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.