. I was hospitalized for an evaluation of my faculties, and they gave me a composition book. I began writing a letter to a lover about my body, my transgressions, and my lineage. I didn’t think anyone would read it. It was fragmented, non-linear, and guileless. When I got home I still felt unfulfilled, but I had a full composition book of work. 
        The man I loved was an author, and I knew that if I wrote something brutal, and sent it to him, he would have to acknowledge me as more than just my transgressions, or my body. He’d have to reconcile with himself [...] and the work started a dialogue where we found each other to be more human. The story was eventually published in The Offing, and it wasn’t really shared a lot, but I’m more proud of that piece than anything else. It isn’t vain to want to share pain and be recognized, but the only way to share the pain and be recognized is through publication, sharing the work with friends, and reading the work out loud. All those ventures seem to invite vanity, in the same way that academia invites competition. I try to pull away from it all. 
        I’m in a program that aims for inspiring each other over being competitive. We’re Native writers aiming for voice, and we have to support each other. How could we not? Like I said, I’m deeply ambivalent. Sometimes I think my work is so clean. Sometimes I can’t believe my work gets rejected so often, and I feel deserving of praise. I’ve committed the sin of vanity, but I’d rather be guilty of that sin than of the sin of lukewarmess. It’s a thing. The Christians didn’t like people being lukewarm about their passion for Christ. I’d rather be living in extremes with my work than feeling ‘so so’ about it.

Last year, my sister explained to me why my social media game was wack—my follower to following ratio of 1:2 was all wrong. I rolled my eyes and accused her and her generation (she’s 21 and four years younger than me) of being excessively vain. I don’t care about those numbers, I told her, I just say what’s on my mind. And then I started freelancing. And I couldn’t help it, but I started caring.
        As soon as a story goes up, I refresh the page over and over to see how many likes the story has, how many times it’s shared, and what people were saying about it in the comments. So far, my “most-liked” story has 766 likes and 21 comments—yes, I checked it just for this Q&A. I also started paying more attention to other writers and noticing how terribly I lagged behind in terms of places I’ve been published and follower count. 
        On one hand, this sort of internal competition is motivating. I’m inspired to write more stories that make a difference and work harder to get my name out there. But if I just want to make a difference with my writing, why does it matter that people know I wrote it? I think it’s just human nature.

Word Count



 


The survivors’ palates
are regulated. A yellow
limerick chiefly, an indigo
plum nearly stamping,
sometimes one bloodshot
apple, and the wall
nearest tarns of viscous nectar. 

No one trounces
the wall. The man who strains
to conduct slants,
tailoring himself “h”
and “d”—We’re so very; largescale.
Before parsing, apprise him
I object to helium. 

Fiber helixes in, chasing
any tactic to every proximate
post—encrypting extrinsic
slips. Limited access...
is connecting. Key-in
communion—lick the bulges
and edges with Uh-huh.
Eden’s thirstiest snake
is gaining on us.

Honestly I have found myself chasing numbers. I've spent time following other writers and trading likes for likes. I told myself that it's to get my name out and to meet new people. It seemed that since I don't have a million followers my writing must not be good. I even tried to work on stuff I didn't care about because I thought that other people would like it more. Not only was the writing so bad that I had to chuck it, but it also gave me a pretty severe case of writer's block.
        However, I think the truth is it was just vanity. We live in a society designed to chase the next thing and that tells us we need other people to tell us we matter. It wasn't until I got out of the vanity that I was able to start working on some of my best stuff.
        As far as dealing with my every day life, a few months ago I became roommates with my sister and her 3 year old. Now that I spend my time chasing a small child I think my biggest challenge can be finding time to write. Usually I have to squeeze it in while cartoons are on or when everyone is in bed. I think the plus is having them both around distracts me from vanity or number chasing. 
        My advice for aspiring writers is don't worry about vanity, numbers, popularity, or any of that other stuff. Just write what matters to you since your writing is truly a piece of you that you leave for the world. Also don't mistake confidence for vanity. Confidence is writing what you want and knowing that you can keep going despite the trolls and negative people. Vanity is the superficial stuff, and ultimately I believe it hurts more than it helps. 

I'm not so bothered about social media activity, but like a lot of us I'm always on the hunt for new reviews. However, while I'm aware of these superficial yardsticks for popularity I don't compare myself to how well other authors are doing because I'm always going to be better off than some and worse than others. I suppose I'd say to anybody who's overly concerned with these things to take a step back and remember why they got into the writing game in the first place. Was it to entertain people or was it to win some non-existent popularity contest? If your answer is the latter then you're probably best off taking up another pastime. 

