On the Writerly Benefits of Sibling Rivalry

In a review of Catherine Wald’s The Resilient Writer some months back I noted how grateful I am to my parents for a major contribution to my writing career. By creating me as a Taurus, they endowed me with certain personality traits essential to any writer’s success (not to mention sanity). Taureans, you see, are by definition (at least according to the definition on one of my refrigerator magnets) “DETERMINED” and “PERSISTENT.” Sometimes people go so far as to call them “STUBBORN” (bull-headed?).

But you need those qualities to deal with certain aspects of the writer’s life. Rejection, in particular. You need to be able to find a rejection letter in your mailbox (or when you log in to e-mail) and go on with the rest of your day. You need to have some inherent drive to send a story to 40+ journals before it finds a home. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for writers born under all the other astrological signs.

Yesterday I realized I owe my parents even more. Though I somehow sense it wasn’t uppermost in their minds at the time, they also really helped me prepare for a life as a writer when they gave me a sibling thirtysomething years ago.

I’ve just read two pieces dealing with writers and sibling rivalry. The first, by Steve Almond, appears in the December 5 Publishers Weekly. In “The Case Against Sibling Rivalry,” Almond recounts, among other things, his own shameful experience as a “jealous little turd” at a writers’ conference. His conclusion “isn’t that all writers should love and praise the work of other writers. It’s that we’re all members of the same family.”

Now I’m a big Steve Almond fan–not least because Mr. Almond very graciously and with considerable concern helped me out when he emceed a reading at which I practically fainted a few years ago (that’s another story). And I agree with his conclusion. But isn’t it true that rivalry even within the same family is, at least sometimes, unavoidable?

That’s a point made in A. Papatya Bucak’s “With a Little Help from My Enemies,” which begins with a chronicle of the motivating power of jealousy in her own life. “The younger sister to a genius brother, I quickly learned that the successes of those you love are a much greater spur than the successes of those you hate. He was an editor for our high-school literary magazine; I was editor-in-chief. His Science Olympiad team won the state championship; mine won the nationals. He went to Cornell; I went to Princeton.”

For Bucak (and for her essay) this personal history serves as a prelude to her writing life. Now her “siblings” include everyone from her college-mates to a young woman she once babysat for. And they all seem to be “out-succeeding” her.

How she turns this to her advantage I’ll leave to you to discover.

But here’s what I’m thinking. Pity the poor writer who is an only child (now I have nothing against only children–my dad and one of my best friends are only children). But I think only children have a tougher time as writers. They have to learn some lessons later on (maybe even at an MFA program?) that those of us graced with siblings learn much, much earlier in life. Here’s one: there’s competition in this world; sometimes, someone else is simply more “successful” than you are. Here’s another: life and feelings are messy. You might very well have a great deal of affection (or even love) for someone who inspires some pretty nasty sentiments (jealousy, rage, etc.) at the same time.

For his part, Almond says: “I don’t know that I’ll ever rid myself of envy. What I am trying to do is manage these feelings, so they don’t infect the pleasure I might take in the work of others.” What a perfect way of summing up the happy developments in my relationship with my sister now that we’re both safely into adulthood. Somehow, I suspect that feat resonates in the way I relate to my writer friends, too, the ones that do, in fact, often seem to comprise another “family” for me.

So once again I have to say it: Thanks, Mom and Dad! I appreciate your help!