Jealousy is tough. I don’t know of any writers who don’t feel varying degrees of twinges of it at one time or another but it is how we handle it and ourselves when confronted with it that matters, right?
Sometimes it’s really hard to hear how people are selling and selling and selling, especially in a week (month? year?) when editors seem to be handing out nothing but impersonal standard rejections slips. I can read in Publisher’s Lunch about my agent making a “good deal” for someone else and for a moment or two or three I feel tinged in green, at least until I remember I am not there yet, with there being that mystical place I call established. A friend I love and care about can land a deal with a top tier publisher or win a coveted award and I admit to cheering and whimpering at the same time.
Does this make me a bad person? No. It makes me normal. Now of course if you become so obsessed with being jealous that it affects your work, turns you into a midnight stalker or someone who posts anonymous negative reviews for the other person online, well that’s a different story.
Joan Didion says, “To cure jealousy is to see it for what it is, a dissatisfaction with self.”
Ouch! But for me, that quote rings very true. I’m often very quick to put the blame for whole dang thing on my shoulders. The other people are selling because they are writing more than I am, which means they are improving quicker and they are producing more and they are better at the discipline it takes and so on and so on. I always assume that the fault is mine. If I lived up to half of my potential, I’d be there too. So while I get twinges when I hear of things going well for other writers I know, it’s usually followed by a big dose of guilt because I know I’m not working as hard as I could. I can’t imagine sniping to someone about their success, but then I’ve listened to my fair share of sniping from others, so I shouldn’t keep being so surprised at how cruel some people can be.
I never begrudge the hard workers their success. Publication is a hard earned reward. What I DO have a hard time with are the people who are sure that it must be connections that got you somewhere, or that they could do it too, if they only took the time. (Right, and I could be a brain surgeon in my spare time if I wanted to.) And in order to get the word our about work, we need to talk about it. If we don’t flaunt our work, as in being our own best PR person, then no one will ever hear of us. Yet if flaunt it, we are snobs or egomaniacs or something. No wonder so many writers are bi-polar.
Sometimes I get so caught up in the business of writing and publication and publicity and making money or dreaming up ways to make money with words that I forget that all of that is completely out of my control and that I need to concentrate on writing and let the rest of the story play itself out. But it’s hard. How can I read about great reviews and huge advances and not think about how it might affect me or influence my work? How can I stay focused on my work, on becoming a better a writer, a more honest writer when other writers I know are calculating how to spend their various advances and royalty checks? How can I not feel the tiniest bits of jealousy?
So I usually give in and let myself have an hour or two (or a day or two but no more than three) of giving into the feelings and admitting that I want what someone else has. Perhaps a therapist would tell me that what I am doing is counterproductive but personally I don’t think I can ignore what’s right in front of my face. And sometimes it is just what I need to fuel me for the next writing session.
But it isn’t easy.
I think it is the toughest thing to do, to not think about the publishing and the possibility of awards and fleeting and fame and just write the stories and stay true to the writer inside of me.
I have friends who have had great success with a book or several books and I’m happy for them, really I am, but I have to remind myself that I can’t compare any of my experiences with their successes. But I DO compare and that is always the problem. Once we have that first sale, that first acknowledgement publicly of our talent, it is no longer about the writing, but rather about the repeat factor…or trying to play top it with ourselves. I think that with our writing, as in other parts of our life, we go through stages of growth and plateau. Each time we hit that plateau and hunger to push ourselves to the next level of writing and more growth, it becomes like starting over all over again. Makes us once again beginners in our chosen area. I have a hard time with that. And I don’t know the secret to staying focused. I seem to pepper my life with so many activities that I have difficulty balancing without crashing. Writing is tough enough. Then there are so many of us that work full or part time on top of it. Plus add in children, spouses, family folk who need our support and so on. Sometimes I wonder how it is we ever get anything done at all.
I’ll admit that sometimes allowing myself to feel the jealously and then let it go naturally doesn’t always work. It might be because I’m feeling especially vulnerable at the moment. Perhaps my agent or editor rejected something close to my heart just when someone else experienced a giant burst of success. Maybe I haven’t written for a while and everyone around me seems to be pumping out 2000 words a day in-between day jobs and diapers and doctor visits. Maybe I’m just at a low point for no reason I can define and I haven’t managed to come out of it before I hear about someone optioning a huge movie deal on a picture book about cement or some other topic that makes no sense to me at all. And that all happens because hey, that’s life.
In those cases I have to admit to myself that some writing/social situations are negative to me. Sometimes I can’t let myself be around other writers because hearing about all their latest sales and great connections and happy publishing experiences works the wrong way on me. While I can be happy for my friends, at the same time I think, “Why not me?” and “What am I doing wrong?”. Then it becomes more of a downer than a positive experience. So at times like that I just remove myself from those situations. I don’t begrudge my friends their successes, I just have to protect myself from a tendency to feel sorry for myself and whine. Some people can count on going to conference to help them get all jazzed up and motivated about writing. But if I am in a rough spot with myself and my work, that’s the wrong place for me to be. I know that much about myself. Instead I pull books off my shelf to read. Books that tell the story of other writers suffering the same insecurities and worries and envies. Somehow, sometimes, that helps.
There doesn’t seem to be a way, at least for me, to stay focused and positive all the time. I don’t even know how I do all that I do and I don’t do nearly as much as some friends who seem to be building their career every minute of every day. For me it is a bit like just picking up whichever baby is crying the loudest at the moment and hoping that instinct and the need for survival will pull me through. Some days I feel jealous. Some days I feel like giving up. And some days I wonder why everyone in the world isn’t a writer because it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to be.
Marge Piercy has written a wonderful poem called “For The Young Who Want to”.
No matter where you are in your own writing career, I suggest you go read the entire poem, which ends with:
“Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.”
Edited to add: Another post about the writing life can be found over here, at Wordy Girls. Please add us to your friend’s list.