How to Handle Jealousy as a Writer


Unsolicited Opinions / Saturday, October 27th, 2018

“One person reminded me of what Jean Rhys once wrote, that all of us writers are little rivers running into one lake, that what is good for one is good for all, that we all collectively share in another’s success and acclaim. I said, “You are a very, very angry person.”

–Anne Lamott

That quote comes from a very funny chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in which she discusses the concept of professional envy towards other writers (also, I know that the two words mean two different things, but I’m going to use the words jealousy and envy interchangeably throughout this post bc it’s my happy place and you can’t stop me).

Anyway, I’ve been dwelling (surprise, surprise) on this concept for the past few days, ever since I took a personality test that asked me to honestly and without hesitation answer if I was more prone to feel happy for other people’s successes or feel jealous of their successes.

Guess what I wanted to say? Guess which was actually true? If I’m being honest (as the personality tests cruelly asked me to do), then yes. I am not an enlightened being and when other people I know from college get good jobs as editors or (god forbid) writers, I go through it. The jealousy. It’s real.

Aside from the shameful, brief pleasure present in a wallow, I don’t generally dislike the emotional state of envy. It makes me feel small and bitter, and also makes all my personality tests conclude (not without precedent) that I’m Probably Psycho or At Least Unlikable. Though I think it’s unhealthy to squash feelings, if I’m going to keep cheerfully failing at writing over here I need to work through my jealousy. How? Easy.

1. Rant the Write Way

The right way to rant is not to call your friends or your sister and say a bunch of rude, ungraceful things about that girl from your Victorian Literature class getting published even though she totally sux! The write way to rant is to write it down! Journaling style, if that’s your preference. Allow yourself the pleasure of a stream-of-consciousness tirade against all the forces of fate that have conspired against you. When you’re done, you’ll probably feel a little better. And then you can do like I do and burn all that nonsense under the full moon to let it go.

Alternately, channel your frustration into fiction. Write a short story where you and the writer you’re jealous of wind up going to the same group therapy session or something. Talk it out in your fiction. I don’t have to remind you that you can also opt to write a short story where you are the brilliant wonderful hero and the other-writer is a sniveling loser. I might be wrong, but I think it’s healthy.

2. Have a sense of humor

This is my go-to with everything that comes at me in life. If you apply humor to the situation, then you’re also applying a certain degree of humility because the two words don’t just sound alike: they’re very similar concepts. With humor and humility, you’re invited to recognize the fact that you’re just one person out of like seven billion and what you’re trying to do (become a well-known author) is laughably improbable.

When people in my family ask me how my writing is going, I always laugh a little before I answer. It reminds me that writing, like everything else in life, is funny because it’s ridiculous. Laughing helps you to get tf over yourself and stop believing that you’re a tortured artist who deserves publication way more than that girl from your Victorian Lit class.

3. Remember why you Write

I guess I’m speaking for myself here, but publication is only exciting to me because it sometimes involves money. Aside from that that, it has nothing to do with why I write. In actuality, I write (a) to create stories I want to read that haven’t been written yet (b) to work through my perpetual guilt & anxiety (c) because I enjoy the idea of honing a craft and improving myself (d) I really like the way I feel when I’m writing and (e) it’s part of my identity and I would feel lost without it.

If you’re suffering from writer’s jealousy, I recommend taking inventory of why you got into all this in the first place. It can definitely help staunch the envy. If getting published doesn’t even make your Top Five list of why-you-write, then it’s probably not that huge of a deal. This advice probably sounds annoying when you’re in the throes of envious passion, but it’s actually a surprisingly helpful mindset.

4. Read the other Writer’s Stuff

Once you muddle through your initial angst (which you’re entitled to), you will probably discover that what the author writer wrote is really good and they deserved to get published. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that YOU don’t deserve to get published. It just means that the other writer was simultaneously good at writing and good at being lucky.

Studying the piece that’s provoked such jealousy in your bitter little heart can lend fresh understanding and perspective to the situation. In fact, you might glean some relevant insights about why their story or essay worked so well, what publication is worked for, and how you can learn from their style.

This is also a good opportunity to practice Feeling Happy for Other People. Hear me out. We should try this. It’s a thing good people do (or at least that’s what they’ve told me).

5. Take a Break. Or Work Harder

This one sounds contradictory because it is! For writers like myself, who have borderline obsessive tendencies when it comes to daily word counts and time frames (and, frankly, everything else), I think it can be very healthy and spiritually refreshing to take a break from writing. If another writer’s success sends you into the depths of despair,  it’s a good time to step back a bit and focus on something else for a bit. Take a couple days. Allow yourself to succeed at something. Try a new recipe or something. Compete in a drawing contest with your six-year-old niece so you can win. (Gracefully, of course.)

