A Letter On Creativity & Comparison

The following email was reposted with permission.

Dear Ash,

A large part of why I create is because I don’t know who I am without it. I especially love that through creating I’m able to make people feel like themselves. Because for so long, that’s what creating has meant for me. It’s been both a dream and a promise.

Then I made the mistake of playing the comparison game. I spent way too many hours looking at Instagram posts and blog posts and views and comments. I’m almost entirely certain I had at least sixteen different tabs open on my laptop at one point just so I could see where I was going ‘wrong’. Why I had less views, fewer comments.

I was a few hours into the comparison game when I took a look at every hurdle I’d overcome. And I thought to myself :

‘My struggles will forever mean I’ll always have to work twice as hard to be successful. And because of that, I will never succeed as a creative. Everything will come easier to everyone than it will to me.’

But now I’m exhausted. I’ve spent so much time hating on everything that’s brought me joy over the past few years to want to do any of the things that genuinely make me excited about life. The comparison game has mentally and creatively drained me and for the first time in a long time, I’m not excited to create.

Has this ever happened to you? Any ideas on how to solve it?

All my love,

A


Dear A,

When I first started writing, I declared that I was going to publish a blog post every week. I was going to show up, be consistent, and see that commitment through. For a while, I kept that promise. I would pull up a blank page every week and write all the stories and words I wished I could have read when I was younger. I had pent up my creativity for so long that when I finally had the chance to write, it all came flowing out. When my blog was shiny and new, I was so grateful to have just one person read my words. Any more than that was the cherry on top.

Have you ever noticed that as soon as you become aware of something, you start to see it everywhere? It’s like when you get a new pair of boots, and you suddenly notice it on the feet of everyone your cross paths with. That phenomenon is known as ‘frequency illusion.’ Now that I had carved out my own corner of the internet, it felt like every man, woman, and dog was trying to establish themselves online. As I consumed more of their content, I started to feel a twinge of envy here and an ache over there. There were so many brilliant creatives out there with a huge audience. Why would anyone care about me? How was I to succeed? These writers were so much better than me so what was the point?

Like you, I started to play the comparison game. I became torn up over the numbers and I agonised over why other people were getting a better return on investment than I was.

So, I stopped writing.

I justified to myself that I was merely giving myself space to focus on my clients and prioritise the writing that was going to get me paid. But the truth was: my inspiration had dried up. My willpower had deserted me. Writing had become a chore and the joy I once felt for creating was stifled by the thoughts that I wasn’t enough.

You and I are very similar, A. We attach so much of ourselves to our work. We bare the most vulnerable part of our souls and we feel crushed when it seems like nobody cares. Left unchecked, that crushing feeling is what drives so many people to give up on blogs halfway, close up businesses, and deactivate Instagram accounts.

Here’s what I know about the comparison game: there are no winners. While you’re comparing yourself to that writer, they’re probably comparing themselves to someone else. The result is two individuals who feel deflated and less-than.

Comparison also gives you an incomplete picture. It’s a flawed view of someone else’s life. It’s easy to look at other people’s creations and see all the things they’re doing better than you.

But you literally have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes.

This could be their 3rd attempt at creating a blog. They could have been honing their craft behind the scenes for years and only choosing to share it with the world now. They could have messaged all their friends and asked them to leave likes and comments. For every successful blog post you see, there are pages and pages of drafts that never got to see the light of day.

It’s normal as a creative in 2020 to get caught up in social media and the numbers. But here’s some tough love: there will always be someone out there with better metrics than you. Even if you were to reach a goal of 10,000 readers, there will be someone else out there who has 20,000. Chasing metrics is a race you will never win. The magic lies in going deeper with the readers you already have, not wider.

That being said, you can’t create from a burnt out place, A. It’ll only turn you bitter and cynical. Take the time to have a break from the pressure to create for others and just rest. Use the ‘mute’ button and pull yourself away from the comparison game. Take heart in the fact that even if other people have a bigger audience, there are people that only you will be able to reach.

The ability to create is a privilege. Focus on the joy that creating used to bring you. Perhaps you can try exercising your creativity using a different medium, like through cooking, music, or pottery. Don’t do it for the purpose of uploading it to Instagram and gaining views & likes– create just for yourself.

