On Writing: Jealousy, Envy and the Grass-Eyed Monster on the Other Side

A lot of writers talk about writers block like its some kind of invisible ninja Dracula, waiting for you in the shadowy eaves of your creative process to swoop down and suck out everything good and awesome from your writer-brain. I imagine this feels like walking into a dark room at night, turning on the light and there’s writers block right there with a sword ready to decapitate your productivity without  cause or warning or expository dialogue. I don’t really believe in this nightmare but there is one bogeyman that always gives me pause. I’m talking about my old pal envy. Nothing can kill my momentum on something faster than the specter of someone else doing it better or faster or just more successfully. It’s a terrible nagging thought that grips me when I’m alone with my laptop and I wish there was a big ropey strand of anti-ninja Dracula garlic I could wear around my neck to keep it at bay. I wish it was that easy to fight off jealousy.

A lot of writers have a strange relationship with other creators. We are inspired by them, challenged by them and often, certainly more often than we wish to admit, incredibly envious of them. Maybe it’s envy at the other creator’s ideas or her success or maybe it’s just envy at the number of words written that day. I’m a prolific but sometimes inconsistent writer. I can sit down and knock out a lot of words in a day. I can just hit a stride and keep going sometimes. Then a week might pass where it’s not nearly so easy and I’m clawing uphill with the last tips of my bloody fingers to get to a mountain made out of 100 decent words. What makes it worse is when I talk to another writer and she talks about her steady and reliable output. I will smile at my colleague and say encouraging things and I’m 90% very supportive and happy for her but the remaining 10% is thinking I want to tear out the marrow of your writer-soul and devour it with bare hands and teeth, hunched in a fetid basement like a ravenous ghoul, slurping down all of the gore and gristle – but seriously, good for you. That intense jealousy only begins a much more damaging descent though. I go from envy to self-loathing in the blink of an eye. Questions start to drift up from the troll that lives in my subconscious. Why can’t I write like that? What’s wrong with me? For me, envy ultimately isn’t about the other writer. That’s just the entry wound of a pike that I seem determined to run myself into time after time. It’s the infection that follows that cripples me.

What I know, in my moments of accidental wisdom, is that jealousy isn’t about what someone else has. It’s about what I think I don’t have. When I talk to my friend and she tells me she wrote umpteen bazillionty million words yesterday, it’s not her words that I wish I had. It’s the words I didn’t write that haunt me. When I read a popular and successful book by a writer and I think well, I can do better than this, I don’t really want the other writer to have failed. I don’t wish that he was starving in some awful studio apartment nutrient-starved from living only off of generic ramen. I just want my book to be popular and successful. The other writers are proxies for that insecurity and stilted ambition. When I get past my initial covetousness, when I’m able to process all of those troll-y thoughts, I can see that envy is good. It means I’m still in this. If I don’t sometimes get jealous of what someone else has, it means I don’t think I deserve success. When I find myself cursing at my writer friends for their productivity of warm receptions, I know that somewhere in the morass of self-doubt there’s a part of me that’s screaming out you can do it, too. That scream gets distorted and twisted making it’s way through the wreckage of my head but if I grab onto it and chase it back, I find a stubborn and determined sonofabitch in there that can eat typewriters and spit out Hemingway-stained Saturday morning cartoon nightmares infused with punk rock, nunchucks, the faces, love and hurt of a lifetime, and my own home-brewed maniac prose.

It’s easy to see everyone else’s successes and your deficiencies if that’s what you’re looking for. Envy is really just the ammunition for a gun you’re already pointing at the side of your head. If you can get enough clarity to strip out the insecurity and anxiety that makes up the gun in your hand, those envy bullets are useless. That’s a difficult concept to accept and I don’t really know anyone, writer or otherwise, that always pulls if off. The only thing you can do when Ol’ Green Eyes comes knocking and whispers that you should have a best-seller or you should have a bigger TV than your neighbor or your Monday word count should be higher is ride it out, cling to the ambition at the root of it and try not be a jerk. The truth is that someone will always have something that you want. That’s not going to go away. If you become a super-duper megastar writer that can drop helicopters full of flaming money and crude drawings of your middle finger all over J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter castle, you’re still going to see that eager, young, poor writer in the coffee shop and you’re going to envy his potential and anonymity and a dozen other things. That grass is always going to be greener. The flip side of that though, is that I guarantee you that there’s a crowd on the other side of your fence looking at your yard, wondering how you fertilize the lawn and what you’re doing to keep it looking so lush. Even if you’re at the absolute bottom of a pit of suck, failure and unending misery, there’s dignity, growth and wisdom ahead in your journey that plenty of us admire. There’s gratification in accolades and money but success is just satisfaction in fancy dress clothes and satisfaction is free and just waiting for you to find it and give it a big, goofy high five.

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One comment

  1. It is very interesting that you are talking about jealousy and envy because I have been reading a book called the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA which anyone can read even if you’re not a alcoholic or child of an alcoholic. You can refer to pg. 48 which I believe comes from the Bible, “To avoid falling into confusion over the names these defects should be called, let’s take a universally recognized list of major human failings-the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth…to be envious when the ambitions of others seen to be realized while ours are not.” I have this character defect but it’s a lot less now. I get into trouble with myself when I wish I have a more beautiful body or a more perfect house.

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