Other-Upsmanship

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-10-14 12:00:00 No comments


It would be nice, I suppose, if I could say that I started writing because, as Hubert Selby, Jr. once said, I did not want to die having done nothing with my life. That's a motive I stole from him; when I was old enough to understand what words like that really meant, I reflected on them, and realized there was a part of me that was like that, too.

But it didn't really start there. If it started anywhere, it started because I wanted to one-up my older brother.

If memory serves, he was in ninth grade and I was in sixth grade. He'd been given an assignment where he was to take the opening scene of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and write his own extrapolation on it. This he did, with Pip and Abel Magwitch (now named "Crazy" Damiskis) taking part in a bizarre science-fiction plot. This was accompanied by a biographical sketch of Damiskis, which included among other things, these lines: "Damiskis's first great ambition was to take over the world, but he quickly realized: who the hell wants to take over a crummy world like this?" The teacher wrote on the back of the last page of the story: "When do you get in touch with your publisher?"

I read all of this and cackled with glee. I also found myself having another thought: I bet I could do that, too.

The problem was, for years on end, I did try to do that. But always and forever with that particular motive. Not, I could create something that's all mine, but I can do what that other guy is doing, and I bet I can do it better, too. Jealously and one-upsmanship were the real drives, not real creative discovery.

This self-delusion lasted through high school. I wrote a great deal, but all of it was worthless because it stemmed from the wrong motives. None of it was out of a sincere need to communicate anything personal, even in the form of a fantasy. All of it was an attempt to show off in one form or another. Around the time I graduated, I realized I'd been kidding myself, and so for the next three years or so (1989-1992) through college, I wrote nothing of consequence.

Over the summer of 1992, I wrote my first novel. I no longer have a copy of this travesty, and I doubt either me or the world is any the poorer for missing it. But as bad as it was, it at least stemmed from things that were mine. Maybe it's just that there's only so much you can draw on when you're fifteen vs. what you can draw on when you're twenty and up, but somehow I managed to change motives. I was learning, however tentatively, to draw on something other than "I could do that too".

"I could do that, too" is not much of a motive, chiefly because it is emotionally hollow. It is about impressing others, not about attaining self-mastery or self-awareness. But we're surrounded by all these reasons to impress others, and most of them pass without a murmur. Maybe it's because we can include elements in a work that people will recognize and gravitate to because of whatever else happens to be around them at the time; maybe it's because we think it will send the right kinds of social signals about us; maybe it's because we think something will be a good sell. There are no end of excuses and justifications to pick from, although the common thread is that they involve impressing others. It's hard to learn how to write first and foremost for yourself, and in a way that isn't itself another form of justification-finding.

More about this in another installment.


Tags: creativity psychology writing