Writers and Envy

We start this week with a post that I’ve been toying with for a while – you’ll find I do that, my Drafts folder has 30+ posts in some state of ideas or partiality – today we’re going to talk about jealousy, and not as a story concept.

Let’s start today with a trip to any convention, awards show, or bookstore. Doesn’t matter which one. Here’s the scene:

So we’re standing (or sitting) there, and we’re watching other people’s success. Maybe they’re going up on a stage to get an award. Maybe they’ve got a whole room full of people lined up at a signing, maybe the bookstore can’t keep their books on the shelf. We’re right there, watching this, and no matter if we’re clapping or not, no matter if we’re in the line or not, no matter if we’re holding a book to buy it or not, we feel this yank somewhere down around the stomach, and it coils its way back through the spinal cord and its malevolent fingers snarl and hiss their way into our brains, and we start getting this feeling, maybe yours comes with a voice (mine sounds a little like Stewie Griffin if he hissed on his s’s)

That other author, that other creative, it hisses, you could be doing that. That could be you, hell that should be you. Why aren’t you the one doing the winning? Don’t people like your work. I guess not. I wonder who does like your work. Probably no one. I mean, the good work is what gets rewarded, and it looks like you don’t have any rewards right now.

That voice is a real bastard.

You know what? Let’s go one more. We’re in your house, and we’re in your favorite reading spot. You just picked a book that a friend recommended. Doesn’t matter who wrote it or what genre it is. You sit down to read it. Everything’s great until you hit that one sentence. That one damned sentence that expresses an idea so beautifully it hurts. The sentence might be long or short (it doesn’t matter), it’s just exactly what needs to be on that page, and back comes that voice.

You’re never going to write anything as good as that. Don’t you wish you could? Don’t you wish your author-voice looked like that? You know what? Let’s get the Pussycat Dolls stuck in a loop in your head too. You deserve that too.

Total. Dick. Move.

I don’t have a fancy term for it, but it’s envy. We get envious of what other people can do, what they win, what they have, and then as a bounce-back from that jealousy, we start measuring ourselves against it and always find a new way to make ourselves woefully inadequate. Some of us could even go professional in our lack-of-measuring-up-ness. If we could make a living doing it, we’d own mansions and yachts.

Envy is when we look at what other people are doing or what they have and believing that we should have it instead or the other person shouldn’t have it at all. It’s a feeling that in a comparison between us and them, because our brains love to separate along us/them divides, we’re getting the short end of not just one stick, but a whole forest full of sticks.

There’s a few things at work here, so let’s unpack them.

A) It suggests that you think you’re work, incomplete or not, is shit when compared to other people’s work. Fun fact: You can’t measure your unfinished work against someone else’s finished work. They’re not comparable on the same terms. Of course the house still being built isn’t as nice as the fully furnished one. Of course the pencil sketch you just started a second ago where you drew one line isn’t the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Even if it is done, here’s another way to look at it – can you compare a garter snake to a king cobra? They’re both snakes, they’re both found on the planet, they’re both things you can google or run away from, so why can’t I get really specific about weighing them against one another? Because one’s going to kill you and the other is a nuisance in a cornfield.

Authors: your crime thriller and that lady’s epic fantasy novel are both books the same way the garter and the cobra are both snakes.  But aside from being printed on paper, and having ink on that paper, and a few other bits that we use to define them as “books”, the similarities stop. I’ll even give you a pass on them being in the same language and using the same font size. They’re still very different things. A different thing is not automatically a bad thing. Just like how you’re different from me, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong or bad. Unless you’re a clown, because then I doubt you’re human at all.

What we do is different from each other, and that’s one of the best parts of being a creative. We can all take the same writing prompt and tell completely different stories. No one’s wrong that way, just different.

B) It suggests that there’s a reason someone shouldn’t be having the experience (that you’re aware of) them having. This two parts to this one – first let’s all take a moment to recognize that you’re not the one who dispenses permission slips for people to do what they do. There isn’t a person who does that. That’s not a thing. Our individual attempts to control are often efforts to manage a sense of powerlessness. (Johnfession: I had that yelled at me once during a breakup fight, and I’ve kept it rattling in my head since)

You’re not in charge of other people’s experience, so you don’t get to determine if they’re allowed to have it. Now I know there’s a great deal of social controversy in that statement, and I don’t care. Everyone, yes even the people you don’t like, gets to have their experience, because you know, they’re like alive and stuff. Likewise, they’re allowed to create whatever they like, even if you don’t like it.

Second, you’re not them, so you don’t know the whole picture of their experience. You see the end result that got them to that convention or awards stage or bookstore, but you don’t know if the effort to get them there cost them a marriage or they had to do it while dealing with kids and a mortgage or a dying parakeet or a drug problem or coming to terms with the fact they like Ke$ha and Taylor Swift music.

Only they know how hard they worked, because they did the work. Everything and everyone else with a thing to say (positive or negative) is reacting to their own opinion of that work. Opinions aren’t the arbiters of experience, facts are. We don’t have all the facts about how someone worked, so our concept of it is limited. And with a limited picture, we can’t accurately say that they do or don’t deserve the results they’re having.

C) What they’re doing is no indication of whether or not you can do it too. How we create is unique to us. We might all be making books, or phat beats, but how we go about it, even with the same tools in hand, is specific to us. Just because we can all write a sentence using the word “callipygian” doesn’t make my sentence or your sentence better than everyone else’s. We might like certain sentences better for a variety of reasons specific to us, but we’re still talking opinions. About things external to us.

Could you have strung together the same words and done the same as some other author? Not necessarily. Remember that when we’re looking at that convention or stage or store shelf, we’re seeing factors beyond the words – there’s the audience, the marketing, the cover. That success they’re having that you wish you were having is a confluence of a lot of factors. You have your own factors, and that’s where I suggest we take this post so we can wrap it up.

It’s so tempting to look at how well someone is doing and knock ourselves down a few pegs because of it.But we’re not capable of having their experience, at best, we can have a version of that, provided we do the work to get us there.

Want an audience like that other creative? Go build an audience.
Want a book cover like that? Find an artist, make it happen.
Want to do a signing? Finish the damned book and arrange one.

Yes, of course it always come back to the work. As in doing the work. Not using other people to chart and justify and reference your position. Positions are too motile and fleeting. The minute you put down another word, make another blogpost, meet another person, you’re in a different place than you were. They’re ever changing. Learn to roll with that, and take advantage of it – today’s hard day is often the catalyst for tomorrow being a better one.

And of course, I believe in your ability to do the work, no matter how well someone else is doing.

 

See you later this week. Happy writing.

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