I stay out of the rat race. Seriously. I learned a long time ago that someone else will always be smarter, funnier, more talented, more successful, more attractive, etc. The only person I need to compete with is myself, striving with each book to create a better experience for the reader. With my latest book I received an email from another author telling me it was in the top ten new Amazon releases. Huh? I hadn't known such a list existed. I have to admit, it was nice to hear, but I don't write to get my books onto lists, I write to tell a story and hope it resonates with someone along the way. 

It's easy to fall into the game. After all, it's the American way for sure. 
        I used to be more concerned about who may be reading what I write, how many views or likes or comments I may receive on a blog, etc. Numbers are deceiving in SEO as a form of validation just as other areas like weight, height, IQ, grades, and that all-important paycheck. 
        But it's vital to one's creative soul to remember what is more meaningful--the writing for writing's sake and one's passion, or the idea of writing and being noticed. 
        I prefer the former. The latter leaves me hollow and weary when I place too much emphasis on it. Platform is needed, but in moderation.
        Good question, and an excellent perspective check.

The only metrics I pay attention to are the ones that affect my bottom line. I’ll check my YouTube channel subscriber count every few days, because as my count increases, so does my paycheck. I check my units sold each month, because those sales pay my bills. I’ll check the number of reviews posted to Amazon, because those reviews strengthen my presence on the site. But meaningless metrics aren’t important to me, and I think comparing yourself to other writers (or anyone for that matter) is an especially stupid form of self-sabotage. I don’t care how I perform against my peers, because I don’t see them as rivals. There is no joy in “beating” people who are essentially in the same boat as me. And besides, the measure of success isn’t in how you’re stacking up against your peers—it’s in your own growth as a writer and an entrepreneur. If you’re going to compare yourself to anyone, it should be to how you performed last month and the month before that. I do that sort of comparing all the time. 
        That said, what makes me feel like a winner is the fact that I’m earning a living off of my writing, that I have an audience who loves my work, and that they write to me just to say that I’ve inspired them. That’s really all I need. I guess if anything, their comments are my personal vanity metric. Giving other writers the side-eye doesn’t have the same effect.

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I am vain. 
        Let’s just get that out of the way right now. I come from a vain family. I was instructed in vain ways from the time I was a kid. I was told in no uncertain terms that my family was special, unique, intelligent. And not just intelligent, but clever, very clever. We were to act like what we were, the chosen people, Israelites. Our pond was small; we did not know it. We ruled it mightily. 
        As I grew up I told myself what I expressed was confidence. (It was, in a way, because what is vanity but confidence’s evil twin?) But confidence also involves a healthy counterweight of humility, and humility was not a virtue I learned until I was 28, had long left home, had discovered, to my horror, that I was actually not the smartest girl in the room. I was living in a one-room apartment with no windows and doing a job that made me wake up with night terrors. Humility was an angel that came to me in a beam of light, and I told her, oh, hey. Did you know that I’m actually really smart? It didn't end well. 
        But my losing battle with humility is another story. 
        Vanity. 
        As a writer, you and the craziness rattling around in your brain is your product. And if you want to make it as a writer, you’ve got to hustle that fine stuff out there. You can’t just dress it up in a nice package and tell yourself that the product will sell itself. Nope. You’ve got to convince people that they need it, that they should pay good money for it, this stuff from your brain, even though in actuality brainstuff is already flooding the market, cheap, free even, it’s everywhere, you can’t walk down the street without stepping in it, but that this stuff is the premium, the good stuff. Not just good, but different. This is what you want. So thank you, family. For an addiction to high expectations and enough vanity to kill a horse.
        Right now I can’t fool myself into believing that I register as even existing in social media (because I’m intelligent, remember?). My twitter follower numbers will never compare to, say, @MrPhetz aka “cute dog whom fat”. That’s okay. Long may you reign, Mr. Phetz.
        Facebook makes me tired. I have been reading the same book on Goodreads for two years because I just can’t. One day, when I have a book out, all of this will matter. I will have to market product. But for right now, I collect accolades from where I can—mostly my agent and my editor because they are special, unique, intelligent and clever—and I horde them like Mr. Phetz probably hordes bones. I show them to my family. I will probably show this to my family. Oh hey, I did a thing, I’ll say. And they will be proud. 

