by Suzanne Farrell Smith, with Cheryl Wilder
ed. Claire Guyton
At a recent gathering of writers intending to read new work to each other, a friend (I’ll call him “Mark”) told me he had some positive writing news to share. Good will rose in me. But then he said he didn’t want to share it with everyone, just with me, that it was still very new, and he’d tell me after the readings were finished. So it was really positive news. My brain spent the evening devoting ten percent of its energy listening to the readings, and ninety percent hamster-wheeling into a quiet state of despair.
You see, Mark, a fiction writer, has been writing a narrative nonfiction book. Last summer he asked me, a narrative nonfiction writer, to look at his draft, and I devoted several hours of my first-ever Caribbean vacation to reading and responding. The draft was fresh and rough and showed a lot of promise. I believed my feedback would help him reshape the work into something meaningful. As his friend, and also as a devotee and perpetual student of nonfiction, I genuinely wanted him to thrive in the genre.
But that night while Mark hush-hushed about his potential success, I guessed it was about his nonfiction project and I grew nervous, then glum. I think I even glowered. Why? I’d been shopping my own nonfiction book around for a year with no luck. What if Mark had found an agent or a publisher? What if that sun-kissed rough draft in my cocktail-wet hands were to become a shiny award-winning first book? What if he went on to get a subsequent book deal and was now destined to become a hot new narrative nonfiction writer? What if people paid him to write about the very topics I wanted to write about?
I pulled Mark into the kitchen at the first opportunity and insisted he tell me his news. Turns out, he had a story provisionally accepted by a prominent journal. He needed to revise it, but hoped that with the fiction editor’s guidance it would eventually be published. I had had a piece provisionally accepted by another prominent journal. Mark wanted to tell me privately because (a) I’d been through a similar editorial process and would understand and advise, and (b) it was still too uncertain to announce to the larger group.
If I could film this kitchen scene B-movie-style, I’d add a murky shadow—some mixture of army green and pea—that hisses out of my eyes, nose, and mouth, and escapes through the grimy window. Now gracious and ebullient, cleansed of my Envy, I hugged Mark, then asked him questions about his story and how he felt about the suggested revisions. He’d been hoping for this particular journal for so long. My joy for him was sincere.
The next morning, recalling my switch-flipping moment, I was sickened. How was it that I could only feel happy for Mark once I confirmed that I had no reason to be desperately Envious?
Envy is the only sin that cannot be directed at the self or one’s own work. Unless we try to bend it back on ourselves (e.g., I’m Envious of the time I used to enjoy before I had a baby), Envy can be drawn as a line segment from the self to an outside end point—in the case of my story, to Mark. In the expanding world of literature, there are more and more such end points to Envy. Writers publish, win, or succeed at more fellowships, more retreats, more small presses, more journals, more readings, more MFA programs, more online outlets, more contests. At the same time there are more writers … many, many, many more writers. And somehow, despite the excess, there is a hell of a lot less money. Envy may very well be the first sin we commit as writers, and the one that we fall to most often.
We asked a few writer friends what they feel most Envious about (see our questions at the bottom of the page). Rich Farrell observes that in our current writing environment, success is divorced from the creative act of writing itself, and instead measured by lines for the bio. It’s those major-deal lines that can incite our Envy. “I exist in a world that values the outcome, not the process,” he says. “This same world sensationalizes and lionizes the exceptional case—that twenty-year-old writer with an uncanny wisdom—rather than the quiet tinkering monk, hard at a lifetime’s quiet work.” Farrell admits that though we regret an environment that overshadows the artistry in the art, we still want in. It’s nice to be the monk, but, Farrell says, “I’m envious of that twenty-year-old superstar writer.”
For Jason Mott, it’s talent. Persistent, dependable, infinite talent. “Anyone can write well once,” says Mott, “but some writers are extremely prolific with very little impact on the quality of their writing. They write novels, poetry, screenplays, comic books, and on and on. And, somehow, they’re all excellent. Yes, these are the people I desperately envy.” Risa Nye says her Envious eye is trained on luck. “It’s those ‘right time, right place’ or lucky break stories that get me. I know of a local writer who sent her manuscript to someone who shared it with a cousin’s roommate’s boyfriend (or something like that) who turned out to be a literary agent … and the rest is history. Her book took off like a rocket.” Nye specifies why she thinks lucky breaks are particularly Enviable: “They are so fluky and can’t be replicated.”