But it might also be the time to work harder. Other people’s successes can be an incredibly motivating force. Have you not been writing? Have you been sitting on your manuscript scowling like Smaug on a pile of gold? Use your jealousy as an impetus to re-establish a writing routine.

6. Remind Yourself of the following…

Nothing matters. You are infinitesimally small and your future is unknown and unknowable. Other writers who succeed are similarly small and  insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. The galaxy will proceed along its merry way, unhindered by your successes or failures. In five billion years the sun will burn out and none of it will matter anyway. It’s pretty cool that you were born at all, given the miraculously slim probability of your existence, so buck up and enjoy the fucking sunrise. Everything else is outside of your control.

 

It’s amazing when other amateur writers succeed. It demonstrates that it’s possible, shows that people are still interested in reading literature, and should inspire you to work harder. But it’s also okay to feel some envy – especially if the writer in question is a peer or someone you went to school with (I’m not over here feeling jelly of JK Rowling. She’s fine.)

Do you get jealous? Or am I alone in being petty and horrible? There’s no correct answer, but if you ARE immune to professional envy of any sort I have to echo Anne Lamott and say you are probably a very, very angry person.

(Just kidding. You’re better than me and I’m JEALOUS).

 

11 Replies to “How to Handle Jealousy as a Writer”

  1. The way I approach such sentiment is to recall that the Universe is a fickle thing, utterly disinterested in you and your life. And to think otherwise is to give into the possibility that there is a “plan” and by not being successful, you are actually, purposefully made to suffer. That to see other’s success as your failure is to admit that such a thing as fate exists. A thing I do not hold to, what-so-ever.

    So, when I hear of other’s success, I genuinely wish them well. That is, unless, they write like crap and still get rich, wherein I curse them to a boil-ridden, ant-invested, cauldron hell of simmering acid. (Smile, have a nice day.)

    1. Haha I like the structure of this comment. It starts with philosophical musings about the nature of fate, dips into genuine well-wishes for others, and ends with hellfire.

  2. Great post. It can be hard sometimes to see other peoples success, when you’ve been trying so long yourself. But mostly it is inspiring, to know that others have made it. I always like to say that I’m not jealous, I’m wistful, because I never feel negative towards anyones success, but do sometimes find my self wishing I had it too.
    Love your tips for handling these complex emotions.

    1. Thank you! I do think that a little bit of envy can be a motivating force, and it’s natural to be wistful – I just try to make sure I never descend into spitefulness (because that helps no one!)

  3. Definitely agree with having a sense of humour! Pretty much the solution to all life’s problems 😉 Fantastic list! And I especially agree about remembering why you write in the first place- that can get me through even the worst self-doubt (most of the time 😉 )

  4. I love this post, Mary. I don’t bother much with envy, and when it does pop up, I just sigh and consider writing Romance. Ha ha (not really). But I love your solutions especially the humor, remembering WHY I write, and my insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. (That last one is a doozy, isn’t it? the reason for “don’t worry, be happy.”) Anyway, with literally billions of readers out there, I figure there is plenty of room on the podium and each small success is worth donning a sparkly tiara, or doing a happy dance. Despite Lamott’s cynicism, I think it’s true that what’s good for one author is good for all of us. Think of all the new readers that Rowling brought to the world! Talented indie writers give increasing credibility to all of us. Happy Writing!

    1. Thanks for your response, Diana! I get a real kick out of everything Anne Lamott writes, and I think that section of Bird by Bird is hilarious (she tends towards the dramatic, so I relate with her writing!!) but of course overly simplistic.

      Because you’re right: every author brings a voice and a value to the literary world that’s utterly unique. Every once in a while when I have a despairing moment of “Everything’s already been written,” I just remind myself that not everything’s been written by ME.

      I think that when I experience feelings of jealousy, the underlying feeling beneath it isn’t malicious. It’s more a motivating force than anything else, a reminder that success is possible – and I need to work even harder to get there.

      Plus, I ALWAYS find it helpful to dwell on my cosmic insignificance. Really takes the pressure off!

      1. “Every once in a while when I have a despairing moment of “Everything’s already been written,” I just remind myself that not everything’s been written by ME.” Yay, so true, and there is only one completely original you.

  5. Good suggestions, Mary. I confess to being more happy for others. Maybe years ago, it might have been jealousy but I now realize what is involved in ‘succeeding’. It hard to do and harder to keep. I just don’t want to put out that much anymore!

    1. Haha – I’m sure I’ll share your opinion when I actually get close to understanding succeeding! Jokes aside, I think it’s very admirable to be happy for fellow writers. The writing community needs the support!

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