Guest contributor: Nina de Gramont

Bad Advice Wednesday: Beware to Com-PARE!

categories: Cocktail Hour


Dismissal at my daughter’s elementary school is staggered by ten minutes, with the younger kids leaving earlier.  Hadley leaves at 2:30, and on the rare days I get there early I sit out front and wait with the first graders.  The other day one of them – we’ll call him Johnny, which I’m reasonably sure is not his real name – was in a bit of a state.  While his classmates sat quietly on the front stoop, he marched up and down the sidewalk as if he were orating .  “I’m so mad at Bill.  I know he’s had three play dates with Dave, and now they’re having another play date this weekend.”  Johnny was wonderfully unselfconscious about his jealous frenzy, the way only people under the age of six can be, and he didn’t mind at all that his entire social world could hear his griping.  It was time for Ms. Rennie, the first grade teacher, to intervene.

Ms. Rennie was Hadley’s teacher last year and I Love her so much that I had to capitalize the word.  She was born to teach young children:  wonderfully kind and serene, with a soothing and melodic voice, but also with an almost mystical ability to impose order.  I watched her stride across the sidewalk, place both hands on Johnny’s shoulders, kneel down and look him in the eye.

“Johnny,” she said, in her calm and musical voice.  “We spoke about this yesterday.  What happens when we com-PARE?”   She spoke the last word in two distinct syllables, with a rising, drawn out lilt on the last.  It sounded ridiculous and significant at the same time.  Johnny cocked his head.  The stress on that last syllable seemed to ring a bell.

“When we com-PARE,” Ms. Rennie all but sang, “we start to feel bad.”

Johnny nodded, recognizing the simple truth in that statement, or else properly hypnotized.  He took his seat quietly with the others. 

If you’re a writer, you can easily see where this is going.  We all have that person – or in some cases multiple people – whose accomplishments can seem upsetting when we com-PARE them to our own.  I remember once, before I’d published a book, my husband and I were invited to a dinner party.  David was a published writer at this point, as was every other person invited to the party, and our hostess had lined up everyone’s books as a centerpiece on the dining room table.  “Nina,” she said, when she saw me notice.  “I should have asked you to bring one of your literary magazines so we could have included you!”

I pictured all those beautiful hardcover books beside one of my battered old copies of Kinesis or Atom Mind II, and felt very glad that I hadn’t brought one along.   Years later, I sometimes find myself faced with the achievements of acquaintances or even friends, and I feel the same effects of that original visualization.  I feel inadequate.  I feel bad.

You do it too, right?  You feel fine about your work, proud of what you’ve done, and hopeful about what lies ahead.  Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you hear someone else’s bio, with all their Pushcart Prizes and New York Times Notable Books and Starred Reviews in Kirkus, and if you were six years old you might just march up and down the school pick up line, waving your fists and complaining to everyone and anyone about the injustice.  Instead you do what grownups do, which is fret, and doubt yourself, and wonder why you ever got into this ridiculous business in the first place.

And the answer?  It’s not a business.  It’s an endeavor and a calling, and you chose it because you love to tell stories, and you believe that stories matter.  You know that life without art would be unbearable, so you want to do the brave thing, the right thing, and contribute some creation of your own.

So in other words, today’s bad advice is a reprise on an impromptu lesson taught by a wise first grade teacher.  Next time that particular and paralyzing darkness descends, try to hear Ms. Rennie’s calm and musical voice in your ears.  Consider it a rhetorical question, but pose it all the same.   And then get back to doing the work you were born to do.

  1. David Nahon writes:

    When I was young, I was taught that comparisons were odious; later I learned that comparisons – if they were to be meaningful – were made as a self-imposed measuring stick. True: but as a story teller you make the same point with grace and humor.

  2. Molly writes:

    How is Dave feeling about this excellent post, Nina?

  3. John Jack writes:

    Was Johnny feeling left out more so than jealous? Youngsters are very sensitive to exclusion. Poets and writers too. The publishing culture is a playground sandbox. I’m content to join in or build my own sand castle. I can take a cold shoulder or turned back as easily as a sand-kicking bully or an elitist pack of shunners. All a bully wants is some tender loving attention. All elitists want is to feel superior. Feed the needs. Give ’em enough rope — time wounds all heels.