Uncanny wisdom, prolific talent, lucky breaks. Our writer friends speak of Envying that which can’t be planned for or worked at. Envy of the unattainable, the elusive, the rare. In the case of my friend Mark’s news, on the other hand, I was Envious of something decidedly attainable. Mark and I write in different genres about different things with wildly different styles. We read different journals and submit to different places. We are never head to head in anything! But then he seemed to be entering the narrative nonfiction territory to which I, despite laboring, had not been granted access, and Envy consumed me. Over that ugly hour, I became Envious of Mark’s presumed seriousness in my genre, and Envious of him as a writer in general. He could now tell his family and friends that he was a writer and they would believe him! I wanted not his book deal but his badge. I Envied his proof.
Whatever it is we writers Envy most, we all seem to agree that social media intensifies Envy. If we draw Envy as a line segment, it is easy to see how social media, by constantly broadcasting the external end points, quickens Envy’s rise to the surface and spreads it out among multiple recipients. Lavonne Adams shares this story that reminds me of how integral Facebook has become to the writing life: “I went to a reading given by one of my colleagues. … I don’t remember seeing any of the usual announcements, and heard about the event from a mutual friend, yet the room where the reading was to be held was packed. I commented on this fact to a woman standing next to me, who responded, ‘She sent out invitations through Facebook.’ I was stunned.” Without Facebook, we might miss important chances not to be Envious, chances to be supportive and engaged. That’s the rub of social media: With it, we’re force-fed others’ accomplishments; without it, we’re down a powerful way to market our own.
Adams continues: “Since then, I have also joined the Facebook ‘community,’ an act that has led to a more intense level of envy (imagine a shocking chartreuse as opposed to a less jarring grass green). Since a large number of my ‘friends’ are fellow writers, whenever I scan the news feed, I see announcement after announcement of awards won; poems, essays, shorts stories, and books that have just been published. They are a creatively prolific bunch. And it is hard to not feel insecure.” We can, if we’re in a particularly defeated mood, feel Envious of things we hadn’t even heard of before the Facebook announcement. Social media is touted as a marketing aid, but it hurts oh so bad sometimes. “Everyone’s always doing great according to Facebook,” says Jason Mott. “And it never seems to fail that, on your worst day, everyone you know in the world is having their best day. And, with the advent of Facebook, your crappy day is allowed to get twenty times crappier with just the click of a button.”
When we let it ripen to what Adams dubs that “shocking chartreuse,” Envy damages our writing lives (not to mention our friendships). We might stop reading and writing. We might continue reading and writing but stop enjoying it, stop enjoying what others produce and cease to feel present in our own pages. We might write inauthentically, by which I mean, we might write in the stylistic vein of others who have succeeded where we haven’t. And I have read a few scathing reviews that only betray the writers’ Envy of those they are trying to undermine.
Envy, because it is projected outward, also presents this unique twist: While writers may feel insecure about the accomplishments of others, they may also worry about their own accomplishments, in that they might make their friends and colleagues Envious of them. In other words, writers fret about becoming someone else’s end point.
Jennifer Lunden, whose first national publication won a Pushcart, recently queried Harper’s (her “Holy Grail of magazines”) and was asked to send along her essay. At first, Lunden experienced what any of us would: hope. “So there I was, looking at that email from the assistant editor at Harper’s and feeling pretty good about my trajectory as a writer. … I fantasized about a $3,000 paycheck, about becoming a regular Harper’s contributor, about becoming a contributing editor. A yes on this piece could change everything for me.” Lunden’s fantasizing abruptly stopped, however, when she considered her peers. “But then I got to thinking. If I got an essay published in Harper’s, my fellow writers would surely hate me. It all would have come too easy. Which is funny, really, for me to have even thought that. Because it hadn’t come easy. I had been slaving away behind closed doors for years, working towards this moment. But the thought of being shunned by my fellow struggling writers disturbed me enough I even talked to my therapist about it.” In fact, broadcasting success, especially through social media, has developed into a delicate skill of its own. How to strike just the right note between humble and proud, the note that won’t set off Envy in others? If two writers announce success at the same time, and one does so boldly while the other does so humbly, I find myself cheering more for the humble writer.
