I’ve gone to quite a few lectures and panels and classes taught by skilled writers, publishers, and editors. Always, if they open up for questions, I ask them this: “What’s one thing you would do differently?” and “What’s one thing you’re still glad you did?”
One of my favorite answers came from Sara Zarr, during an intimate, 7-person bootcamp. She said: “Well, I don’t really regret any part of my journey because it was part of getting me to where I am now, but I do wish I would have relaxed—and not worried that people younger than me were getting book deals, or people in the same place as me were getting better book deals, or making more sales, or whatever.”
Good advice for us all. Envy is a vocational hazard for most writers. I think this is because it’s so competitive (second most competitive career in the country, no lie), and the reason it’s so competitive because there are not enough readers to go around. You can’t say, “There’s room for everyone to succeed!” because it’s not true. Really good writing is often rejected because there’s no space on the market. Limitation breeds envy.
But it’s hard, right? All I’ve ever wanted is to be one of the most brilliant writers in the world (cough). Thanks to Twitter, I now know I’m not even one of the most brilliant writers in my small community.
I saw this on Humans of New York a few days ago:
“I’m always checking the Wikipedia pages of my idols to see where they were at my age.”
I was so delighted! I thought I was the only one who did this. Of course, I only do it with writers I admire, but the point is still there. It’s a fever, a madness. I see a new book hit the lists and I go straight to the author’s website, seeing if they’re young or old, my age or even—crap!—younger.
Anne Lamott has said: “Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.”
Envy—comparing, festering—sucks. Literally. It sucks the joy right out of writing, taking what we loved about it and souring it. And there’s something inherently chilly about a feeling that is dependent on another’s misery and failure.
But the root of envy is often desire—we want to accomplish something—and how do you be a writer without desire? That same feeling that leads you to send a manuscript out to be rejected again and again, that same feeling that urges you to write another book, is the same source of what makes us jealous.
(I’m about to quote “The Lego Movie.” Just thought I’d brace everyone.)
The main prophecy, part of the repeated theme of the movie, is the claim: “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.”
And this got to me, because isn’t this sort of what we all want, just a tiny, tiny bit?
I read this story in the New Yorker, about a woman who says to the writer of the article, unabashed, “I want to be a star.” What awed this writer was not that she wanted to be a star—didn’t we all?—but that she’d say so, flat out. “I thought if you had the gumption to say what you wanted, you’d probably have the nerve to get it. And I was, in fact, impressed by her desire. Most of us wanted the same thing, but we tried not to know it. Such grand wants exact a price. Better to content oneself with the small success.”
Here’s what I think. I think it’s fine—even good—to want to write something brilliant. To be, as it were, a brilliant writer. But often we confuse the desire to write with the desire to be validated in our efforts.
The spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once told his students, “We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don’t love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems – if you really loved it – you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more important than the action.”
In 2006, a public school teacher had her students write letters to famous authors, asking their advice on the arts. This is the response Kurt Vonnegut sent back:
You have experienced becoming! Isn’t that fantastic?
So go—be a brilliant writer! Have the gumption to demand to be an artist. Go make your soul grow! Write an awesome poem about envy, then tear it up and let it fly.