My First Nemesis
I can only admit this because I believe I’m not alone. I believe that every writer—maybe every creative person, maybe anyone whose life is ruled by ambition, by a calling beyond rationality—has an imaginary nemesis. The person isn’t imaginary, mind you. But the rivalry is.
Here’s what I mean by nemesis: The guy in your undergraduate workshop who couldn’t tell its from it’s, and now his novel’s being turned into a movie. The woman who’s probably never heard of you but who has edged you out for five different fellowships. The debut author whose book came out the same week as yours from the same press, and wound up as the One City, One Book pick for your city. Not her city, mind you. Yours.
I could go on, but I don’t think I have to. I think you know what I’m talking about. What I’m going to tell you instead is the story of my first nemesis. I was twelve.
My public library ran a children’s writing contest. I believe the prize was a book, which was immaterial, as the actual prize was validation. And year after year, I was given that validation. I was told that of the fourth graders, and then the fifth graders, and then the sixth graders who bothered submitting something for this contest (I’m sure there were at least four of us), I was the winner. It went to my head, as these things tend to do.
And then, seventh grade. I submitted my brilliant new story, “Sabrina.” Originally written as a Halloween vocabulary assignment for school, it contained all twelve Stanford Achievement Test-approved synonyms for “eerie.” It was about a black cat. I was unbeatable. I was the laureate of the public library, and this was my masterpiece.
Actually, it was an Honorable Mention. And when they published the winners in a stapled booklet, I realized they had awarded no second or third places. The winning story, a dogfight scene by someone I’d never heard of, someone who went to a different school, had so thoroughly drubbed mine that they felt compelled to separate us by two full ladder rungs.
The dogfight story was good. It was so good that my mother, who I don’t think was even trying to placate me, wondered aloud if it was plagiarized, or if this girl had received help from a teacher. I agreed with her, loudly. But on a deeper level, I knew it wasn’t true. I’d been beaten – and whatever that girl knew about writing, whatever she’d done, was something I needed to learn. Immediately.
I am thirty-five years old, and I still remember every word of her first two sentences.
But of course I grew up. I found other nemeses, some of whom were simultaneously good friends, and they were what kept me from turning in half-hearted drafts for my writing workshops. They were what kept me working on those rare occasions when fiction itself did not. When my novel came out, I faced new nemeses (of the “if only they hadn’t run that glowing review of your novel they would’ve had space to review mine” variety).
And then somewhere, somehow, in that year following publication, I settled into a Zen-like state where I became legitimately happy for other writers’ success. I can’t say how this happened, except that I’ve been doing more yoga. Or maybe I realized that we’re all in this together, and the actual enemies are functional illiteracy and Candy Crush Saga.
But of course I’m still not above the occasional twinge of jealousy, of the healthy variety. If I see on Facebook that you won a Guggenheim, I will wholeheartedly congratulate you, and do a little dance. And then I will get off Facebook and open up my story document and revise the hell out of it.
I’m glad to say I was never compelled, as an adult, to Google this girl, the winner of the seventh grade contest, even though her name had stamped itself on my brain in the manner of all adolescent disappointments. But then last week I was reading my local police blotter online (long story, I do weird things for stress relief), and here was this woman, the author of the 1989 dogfight story, being written up for some harmless but embarrassing antics. An unusual name, and not far from where I grew up. Absolutely the same person. And I will admit that I had a moment of pure, unadulterated Schadenfreude. This was the girl who’d written me under the table? Getting arrested?
So finally, at this point, I did Google her, and discovered that she’s a brilliant and successful poet and essayist, someone I really wish I knew. I clicked a link and became so lost in an essay of hers that I forgot who I was reading. This feeling—awe at her writing, kinship with someone I’ve never met, appreciation that my amazing childhood library encouraged at least two future writers—was a hundred times better than the Schadenfreude. I am writing this in part because I want to remember that feeling. I want to stay here, to shut down that petty 12-year-old forever, even if her jealousy and ambition got me to this point.
Last summer, I showed up at a bookstore to read from my novel, and the manager confided that he’d recently been talking about me with another writer. This writer had come in to sign books, seen a poster for my event in the window, turned to the manager, and said, “Ugh, I hate her.” He’d never read a word of my writing. We’d never met. I can only imagine what I “did” to him, what happy moment for me was an unhappy moment for him.
To that writer: I’m so sorry. And also (forgive me for saying it): you’re welcome.