Despite its potential for damage, Envy carries a perk. The sunny side of Envy is that it shines on what we most want, which can be a valuable time-and-sanity-saving device in a writing world so bloated with opportunity to submit, subscribe, post, apply, and enroll. Most of the time I click “like” on Facebook, there’s nothing more to it than that. I like it. But if Envy bites while I click, I want it.
While Envy can clarify our desires for our writing lives, it can also directly serve our writing. “I’ve come to realize that ignoring envy, or any other uncomfortable emotion, won’t make it disappear,” says Lavonne Adams. “As a poet, investigating every emotion seems to lead to a bevy of insights, which then leads to richer writing. Why shouldn’t we turn this to our advantage?”
The virtuous antidote to Envy might be love, but in the writing life, love and Envy coexist as easily as do arrogance and self-doubt. We asked our friends how they overcome writer-Envy and avoid its pitfalls. Adam Arvidson looks at the Enviable successes of others as goals for himself. “When I see someone publish a great essay collection or environmental book, I feel I will one day, too. When I see someone land a plum teaching gig, I picture myself there, too, down the line. That vision drives me to continue working, continue tweaking, continue studying.” Jason Mott agrees. “I tell myself ‘If they can do it, then I can as well.’ ” Mott cites the myth that if one is more successful with her writing achievements, then another must necessarily be less successful with his. “There’s the thought that success is a zero sum game, even though that isn’t the case,” says Mott. In reality, for each opportunity lost, there are ten more to try to attain.
Lavonne Adams talks about converting Envy into power: “I decided to channel my competitive urges, making a pact to compete with only myself. In other words, as long as I continued to move forward professionally, to do a little better every year, I would feel less envy toward others.” But Adams also sees Envy for what it is, an inevitable byproduct of the writing life. Then she addresses it, packages it, and sets it aside. “I’ve had to revamp my manner of handling envy,” she says. “I now allow myself to wallow for a set time—fourteen minutes to be exact—before steering that energy toward heart-felt happiness for what one of my peers has accomplished.”
Every writer, no matter how successful, misses sometimes. Jennifer Lunden’s piece was not accepted by Harper’s after all. She describes what could be the ultimate magic pill for diffusing Envy: “I fell immediately back into the ranks of my fellow struggling writers, which, in actuality, I had never really left.” Even those at the top are competing for just one Pulitzer, just one post as Poet Laureate, just one National Book Award. Those we most Envy might be feeling a little Envious themselves. In other words, we really are all in it together.
Returning to the scene in the kitchen with Mark, let’s pretend he does have a book deal. My writing peer, a close friend at that, has a book selected from the multitudes of manuscripts. What’s more, as a fictionist, he’s taken a risk on nonfiction and has been rewarded. In this hypothetical world, it’s not hard to measure that achievement for what it is in his life, rather than for what it is not in mine. Against the welling of Envy, this shift to the positive is a difficult mental turnaround. But once made, the thing I most Envy is suddenly no longer connected to me by a sickly green line. It’s just a thing that belongs to someone else. I don’t need it. Or, more precisely, I don’t need that book deal. I need my own, and I’m more revved up than ever to get it.
The writer friends quoted here …
The questions we asked…
- Has Envy ever kept you from writing, or kept you from focusing enough on your own page in order to make it sing?
- Do you discuss it with anyone when you feel Envious?
- Do you feel Envious about certain things more than others? e.g., Envious about other writers’ perceived advantages (married to a publisher!), resources (trust fund to allow for writing time!), or talent (damn, she’s just really, really good!)?
- When you succeed, are you conscious that others might be feeling Envious of you?
- How does social media, Facebook in particular, fuel, exacerbate, or alleviate Envy?
- How can we move past Envy? Is that even possible?
Image of abstract greens, grays, and white spiraling like an oil slick by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.