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How to overlook privilege

We need authors to tell their stories of success and their struggles. While listening closely, I try aligning my circumstances and experiences with the author’s. What sort of life did they launch from, in order to attain the orbit of their career? I hear about education, mentoring and family help, their alliances with other artists. It’s all too easy to add these elements to a pile I can call privilege. Private prep school, colleges whose student body is well-off, parents already in the arts and creative careers.

This adding up rarely motivates me, although it could light a fire under all of us. We love pulling-up-by-bootstraps stories. A writer who comes out of nowhere, with nothing but talent and luck, can make a mark. The ones who don’t come from privilege bring something that has a different value. They know struggle and disadvantage in a way privileged authors do not. They know it firsthand, so when a moment of empathy rises up in a story, they’ll find it easier to make readers feel pain and injustice, or the surge that overcomes hopelessness.

podcast from Just the Right Book featured an interview with Courtney Maum this spring. Maum has had ample success in her career, with multiple traditional novels, plus a superior advice book about becoming a traditionally published author. She’s now got a memoir out, so she bears her soul about her struggles.

Maum’s struggles were on the inside, despite her advantages from the outside. Privilege doesn’t automatically exclude anyone from hard times. It just makes it less likely. That’s like saying there’s a 35 percent chance of rain — and 100 percent if it’s raining where you are. 

There’s a temptation to think that being born to wealthy professionals, being able to afford top schools where you had the freedom to study with little need to work at a job, then creating art which earned praise, would be enough to be happy. Maum was not happy or satisfied about any of this in an intrinsic way. She had privilege, and it amounted to success. She also had a life of anorexia and crushing insomnia, despite a successful marriage and fresh motherhood.

Would an author who had none of those privileges succeed as often as Maum did? The wild card is talent and the propellant is persistence. Often, though, you can look at your simple state school education and working-class family upbringing and be tempted to size up your prospects.

People who have privilege can have a hard time recognizing their advantages. This becomes a game of comparison. Authors do the comparing as a part of their careers. We’re told to find books like ours as comparables. Your book is compared to others at the moment a reader chooses it. Your talents are compared by agents with hundreds or thousands of other artists offering up their work. You can’t make art without comparing, can you?

Perhaps you can, in your own realm. A beloved book that’s become a bestseller and an Oscar-winning film holds wisdom about this. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse sold millions of copies before it became a Oscar-winning movie that made me cry. Simple ink drawings with beautiful calligraphy under each one tell a story about living through struggle. The boy asks the mole, “What do think is the greatest waste of time?” 

The mole answers, “Comparing yourself to others.” 

I accept the truth that privilege plays its part in artistic success. The journey goes beyond the advantages of your looks, your learning, your tribe that raised you, or the financial resources you lean on. You can’t overlook privilege. But you can look away, which is where you’re supposed to look anyway. Look into yourself for your spark, then into the hearts of others to practice empathy.

We don’t know everything about anyone, even those with obvious privilege. Hope and despair, joy and desolation, they all stalk the playgrounds of our lives as authors. When we can get to work and stop comparing, achievement becomes about our own lives. We don’t have to find a thoroughbred horse to ride while we make our way to the finish line. 

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