  4. eli hastings writes:

    Pithy, funny, awesome. you should be on the roll more often, Nina.


  5. Malcolm Bates writes:

    Yesterday I had a smart-ass remark all typed up and ready to go. I specialize in juvenile humor, the result of decades working with middle-school humor. Give them a little vomit, a little snot and they become your best audience.

    Just as I was about to hit the submit comment button, Aja Hart walked up to my desk. Aja is one of my favorite 8th grade students. She walks with a pronounced limp, her blond hair seems to fly everywhere, her cloths are always a bit worn, tattered, and yet she radiates such joy and and enthusiasm I just have to smile every time she walks into class. She is fearless and in an 8th grade world where status matters, where things matters, she talks about her forest and her adventures there and the artifacts she finds and she loves to write. She should be a target for the sort of middle school meanness that drives me crazy, but instead, her classmates like her. I think they see in her something they’ve lost.
    Well, Aja is not smiling when she walks up to my desk. She has entered a short story in a Scholastic writing contest and discovered that is was national in scope, not just regional and she is crestfallen. “Mr. Bates, I’ll never win now. There are 18-year-olds entered. My story isn’t good enough.”
    I looked at your post, which is on my computer screen and I look back at her, and I asked her, “Do you like your story?”

    She says, “Yes.”
    I tell her that it is a good story.
    “But it’s not good enough.”
    “Are you going to stop writing?”
    “Heck no (she says heck), are you kidding?”
    “You love writing.”
    “Oh yeah.”
    “And you have to write.”
    “It was a good story Aja and there will be others, ya you betcha (I say that a lot).”
    And Aja looks only partially convinced, but she is smiling as she leaves the room. I can’t have Aja not smiling. And I’m not sure I would have said any of that had I not read your article.
    Of course, Bill puts my article in after yours, and I have to talk myself off the ledge. Oh my God, there is the horrific typo, cache instead of cachet. It seems sloppy, too self-conscious blah-de-blah-de-blah. And at that moment I need Aja to walk into the room and remind me why I write, and how much fun I am having writing about my passion for music, the mountains and playing with words. That I start out with an audience of one, but most importantly, that I start.
    Your article is on my bulletin board. Thanks a bunch.

  6. monica wood writes:

    I like to make a distinction between jealousy (NOT wanting the envied person to have his/her enviable things) and envy (wishing I had the envied person’s things). This distinction can keep us sane.

    Envy is part of life, and especially a life in the arts. This sainted teacher’s lesson can’t come a moment too soon for Johnny and all the rest of us. Thanks, Nina. Really enjoyed this post.

  7. Carol de Gramont writes:

    Once again, the Voice of Reason. And once again, written beautifully.

    Thanks, Nina. Even we ancients have to deal with our inner Johnnies.

  8. Andrea Q. writes:

    “It’s not a business. It’s an endeavor and a calling, and you chose it because you love to tell stories, and you believe that stories matter.” — So, so true, and such a great reminder (especially as I tend to be focused on the business end of things most of the time). Great post!

  9. robin writes:

    I’m so jealous that Nina wrote this post and I didn’t! Why is she so much better than I am????

    JK. Good work!

  10. Bill writes:

    “Our similarities are different.”–Yogi Berra (who also says, Great post, Nina!)

  11. Tommy writes:

    I’d say Ms. Rennie and you were cut from the same cloth. Excellent story, and great moral!

  12. Richard Gilbert writes:

    What a wonderful precept, well told. That teacher must be some kind of angel sent down to reach a few kids before it’s too late . . . Thanks for extending her wisdom in metaphor for us big kids.

  13. George de Gramont writes:

    As a character in Charles Dickens once said “MORE”!

  14. Suzanne Stryk writes:

    That is so wise, Nina. I truly believe what you say is the right way to think. I don’t mean to be a devil’s advocate here, but perhaps competition, which arises from comparing ourselves with others, is often the motivating force driving us to work harder, and better. We say to ourselves, “I can jump higher than that…” and train to do so. We often compare ourselves to ourselves, then try to out-do our own work! Someone said, I think it was Auden, “happy people leave nothing behind,” and while I don’t entirely believe that, there’s some truth to it. As horrible as it sounds, might character imperfections, like comparing ourselves to others, sometimes propel us into achievement?