On Conferences, Comparing, College Campuses and Aspiring Like Youth

“Which poet do you want to be when you grow up?”

My friend N and I were walking around a New England college campus.

She and I were there to attend a writers’ conference: four days of craft courses, critique, readings, and dark hour debauchery alternating with daytime discomfort, summer camp style.

Familiar liberal arts trappings surrounded us: sprawling grass fields, soulless, florescent dorms, red brick buildings, patio furniture bolted to cement. Together, they rejuvenated some spirit of youthful optimism: We can do anything! Be anyone! The world is ours!

This is an attitude that can collide with another one such gatherings are known to provoke: the prickly recognition that good fucking god there are SO MANY PEOPLE in the world who are writing things and how will any of us ever succeed and who in god’s name will ever read ANY of us?

That happened, too.


On the train back to New York from New Haven, I sat across from an undergrad who was also in attendance, helping out: a young woman entering her senior year, she came across as effortlessly social, stylish and smart—the sort of person born to glide impressively through college life.

Still (or, perhaps, as a result), she told me, the various traumas the (idea of the) end of school engender aren’t far from her mind: the loss of close community, the loss of clear purpose. Even, she said, the pressure to accomplish the kind of Big Things that elite universities are apt to persuade their students lie, inevitably, in their path.

“You’re only twenty-one!” I reminded her as she described her angst.

“Yeah,” she shrugged, glancing out the window toward cement and tracks, the somber sidelines of Metro North. “But some people my age have already done so much!”

“Oh, stop it!” I rolled my eyes. “You’re so young. You have so much time.”

She wasn’t convinced. But of course, it wasn’t really her I was trying to sway.

I didn’t get serious about writing until my mid-twenties. Early compared with some, but more often it seems late compared with others—and at the Conference, it didn’t elude me how many folks not much older than me seemed to have accomplished so much more.

Overall, brief stints on college campuses notwithstanding, I’ve found the occasion to feel invincible about the future increasingly elusive. More and more, that toxic impulse to compare my accomplishments with those around me—particularly those close in age—beckons, gathering perilous heat.

It quickly becomes a losing game. One has to think hard to list accomplishments at which thirty-odds can’t arrive: A Nobel prize? (Actually, they can.) Meaningless awards of Lifetime Recognition? Grandchildren?

We’re told, over and over again, not to compare ourselves: that everyone has their own path. That it doesn’t matter. We know. I know.

And yet: we all do it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to comfort ourselves with lists of well-known people who bloomed late. We wouldn’t hear every other writer make a self-deprecating reference comparing their productivity to Joyce Carol Oates’. We wouldn’t scan the wedding announcements making a certain kind of mental note.

We don’t know how not to compare ourselves, just as we don’t know how to detach from the way we’re perceived: we derive so much meaning in our lives derives from how we fit in with other peoples’. How can we avoid measuring ourselves the same way?

On the last day of the conference, N and I googled some of the other participants, comparing their publications with our own. We made fun of ourselves as we did it. (We’re in a dorm room! I assured. We’re supposed to act juvenile!)

In truth, she and I have become expert at jointly indulging this, the lamest part of ourselves: the part fueled by ego, that maddening, driving aspect. It works. We share a sense of humor about it, and a convenient commitment to (mostly) differing sections of the writing world.

A part of me feels shameful, wary of enabling each other. A larger part feels relieved: it’s a tough part in which to be alone.

And it did feel important, refreshing, to balance that reflexive, negative spin with that more youthful, college-inspired one. The one that recognizes, as I overheard one participant put it, that some people take until seventy to figure ot their purpose. That, with writing, as with so many things, there is no formula, no model anyone can proscribe that will lead anywhere assured.

That it isn’t now, and in fact, will never be, too late to aspire toward goals, selves, people, projects we may (or may not!) someday achieve.