There will come a time when you’ll be ready to come back and start publishing your words again. When you do, remember that you’re not ‘going wrong.’ There isn’t something inherently wrong with you that makes you unlikely to succeed. The obstacles and struggles that you think disqualify you from succeeding as a creative is actually the secret sauce that sets you apart. No one else will live your story and tell it in the raw and honest way that you do. Someone, somewhere is going to need to hear how you held firmly to your courage and made it through to the other side.

Before you get lost in a sea of numbers, views, and likes, remember why you set out to create in the first place.

Encouraging you always,

Ash


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Dear Stevo…

This time last year, I was struggling really hard to figure out what to write. I would start writing and press delete. I have a folder labelled ‘Homeless’ for all my half-written documents that don’t have a place on this page yet. Anne Lamott, wrote that whenever she struggled with writer’s block, she would open a new document and write a letter to her brother called Stevo. Just addressing your words to one person can make all the difference, so I tried writing a letter to Stevo as well.

I’ve attached my letter below because a) reading back, I think it’s funny and b) for the aspiring writers that follow me, I think it’s important to reveal that the writing process isn’t linear or pretty. We often need a guy called Stevo to prompt us into action. This letter eventually turned into this official post about my birthday last year.

Whether you’re a writer, student, or it’s the first time you’ve come across my words, I hope you’re inspired to start writing letters, and that you know you are so worth celebrating.

Dear Stevo,

I’m struggling to write the words on the page because I don’t know what to write about. That’s a lie – I do know what I want to write about, but the words aren’t flowing. Anne Lamott told me to write a letter to you whenever I’m stuck, so here we are.

Perfectionism is my big thing. I’m still not sure what my voice is. And I still have to scroll through the words of someone else to get my inspiration. I wonder if I’m really going to make it and if this will be worth it. But damm it- I have to try!

There are two pieces I want to write for this week. One is for the girl who doesn’t feel like she’s worth being celebrated. Who doesn’t feel like she’s worth people rallying around her and celebrating her. Why does she feel that way? Probably because people didn’t really show up for her in the past. Or maybe birthday’s weren’t a big thing in the family. Plus she doesn’t believe very good things about herself. What I would say to her is that her birthday is special, irrespective of who is or isn’t showing up. It’s the day she came into the world with fists raised, ready to leave a mark on the world. On the day she opened her eyes, lives changed. I would tell her that there are some years that may not feel like a big deal- like at 15. You’ll wait in anticipation for the big ones like 18 or 21 only to wonder why nothing special is happening. But some years you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

You don’t need the big party to feel loved. I woke up on my 21st wishing I had my community around me. But the flat pulled through for you. The night ended and you’ll learn that things pull together at the last minute. The right people will pull through.

I’d tell her that every inch of her is worth celebrating. That even if it feels like the world doesn’t care she’s still worth celebrating. There are years where it’ll feel eventful and everyone is gathered round waiting for the glitz, glam and sparkle. And there’ll be years where you’ll have to be the sparkle. You’ll have to be your own cheerleader and learn to celebrate yourself. You’re going to have to figure out how to love on and celebrate yourself before you can invite anyone else to do it for you.

I remember when people didn’t want to make the effort to show up. I remember when people showed up and made the day about them. Irrespective of who does or doesn’t show up, it doesn’t lower your capacity to be celebrated.

A year ago, in the days leading up to 21, Slumpy took up residence in my heart and telling me that there wouldn’t be anything special this year either, and left me feeling heavy. I was miles away from my community back home, we were caught up in the rush to submit assignments, forgotten.  21 is placed on a pedestal yet nothing felt special.

You’re allowed to be sentimental on your birthday and be all up in your feelings like a Drake song.

The flat pulled together to rally around me at the last minute. The guys made an emergency trip to Tesco to buy a decadent cake topped with Maltesers. We used cigarette lighters as makeshift candles, and a single balloon found at the bottom of a show bag was inflated to celebrate the first year into my 20s. Afterwards, we caught the bus into the city where I rode my first mechanic bull and danced the night away as fake snow rained down on our heads.  It was a rushed, last minute, affair, but it was enough. 

All this to say that if a single shred of you has ever wondered whether you are worthy of being celebrated, hear me when I say you are, you are, you are.