How Neil Gaiman Inadvertently Gave Me Some Great Advice On Polyamory

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When you go to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, you are given a challenge: write a story a week, for six weeks.  This would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but Clarion is not the best of circumstances: your fellow students, all seventeen of them, are *also* attempting to write a story a week, and if they complete their story then you must read and critique it for them.
The problem is that your classmates are all brilliant.
Clarion’s a lot like Juilliard in that even getting admitted into the program means you have great skill, so everyone there is a helluva writer.  And you could be excused for thinking that we were all in some reality show competition, trying to outwrite each other to devise ZOMG THE BEST STORY THAT WINS THIS WEEK.
…that didn’t really happen, though.
And when Neil Gaiman came for his week to teach us, he sent us off with words that summed up why this head-to-head conflict had never emerged.
“There’s eighteen of you,” he said, amazed, “And none of you are even fishing in the same pond.”
Which was true.  I liked writing comic-booky melodramas, which I think I did pretty well when I wrote my books Flex and The Flux. But Kat Howard was far more influenced by Shakespeare and Tam Lin, and her precise prose sits quite at home in her upcoming novel Roses and Rot.  And Monica Byrne had this madly vibrant mash of world cultures and sex-positive fucking which she distilled into The Girl In The Road.
What Neil was pointing out was how we all had different writing styles – and if we perfected them, we’d never be in competition with each other.  What we’d have to say would be such a unique experience that we would be the only provider.
Now, it’s common to think that, say, STAR WARS is somehow in competition with THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – and on some accountant’s balance sheet somewhere, yes, I suppose that’s true.  But the real competition is “Can I tell a story that’s better than falling asleep in a warm bed on an autumn night?  Can I tell a story that’s unique enough that you need to go back to it again and again?”
And if you tell the story that’s yours, and tell it right, people will make time to listen.
So many movies failed because they thought they were competing with STAR WARS, and they weren’t – they were competing with themselves to find something interesting that a thousand other movies weren’t already saying.
I can’t best Monica’s grasp of melting-pot cultures – and it’d be foolish for me to try, she travels to Iran and other foreign countries, that’s her strength.  I can’t beat Kat’s grasp of poetry; she bathes in fine words on a daily basis, you can see her whole body light up when she fits the correct word into place.
But I can be me.  I can unearth my quirky humor and my deep love of weird characters, and I can make something so uniquely a function of me that you can’t get anything like this anywhere else.  Maybe you like Flex, maybe you don’t, but what’s there is unlike any other author.
And that’s the way polyamory works, too.  You see people getting concerned about what their lovers’ lovers do – is he better in bed?  Does she like more outdoorsy activities than I do? They’re smarter, they know more about politics, I don’t read the New York Times.
Like Neil said: none of you are even fishing in the same pond.  Yes, what your lover often likes about their other paramours are qualities that you do not possess.  This is standard.  Your lovers are stocked full of you, in all your you-ness abundance; if they dated a partner who was exactly like you, that might be more of a problem, because apparently you weren’t providing enough of this you experience.
So yeah, they’ll find partners who do things that you don’t.  But this isn’t a competition.  You should not run out and start reading the Times or take up bodybuilding just to make sure you’re still in the game.
I know, because it’s scary sometimes for me to look at other writers with their novels and think They’ve got more PR, they got better blurbs, this person I like is a fan of theirs and they’re not a fan of me.  I worry that somehow I sabotaged my own success by writing about donut psychology and videogamemancy instead of, I dunno, whatever the person I’m envious this week wrote.
That’s all the usual writer-insecurity burbling to the surface.  Then I remember: if I do things right, their success will not crush my own.  I’m my own damn unique voice, and I’ll appeal to different segments.
This is my pond, and I am learning to fish in it to appeal to the sorts of people who want someone like me. I won’t accomplish that by making clumsy attempts to be someone I’m not, nor will I accomplish that by looking over at the other ponds and moaning about how much bigger they are.
What you’ve got is you.  In fact, all you’ve really got is you.  So find what you like about yourself, and make more of that.  And trust that people can like both what other people can provide and also you, in all your delightful youness.
There’s a lot of ponds.  There’s a lot of possibilities in fiction, and in love, and in life.
You don’t have to be all of them.  You just have to be something that’s not in the other ponds.

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