Friday, August 20, 2010

Guest Post: Inevitable Envy

People are loathe to admit it, but envy is an inevitable (and unenviable) part of the writing life. I have been on both sides of the envy seesaw, and it’s no fun either way. Envy has always seemed to me such a sticky-feeling emotion, the kind of thing where you need to shower just after you admit to yourself that you’re feeling it. No wonder we call it by so many other words.

But Shakespeare felt professional envy, probably directed toward Kit Marlowe—in fact, he wrote sonnets about it. Fitzgerald and Hemingway had a famously rivalrous friendship—as did Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Melville got tired of playing second fiddle to Hawthorne, and I just read that Virginia Woolf, after reading glowing reviews of the “The Four Quartets” by TS Eliot, went out to walk in the fields and tell herself “I am I, and must follow that furrow, not copy another.”

So here’s the bottom line on professional envy. If you feel it—or rather, when you feel it—first of all, take comfort that you’re in the very best of company.

Second, use it as an impetus to write. You can’t let your friend get that far ahead of you, can you?

Thirdly, remember that this is a street which goes both ways and that at some point, if you keep writing, you will be on the receiving end of someone else’s envy. It might just be a well-turned phrase in a writing workshop, or it might be the Pulitzer. Either way when you notice it you’re going to feel… a little sticky. Because here’s the weird thing about envy: it feels no better to be envied than it does to envy other people.

When I sold my novel, my friend Dawn said, “the publishing process will be full of surprises. And one of them is that your friends are not going to be particularly happy for you.” It’s a harsh realization. For years you and your friends are lolling around in the same muddy pasture of despair. No one can get an agent, much less published. It doesn’t seem possible. It seems as far away as if you were sitting there saying, "some day one of us is going to fly.”

But then it happens. Someone sells her book. And the reaction is not just envy but surprise. Wait a minute. She sold her book? Actually sold it, and she has an agent and an editor and a title and a cover and all that sort of stuff? The land shifts beneath you all a little bit and it’s hard not to have a jumble of emotions, with envy certainly among them.

Now here’s the conundrum. If your group is full of good writers and you’re committed to helping each other, the news that the first of your group has published is both an occasion for envy and, on the other hand, a boon for everyone. There’s a little more of a crack in the gate. Maybe your friend will ask their agent to look at your book. Maybe they’ll help you when it’s time to negotiate your own contract or publicize your own book.

But even if the stars align and you’re able to help each other beautifully—and indeed it has happened among me and my writing friends—you still have to go through that gate one at a time. Some people have to hang back and watch their friends precede them into the land of the published and that hurts. So I guess the fourth point about envy is…

Accept it as a rite of passage. And in some ways, evidence of how far you’ve come. Melville envied Hawthorne because he knew him. Ditto for Shakespeare and Marlowe, Sexton and Plath, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Woolf and Eliot. We envy people who are nearby, who seem just a step or two ahead of us in the process. The language of envy begins with “It could have been me…”

We don’t feel that about people who are far above us. You don’t lie on your couch and re-read Pride and Prejudice for the 700th time and envy Austen. She’s Austen, for God’s sake. It would be like feeling envy for an angel. So when your friends begin to improve in their writing, to publish, to win awards or be admitted into colonies, your envy is a sign that you’re not that far behind them. Painful as it is, you’ve moved a step closer to publication.

Because if it could have been you, someday, it will be.

Kim Wright has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than 25 years and is a two-time recipient of the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Writing. Love in Mid Air (www.loveinmidair.com) is her first novel and the book trailer can be found here.

19 comments:

  1. Awesome post about something few ever mention. I've surely felt it - Him? He got an agent? With THAT? - and yet the worst you can do is deny it's there, so thanks for shining a light on it.

    Having said that, one of the things I've most appreciated about blogs like this is how sincerely supportive everyone is towards everyone else, no matter where they are on the journey. To quote Spinal Tap, "I envy us."

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  2. I've been envied. Not for being published, alas. For small accomplishments. And I get all defensive and apologetic and burble about how I'm not so great and it doesn't make the other person envy me one whit less and it solves NOTHING.

    When I was at school I was a high achiever academically and people envied me, so do you know what I did? I achieved less. On purpose. I spent years achieving less so that I could just be one of the crowd. Now I see a beautiful, brilliant daughter of mine doing exactly the same thing.

    One of the benefits of middle age, perhaps, is that I know that I've only got a few years before my mind and/or health begin to deteriorate and I'm damn well going to use the gifts God gave me to the fullest. Which means, I suppose, letting go of both my envy of others (another advantage of getting older is that you envy people less, I find) and of my idiotic reactions to those who envy me.

    That was quite an insight for me, by the way, so thanks. Just shows you that reading your blogs instead of getting on with work can sometimes pay off.

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  3. I was really glad to read this! I posted on this subject on my blog a while ago, and most of the comments basically said, "Oh, this isn't a problem for me." I worried I was the only one!

    (word verification: sproinge. Onomatopoeia FTW!)

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  4. I totally identify, Jane. Hitting my 50's was great for getting perspective on both feeling envy and being the target of it. Maybe - at least to some degree - envy is a younger person's game?

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  5. Hey, Kim! I clicked over from SheWrites and I'm glad I did. What an excellent post! I've certainly envied others and had others envy me, and you're so right--it's icky either way. Thanks for illuminating a topic that all writers need to talk about more!

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  6. This is such a great, thoughtful post! I've read and heard a lot about this phenomenon and not just among writers. It's smart to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then act like a grown up anyway.

    I'm always proud of the success of friends, even if I am also envious. Just because they have something that I want doesn't make me wish they didn't have it. And with something like writing, where you can work so hard and so long with no payoff, vicarious victories can be a real blessing.

    You can cheer for your friends and still be a little bit jealous. They might even get a kick out of it if you tell them so.

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  7. Kim, what a wonderful essay on something no one really talks about. God, I have felt so envious of others. At times, ridiculously consumed by it! And then it passes. I go back to being slightly less insane. :)

    Thank you for addressing this.

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  8. I guess I've been fortunate to receive nothing but support so far.

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  9. This is an interesting topic, and certainly a more productive way to look at it than many of the alternatives ... envy seems at first glance like such a useless, base, low emotion, and in many ways it is, but if you can put it to use, why not?

    Thanks for making me think.

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  10. Clicked over from SheWrites. Maybe there's envy in my writers group and I'm just blind to it. But it seems that what happens is that, with a few nasty exceptions, members put so much effort into helping each other that we each are able to feel success when one gets an agent, wins a prize or sells a book.

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  11. Well said. I suppose I mainly feel jealous of really bad writers who become famous due to nepotism, sleeping with certain people or just plain good fortune. But since I have a book coming out soon I can't be too pissed off!

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  12. Wonderful post, beautifully written. I need not say more except "thank you."

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  13. There isn't a human soul on the planet that has not been "green" at some point in their life. Over something grand or not so grand. And, yes, if nothing else I hope it will make us all strive harder - not necessarily toward the identical goal, but one that will make us proud of ourselves, one that might make us...enviable.

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  14. I only wish I had someone to envy...*sigh*

    (May I note: "Austen" instead of "Austin"?)

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  15. Oops! Blushing on the Austen typo, Brittany. Thanks for calling me out!!

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  16. Brilliant post! :)

    I think we've all been there - I know I have (and yes, that is both sides), and it can be hard. As long as you can turn the emotion towards something positive, though, then it's maybe not such a bad thing.

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  17. Envy is a waste of time and energy that should be used for one's writing. If you're surrounded by constant envy, you probably should cut the deadwood out of your life, get rid of the toxic, and find better "friends."

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