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Yes, I have compared myself to others since I first realized that hey, people are judging me. My first memory of this is from around age six or seven, when a kid in my violin class talked trash about me for learning a song faster than he did. It hurt my feelings and just made me want to learn more songs. So, from the beginning, I saw that vanity in the sense of comparing myself to others can be good and bad—it can destroy as well as motivate. 
        Vanity becomes a problem for me when comparing myself to someone who has "more" or has done "better" (words in quotes are a whole other conversation) makes me feel horrible about myself. To deal, I remind myself that every person is on a different path. Success today does not mean success tomorrow. Same for failure, or being stuck, or under-appreciated. Same for everything. It also helps just to do the work—writing—and try to return to the mindset of being a kid, pre-age six or seven. That pre-judgment state of wonder is just the best. 
        As a final note, I have never struggled with having too much of that other kind of vanity, the one that allows me to think I am the shit regardless of all objective feedback. If anything, I wouldn't mind having a tad more of that kind of bravado.

I have never tried to boost my numbers consciously, because I don't know how and frankly don’t feel like putting in the hours it takes to do it [...]
        I think I’m more cavalier about all this because I had my big career as a reporter back in the day, and it nearly killed me. But even then I didn’t try to keep up with the likes of Ebert and Bob Greene and Mike Royko and the lot. Promotion was done by our PR department, though many courted TV and other media to assist with that. I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t come by it as naturally as they did. I hated being on TV, radio was a bit better but I quaked the whole time... I’m just not cut out for that stuff.
        Writing is something much more personal to me, an obsession even more than a profession. All I can do is write what I feel, what I truly feel like writing and want to say. Over time, I've found a few people who like what I say—it ebbs and flows. Do I envy those who know the ins and outs of modern marketing? Yes, because they have a steady income doing what they love. But not because I wish I were more famous. People always seem to find me, eventually. But I’ll never have a chart topping best seller. That’s fine with me.

The irony of this question coming across my desk at this moment makes me know synchronicity abounds! I was just out in the yard, on this California Sunday morning, throwing sticks to my two dogs and thinking about how I'd started this day:
        First thing, I went to my computer to find a list of notices waiting in my inbox, and each one pertained to one site or another on social media, wherein I am engaged. WordPress, Google+, LinkedIn, FaceBook, Twitter; each had a notice that required, what seems to me, immediate action! The urgency with which I respond is almost laughable. Many of the people who have included me in their post are in foreign countries, with a different time zone! But I settle in as if immediacy is crucial, then I check my two Amazon pages to see where my books currently stand. 
        This may be a roundabout way of answering your question, Jason, but my point concerns the seriousness in which I approach this author's life. For me, it's not so much about numbers as it is about the sincerity of engagement. This business of being an author is an interpersonal one, and it's not that I'm a "people pleaser" as much as I want to honor those who reach out to me through the act of retweeting, or commenting, or featuring me on their blog site. 
        I'm a "nice girl from the South" and Southerners are inherently nice people! When someone is nice to me, I am nice back. My attitude is that the numbers of sales, or "likes" or "shares", is not about vanity, but a by-product of the sincerity of my actions, which began with writing a book, and now includes communicating with people who seem interested. [...]I have somewhat of a fatalistic view of my career, which is this: I show up, do the work, put it out there, and see what pans!

I can easily waste upwards of an hour of prime writing time—which for me is the early morning, before the rest of the house wakes up—checking numbers, which more often than not remain static. It can become another avenue for experiencing rejection or, perhaps worse, the yawning indifference of radio silence. It dulls my enthusiasm for the writing, which is what I’m supposed to be about. I tell myself to stop, but like any addictive behavior, it’s hard.
        A friend sent me this video about Van Gogh and reflections on autotelism—the belief that a work of art, especially a work of literature, is an end in itself or provides its own justification and purpose. I liked this, though of course it’s difficult, and often impractical, to hue to this prevailing myth of the artist toiling without regard to recognition or reward.  
        "The shrieking of nothing is killing."  – David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes

As far as online followers go, I am undoubtedly another low man on the totem pole. I see myself as just another writer, slogging through the void that is social media, trying to get at least one person who isn’t related to me to take notice. Getting those numbers to increase is a full-time job unto itself, and frankly, I would rather be writing. But that’s the rub. It’s part of the game, the hustle. You gotta’ get out there and sell yourself, or if you’re so lucky, pay someone to do it for you. I don’t tend to spend too much time comparing myself to other seeming nobodies in this regard. They almost always have more people giving two shits about the work they do. For me to spend time grinding away at how their numbers are better than mine would be damaging to the old self-esteem machine. I tend to, and this may sound insincere, but I tend to congratulate others for doing well. In all honesty, the “congrats” may be dusted with a bit of jealously, at first, but in the end, my words ring true. I would hope others would feel genuinely good for me if the roles were reversed.

image (top): Day of the Dead Sugar Skull Girl by mystiqueink
#: vanity metrics, The Offing, Wattpad, Jenna Moreci, Mike Royko, The Long Game 3: Painting in the Dark

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