Today’s guest post is by Noelle Sterne.
When other writers proudly announce their latest coup, my reflex of jealousy rises up. To my chagrin, I often agree with Ann Lamott: “You are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up” (Bird by Bird). This reaction, though, leads only to long debilitating blocks and despair.
In my many seasons of terrible jealousies, the most wrenching occurred when I was in college, craving to get through and get on with my writing career. I watched a classmate achieve my dream. She published a novel, dazzled the literary world, and collected constant rave reviews. Every bookstore displayed towering mountains of her best seller.
The greater her praise, the deeper my self-deprecation. Chronically depressed, I stopped writing and reading reviews and crossed the street when a bookstore loomed.
Finally, I realized something crucial, which led to the antidote I’m suggesting. This hard-to-swallow remedy is not proposed from magnanimity or naiveté. Rather, it’s plain old self-interest: As I proved for way too long, jealousy of other writers just doesn’t help.
Why? The object of my jealousy doesn’t plunge into depression at the news of their advance/article/ assignment/ agent/bestseller/contract/book tour/miniseries/Oprah endorsement, etc., etc. They don’t lose all interest and hope, condemn everything they’ve ever written as drivel, or swear there will never be enough to go around. They don’t snap at everyone in sight, eat way too much, and write way too little.
Who does? You guessed it.
I’m tired of all that unproductive pain. It’s finally pushed me to another, more fruitful perspective.
I realized that our envied colleagues, despite their intimidating accomplishments, remain only people. They too get cavities, have to shave, run out of coffee, and accumulate roomfuls of rejections.
And something else: No matter how stellar their past credits, like every one of us, they must daily face the blinding blankness of the empty page or screen.
The only difference is that they know something we’ve forgotten: an overnight success never is. Most of the best and biggest authors, and others, have been rejected countless times. Take a look at John White‘s classic Rejection. You’ll be astounded and maybe comforted.
In fact, our colleagues exemplify the truth of all those easily scoffed-at clichés:
- Persistence and patience pay off.
- There’s always room for someone good.
- Each of us is uniquely and irreplaceably creative.
My conviction in these truisms was first put to the test with my college classmate. When her third well-received novel came out, I wrote her a letter. I told her of my long jealousy and how it had stopped me from writing. I said I admired her work nevertheless and wished her well with her in-progress fourth novel.
She never replied, but that letter freed me tremendously. I still avoided bookstores but gradually wrote more and began to publish.
Recently, another ominous test emerged. In a single week, I learned of the successes of several writing friends. One received a prestigious award for her children’s book, another signed a contract for her first historical novel, and the third had his latest short story published in a top national literary magazine.
At first this news pierced me like multiple wounds and almost sent me straight to bed with a fifty-pound bag of chocolate chip cookies. But then, although admittedly less than joyous, I resisted crawling under the quilt and instead strode over to my computer. Remembering my earlier letter, and defying the green gods of rejected writers, I brazenly fired off notes of congratulation to all three.
I wasn’t fibbing. For one thing, as with my college classmate, I can’t help praising a good piece of writing, whoever’s written it. For another, I recalled the words of a very wise preacher: “If you curse the successful, you’ll never be one of them. Bless them instead.”
My congratulatory notes were certainly forms of “blessings,” and self-interest again impelled me to reinforce them. Sitting at my desk, I addressed each of my accomplishing friends aloud (and a little self-consciously). “Dear ______, I wish you all the success, fame, and wealth you want, and more!”
The results were astonishing. My jealousy evaporated, depression disappeared, and spirit returned. I leapt into a manuscript I’d been avoiding for weeks and did splendid battle for several too-short hours, finishing an entire third draft.
More rewards came. The children’s author sent a beautifully inscribed copy of her book. The historical novel writer called, thanked me profusely, and offered a personal referral to her agent. And a letter came from the short story writer. My words, he said, had pulled him out of a slump so severe he was sure he’d never write anything again. With my note propped in front of him, he’d just started another story.
Seeing their responses, I almost cried. My well-wishing had evoked these immediate blessings! My envy, like a strayed winged insect, flew right out the window.
My survival-driven stumbling into well-wishing was confirmed and extended by agent Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates (quoted by editor and writing teacher Deborah Brodie, “More Is More”). Talking about the children’s book market she said:
It’s easy to get caught up in scarcity mentality and think that if someone else gets published, your slot has been filled. But someone else’s successful children’s book can open up the market for other children’s books, including yours. . . . There’s always a new editor coming on board, always a new publishing imprint starting up, always a new format developing. . . . It may seem like a paradox, but you can help yourself get published by helping someone else get published.
This advice, of course, applies to any writing market, even yours.
I took heart also from the advice of James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers (I envy his writing this book and its great success!): “Turn envy into energy and more words. . . . The successful novelist will not worry about competition, but will concentrate only on the page ahead. “You have something unique to write, and your job is to find it.”
So, when you feel particularly jealous of other writers, remember these enlightened words and my transformative experiences. Compliment the writers you’re gnashing your teeth about, even if you have to force it a bit. In the process, you may be surprised to find, you’ll free yourself of habitual, self-defeating feelings and beliefs.
And remember, each time you wish other writers well, you’re making room for your own greater success and wishing yourself nothing less than the best.
Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and academic mentor and nag, Noelle has published over 600 stories, essays, writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, and occasional poems in literary and academic print and online venues. In her spiritual self-help book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams, she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to support readers in reaching their lifelong yearnings. Continuing with her own, she has just completed her second novel of women’s fiction, with more clogging her files. Visit Noelle at her website here.