This post started – in my mind – as an essay about the joy of colleagues; and there is still an essay I will write one day about how essential it is that a writer have a few trusted fellow-writers who are reliably generous, supportive and also – this part matters a lot – funny as hell. But between me and that essay loomed the exact same thing that often stands between writers and those ideal relationships I describe: Envy. Meaning, before I could write much about how wonderful collegial relationships between writers can be, I knew I had to write something about why they so often are anything but.
My name is Robin and I am jealous of other writers daily, including – and this is an icky part – some of my very closest friends. It’s a tough admission to make, for many reasons. For one thing, I know that I have been incredibly fortunate to have my work published and to have some readers out there who like it; and to have had some good reviews, along with the inevitable (or so I tell myself) stinkers on Goodreads. It wasn’t all that many years ago that I was sobbing on my bedroom floor telling my (poor, long-suffering, inadequately compensated) husband that no one thought it was even worth the cost of the ink to print a story of mine. So it might seem unseemly to be jealous when you’ve had any success in this field in which it is so tough to succeed. And yet. And yet. We all are. At least, I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t envy other writers, and while it’s true I don’t know many of the richest & most famous writers in the world, I do know a few of them and have been amazed at how very little one’s achievements do to protect one from the sort of envy I want to write about here. The sort that is painful. The toxic sort.
I have been watching myself these past few months, monitoring my own reactions to the success of other writers and pondering why some of it bothers me and some it does not. For example (and let me tell you, what I am about to disclose here is pretty close to bathing-suit-at-the-age-of-50 exposing, something I am dreading about this summer, so I really hope it does some good. . .) when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize, I felt no envy except of the mildest, gee wouldn’t it be nice to have had that career sort of musing. And when Mario Vargas Llosa won it I’m not sure that I felt even that. But when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer, I had a bad few hours. And when a graduate school classmate was reviewed prominently, glowingly (and deservedly) in The New York Times, for her debut novel the week my own book came out, failing to elicit any reaction at all from The Times, I had a downright shitty weekend.
I’ll spare you the rest of my diagnostic data, which might too easily double as a recitation of my own pettiest moments – or weeks; but even these few observations are valuable, I think. Because what they have shown me is that the toxic (and therefore self-sabotaging, potentially embittering) nature of my own envy is directly linked to how much I can identify with the other writer; or, to put it another way, the degree to which I can imagine that we are in the same competition – setting aside that word competition, for later, in-depth discussion. (So toxic, so radioactive a word in this context I imagine holding it gingerly with asbestos gloves as I shift it to another paragraph. . . . maybe even another post.)
Doris Lessing and I share a gender, but not much else. She is of a different generation and was already established in the firmament of The Greats before my own literary consciousness was formed. Mario Vargas Llosa is a writer, as am I – but we don’t even share a gender, not the same language, and his success has the quality of Lessing’s. It is a well and long established fact. Jennifer Egan and I, though, are the same age. We have friends in common – and I don’t just mean the 202 mutual ones on Facebook. I have had dinner with her. And so, it is much easier for me to look at her Pulitzer Prize as something I have failed to achieve. And as for my classmate . . well, if it doesn’t go without saying why a grad school classmate’s (again, wholly deserved) splash in The New York Times on the week of my own book’s launch was, shall we say, a bit challenging for me, then you are a saint and don’t need whatever bits of advice I am going to cobble from my own occasionally small nature. So you might want to go read something else.
But for those of you who don’t find it hard to imagine such a weekend being tough, I thought I could share a few things that have helped me combat jealousy along the way. And by the way, I am not going to tell you not to feel jealous of other writers – as I have read others advise. It’s advice of a sort I really hate, because it’s not only impossible, but it makes the person who can’t follow it feel like a bad person for being unable to. As if some great number of other writers can just tell themselves to stop feeling jealous. Ha! And it also neglects to give you any support for how to cope when the doomed advice fails.
So instead, what I am going to suggest is that when you feel jealous, you take every step you can to diminish whatever hold it has on you.
One idea: Try to act as if you are not jealous. Even though you are. Do something nice for the person who is unwittingly and unintentionally making you feel bad. Post her good news on Facebook. Or tweet it into the universe. Not for her, not at first; but for you. Not because you are being saint-like; but in the interest of your own psychic comfort.
This isn’t easy to prove, my homegrown bastardized synthesis of karma and cognitive therapy, but there is something incredibly cleansing about forcing oneself to be gracious when one feels slammed by another’s success. It isn’t just that it’s more dignified (which it is) or that it’s Etiquette 101 (which it may also be), it’s that the result of “rising above” is often exactly what that phrase evokes: a kind of transcendence over the jealousy itself. When my classmate’s reviews came out, I wrote her a congratulatory note and it made mefeel better to do so. It was as if by typing those very few words, I was reminding myself in a physical, tangible way that her success takes nothing away from me. That I didn’t have to find it upsetting. By behaving as if I felt like a reasonable, generous person, I actually began to feel like one. And then I felt good about myself for feeling good for her. And the weekend turned around.
(An aside here: There’s a whole nuther blog post to be written about what is different and what the same when you actually are in competition, for a particular prize say, and lose. Nobody expects football players to be thrilled when the other team wins a game, but weirdly, we do expect writers to speak exclusively about how honored they are to lose to whomever has won . . . It’s just not done in literary circles to say: Next time around I am going to kick his deckle-edged ass. And that’s an interesting difference, I think. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I am talking about the more vague yet often no less painful business of envying another’s career.)
Another suggestion: Ask yourself whether feeling jealous, at the moment when the green-eyed monster strikes, is actually helping you avoid some more uncomfortable anxiety you might feel. The other night, I caught myself fixating on a particular book on Amazon which for whatever reasons – also having to do with the number of ways I can connect myself to this author – has pushed my buttons. And when I say I caught myself fixating, I mean, I caught myself torturing myself. I caught myself reading this book’s blurbs and comparing them to my own; caught myself counting fractions of stars. . . I won’t go on. This is the really ugly stuff. And the real point is, why?
That morning, as it happens, I’d had some really good news about my novel-in-progress. Someone whose opinion matters to me had read 50 pages and fallen in love. And I was – supposedly – floating on air. But of course, I was also terrified. What if the other pages didn’t live up to her expectations? What if I let myself build up hope that the book will be successful; and then it is not? What if, what if, what if. . . The good news had made me deliriously happy and spectacularly vulnerable, both. Oh, how much easier to fall into the familiar, safe position of thinking: If only I were this other author with all his success. . .ThenI would be happy.
And as soon as I figured that out, the jealousy vanished, pointless, irrelevant.
Envy can be oddly comforting. Figuring out why can be a powerful tool.
But this is hardly an exhaustive list of how to cope with jealousy. Maybe it is actually just a few lines in a conversation that goes on and on and on; or that should do, anyway. Halfway through this post I read it to my daughter, asking her, of the confessional aspect: Is this too exposing, do you think? And she said: It’s pretty exposing. But isn’t your project to bring out the stuff people don’t like to talk about and make it okay to have those discussions? And I thought, I don’t know if that’s been my conscious project up to now, but it sure sounds like a good one to me.
So, with that in mind, what about you? Anyone else out there battling jealousy? Anyone else have any advice for outsmarting it? As I said, this post started with thoughts on how critical it is to have colleagues who support one another. . . and I guess it is ending that way too. I would love to hear what words of wisdom you all have.
Robin Black’s story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Freight Stories,Indiana Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). She is the recipient of grants from the Leeway Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Sirenland Conference and is also the winner of the 2005 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. Robin is curently working on her first novel which will also be released by Random House.
This article was originally posted on Beyond the Margins.