I could write about …
1. That time someone else got an assignment I thought I was better suited for and better prepared for, plus I really wanted it.
2. Or that time someone’s blog post echoed one of mine, and got a lot more comments.
3. Or the strange feeling of being both glad for a writing friend’s success and dismayed at public comments that struck me as ungrateful for what looked to me like bounty.
4. Or the weird feeling that I’d been outpaced in a race upon learning someone was starting to write for some outlet I myself had never had any interest in writing for.
5. Or that lunchtime conversation on the last day of a week-long writing conference, with a writer friend I might not see again for a year or more, one of those moments with now-or-never opportunity for deep honesty.
I’m pondering writerly jealousy (the narrowest definition, not wanting others to have what I have) and envy (wanting what someone else has that I don’t) because a book invited me to.
On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, by Ann Kroeker and Charity Singleton Craig, recently published by T.S. Poetry Press, goes there early. I wouldn’t have expected this writing assignment to come up as soon as the second chapter, but there it is, in Chapter 2, “Arrange: I organize my life—my time, my space, my priorities—so I can write”:
Write a short piece about jealousy regarding other writers—how you envy their eclectic, organized writing spaces that look far more inspiring than yours, perhaps, or maybe their part-time job that gives them full afternoons to devote to writing. If a short essay doesn’t express the emotions or intensity of what you need to say, try writing a poem.
Jealousy is a powerful emotion to stir up in any stage of the writing life; yet, expressing these thoughts can help identify your deepest desires about the writing life and how you wish you were living it. Use the jealousy as a teacher and a source of beginning to change, rather than letting it trap you in guilty feelings you may have been taught to associate with the experience of jealousy.
That purpose is important. There’s no sense in revisiting these messy places just to indulge the feelings; but they do tell me something about my desires as a writer. Like any set of desires, some are right and good, and some are not. Examining these instances of envy helps me identify both: the ones I need to let go of, and the ones I want to pursue.1. That time someone else got an assignment I thought I was better suited for and better prepared for, plus I really wanted it.
The assignment I didn’t get was to interview Annie Dillard when I was in grad school, for an insert in the campus newspaper promoting a writing conference. I had read all but one of her books. The person who got the assignment had read only her poetry. But she was known to the editor, and I was new.
I got a different assignment, to interview novelist and poet Toby Olson, whom I’d never heard of. It led me to read some of his works in preparation; we had a good conversation; I was happy with what I wrote, and so was he; and I still got to meet and talk to (and have books signed by) Annie Dillard, without the responsibility of stewarding her words into my own writing afterwards. The lesson? What Garrison Keillor said: “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”2. That time someone’s blog post echoed one of mine, and got a lot more comments.
We corresponded about it, and frankly, it was tense at the time. She did me a great favor, though; at one point, she called “Done.” And I had to sit with my own thoughts and feelings.
I learned that I feel more proprietary about my written words than I do about the tunes I’ve written in the Irish traditional style. I’d be thrilled if one of them (like “Fire Ant Polka”) made it into wide circulation and outlived me, even if the tune’s name, not mine, is the part that lives on with it. (This is true of the vast majority of the tunes in that tradition; we know their names, but the composers’ were lost long ago.) I learned (or relearned, since I need remedial education on some lessons) that more than one person can have the same idea and think it’s unique. And in this case, because of the subject we were writing about, I decided that the message was more important than the messenger.
A month or so later, when we were in the same place, I went to hug her as soon as I saw her. We shared a lunch table together. Afterwards, I said some things that are between us, though part of it was an apology for the friction. She received it graciously and asked about my father, who was dying of lung cancer. She told me she’d been praying for him. I don’t remember at our parting hug whether I said what I often say when I don’t know when I’ll see someone again, but at that moment I could have said it and meant it: “I love you and I like you.”3. The strange feeling of being both glad for a writing friend’s success and dismayed at public comments that struck me as ungrateful for what looked to me like bounty.
I think if there was envy here, it is because this writer (who is also a friend) is a lot freer speaking her mind and her heart in her public writing than I am. My dismay was partly some sort of mixed-up “But we shouldn’t say those things in public!” response. We simply have different personalities, neither better or righter than the other.
We corresponded about it, once I gave myself the scary freedom (and gave her, I hope, the courtesy) to go there with her. I learned that there are aspects of my writing life that she envies, too. It’s good to remember that I have things others might wish for, and I shouldn’t take them for granted. I might even value them enough to use them more wisely (like my many hours with no other being at home except the cat). It also strengthened our friendship, taking it through a sort of sibling-rivalry moment that led to a new level of intimacy.4. The weird feeling that I’d been outpaced in a race upon learning someone was starting to write for some outlet I myself had never had any interest in writing for.
This allows me to laugh at myself. (What am I, a kid keeping track of who gets what on Christmas? It’s Christmas! There’s something under that tree for each of us.) And it helps me to define where I want my writing to go and where is not for me.
That was helpful this week, when I turned down an invitation. It paid enough that I seriously considered it for about thirty minutes, but it would have involved doing something I don’t enjoy and required things that make me itch. There are plenty of other writers who can happily and conscientiously meet those expectations, but I’m not one of them. Saying no gives me renewed desire to pursue some work I really want to do, and renewed resolve to aim it at some markets I’d like to break into.
As Rachel Held Evans said at the Festival of Faith and Writing earlier this year, in the final keynote address, titled “‘If Only I Had Her Verbs!’ On Jealousy, Creativity, and a Generous God,” “This isn’t a competition. … There is plenty of work to do.” And as Kroeker & Craig say at the end of this book, “Again and again, your time will come.”5. That lunchtime conversation on the last day of a week-long writing conference, with a writer friend I might not see again for a year or more, one of those moments with now-or-never opportunity for deep honesty.
This. This is the one I want to write about at length. We are big fans of each other, and we each have sometimes envied the other. I am writing about it, and maybe it will see the daylight of publication, but before it does, I’m doing something that Kroeker & Craig ask at the end of Chapter 3, “Surround: I surround myself with people, activities and books that will influence my writing.”
People are an important part of what surrounds us, but sometimes including other people’s stories in our writing can be complicated. How do you deal with mentioning, naming or describing other people’s actions, circumstances or conversations in your writing? Do you ask permission or seek their interest before you write about them?
I’ve written here about two people whose permission I did not ask before publishing. I’ve written hardly any details here about someone who knows I’m writing an essay about this and whom I’ve asked to read what I write before anyone else does. I think these choices are reasonable and defensible. I could be wrong. An easy test: If I were them, how would I feel to come across this? I don’t think either of them would cringe. If they do, I hope they come to me, and we’ll correspond or talk about it.
The thing I know about all of these situations is that when it comes down to it, loving a person is more important than loving a paragraph.
I intend this to be the first of an occasional, irregular series of using prompts from books about writing (this one and others) to think deeper and, ideally, get a conversation going. If you’d like to test-drive this book, the first three chapters are currently available here on Noisetrade. (They’re free, but there’s an option to leave a tip, which would be a sweet thing to do.)
What writerly jealousy or envy have you experienced? Is it easier or harder to feel it about someone you know? How have you dealt with it? What have you learned about yourself and your goals from it?