September 16th, 2014

On Literary Envy

I’ve been wanting to write something on literary envy for a while now–by which I mean being envious of others’ literary achievements or accolades (not characters in literature being envious, as I just realized this could be interpreted). And then this morning in Jessica Westhead’s Twitter feed (which, like most things JW does, is interesting and you should check out) I saw on article on that very topic. It’s Nathan Rabin’s Salon piece on being envious of John Green. It is an excruciatingly honest piece on feeling bad about how Rabin and Green were casual friends, then grew apart and Green got crazy successful. Rabin, who was pretty successful in his own right and also apparently not even in touch with Green, felt miserable in the face of Green’s gargantuan achievements. And fair enough–if you’re going to make that comparison you’re probably going to feel bad about yourself.

Myself, I’m hardly immune to literary envy (of the first kind), but it would never occur to me to be upset by someone like Green–I mean, let’s dwell in reality for a second and realize I’m never going to be a cult rock-star author whom young girls weep about the possibility of seeing in the flesh. Really, I’m ok with that–I can’t even see him from here, just read and enjoy the books. If I met him, I think I would just be pleasantly fannish and hope he remembered my name.

It’s the people are a couple rungs up from me that sometimes unsettle me a bit–I can see them from here, so very clearly. And everything a writer does–maybe everything anybody does professionally–is about getting a little better, working a little harder, accomplishing a little more than you’ve done already? So why can’t I get to that next rung?

A good answer, both for Nathan Rabin and for me, comes from Dear Sugar, the pseudonym of the (very successful) writer Cheryl Strayed. Sugar wrote a column on this very subject, and it was really inspiring to me. I’m actually not a very envious person most of the time, and so while I have definitely had days of staring at Facebook and feeling sorry for myself, most of the time I can get past it and feel good about deserving people reaping excellent rewards.

Sugar’s advice is powerful and helpful for those of us with even a touch of the green-eyed monster, though–I promise to slow down on those Facebook spirals after rereading this…

“You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous. I shut down the why not me? voice and replace it with one that says don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person. When you feel like crap because someone has gotten something you want you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. You remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own. You remember that a wonderful thing has happened to one of your literary peers and maybe, if you keep working and if you get lucky, something wonderful may also someday happen to you.

“And if you can’t muster that, you just stop. You truly do. You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.”

It’s just such simple basic advice that will, at the very least, allow the struggling writer to have more friends–and we could all use those.

Another thing that just occurred to me is that I am posting this on Giller day. I’ve actually seen nothing but supportive loveliness online today, but if there’s anyone out there secretly feeling less than lovely, please read Sugar’s column (and maybe don’t read Rabin’s–while honest and heartfelt, it won’t exactly make you feel better).

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