Why, Ulysses, Why?

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on confidence for a lifestyle magazine. I interviewed a number of people, one of whom was a friend who’d struggled with a lack of confidence as a child but had, through years of living and many small successes, come out of her shell and into herself. Her story wasn’t unique, but her eloquence provided me with some good quotes.

It’s what I didn’t include in the article, however, that haunted me for weeks afterwards. It’s a story she told me about her eighteen-year-old son, Ben.

I’ve known Ben since he was ten. He’s a deep thinker with a biting wit who is, like his mom used to be, a little low in confidence. He’s also an incredibly talented artist and writer. By the time he was in his early teens, Ben had filled a stack of notebooks with a lengthy and brilliantly illustrated fantasy novel that took him years to write. He didn’t talk about it much, but he had done it and his confidence was building.

Ben entered high school thinking about his future, considering what he’d major in at university. Knowing it would either be fine art or literature, he kept drawing and painting and writing.

Until Grade Eleven. That’s when Ben read Ulysses. And he hasn’t written a single word – other than texts to his buddies or required school work – since.

Ulysses, in case you missed it, is considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It’s number one on the Modern Library’s List of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th century. Never mind that this James Joyce classic runs 265,000 words, was written in 1922, and is for me at least (and probably a few others) pretty much incomprehensible.

For some, it is the gold standard of literature. Given that, Ben decided to read it. It took him forever.

In fact, his mom said, he had trouble finishing it. In the end, he didn’t really like it. Nor did he understand it. But that appealed to his deep thinking nature because Ben found it meaningful. He took another look at his own fantasy novel and found it wanting. Comparisons were made, confidence was eroded. He could never write anything as good, he told his mother. Certainly not in this lifetime.

His mother said all the right things (and she’s not even a writer, she’s a dental hygienist). She pointed out that times change, tastes change, writing changes. She talked about hard-to-grasp literature versus engaging entertaining fiction. She mentioned Harry Potter and all the books Ben loved growing up. She reminded him of his innate talent, talked about how he had years to learn craft and hone that talent. She told him she believed in him.

The trouble is Ben stopped believing in himself.

We all make comparisons. Probably not with Ulysses but very likely with other writers. There is an upside to comparing if we’re studying craft and learning from it. I think that’s part of what Ben was trying to do. But there’s no place for comparing if it drags us down and makes us feel ‘less than.’ Because there’s always going to be someone who writes better or gets the award we covet or hits a list we desperately want to hit. They are not hard to find.

What is often harder to find is acceptance of and compassion for our own work, our own talent, our own process. And self-compassion, said one of the experts I interviewed for the article, is one of the cornerstones of confidence.

Ben was part of my son’s graduating class. In a few weeks, he’ll walk out of his high school forever. I’m going to wrap up a copy of ‘Sometimes the Magic Works – Lessons From a Writing Life’ by Terry Brooks. I’ll give it to him and suggest he might like to read some of Brooks’ fantasy novels too. They remind me of the kind of thing Ben wrote with such passion back in middle school.

And while Ben’s off somewhere reading, his mom and I have plans for his copy of Ulysses. Campfire anyone?

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