James Scott Bell

Years ago there was a commercial for Pepto-Bismol, where a nerdy guy in glasses looked straight into the camera and said something like, “Can we talk about diarrhea?” It was an effective ad because, well, they took the bull by the horns, as it were. They didn’t sugar coat the malady; they didn’t try to cleverly talk around it.

People get diarrhea. They don’t like to talk about it, but sometimes they have to in order to stop it.
That’s the feeling I have right now in talking  to writers about a malady that may affect every one of them from time to time: envy. Can we talk?
This seems a good follow up to John’s Friday post. Writers are sometimes subject to slings and arrows from those who envy them. But what happens when envy sneaks up on the writer?
Ann Lamott has a great chapter on envy in her writing book, Bird by Bird. Here, in part, is what she says:
If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you. You are going to feel awful beyond words. you are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything . . . If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed . . . It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.
Funny, yes; but the truth is that envy is a serious waste of time and a drain on your energy. Like any emotion, it can be a chronic condition or a momentary blip. If it is the former, you really have to do something to eradicate it.  Let me suggest a few things:
1. Acknowledge your humanity and the fact that you care about what you’re doing. That’s the basic reason you feel the way you do. You’re invested in your writing emotionally, as you should be. You’re also not perfect, and don’t expect you ever will be.
2. Look at the part of your feelings that wants the other person to fail, or not enjoy success. That’s the ugly bit you’ve got to get rid of. If you have an active spiritual life, this is a good place to bring out the big guns. The Book of Proverbs, chapter 14, verse 30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”  The ancient philosopher Epicurus wrote: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Whatever practice you engage in, the great religions and spiritual views have always talked about the jewel of contentment. “Health is the greatest gift,” Buddha said. “Contentment the greatest wealth.” That’s worth pursuing.
3. Write. This is always the best antidote to any writerly anxiety. Get involved in your project. Put your head down and produce the words.
4. Improve. Anyone – anyone – can improve their craft. You are always at a certain level, and you can with some effort get to the next level. Your competition is really only with yourself. There is joy and confidence when you see yourself improving.
5. Prepare. Know that a pang of envy may come at any time. Before that happens, affirm your own worth and say a bit of Lawrence Block’s “A Writer’s Prayer” (from his book, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit):
For starters, help me to avoid comparing myself to other writers. I can make a lot of trouble for myself when I do that . . .Lord, help me remember that I’m not in competition with other writers. Whether they have more or less success has nothing to do with me. They have their stories to write and I have mine. They have their way of writing them and I have mine. They have their careers and I have mine. The more focus on comparing myself with them, the less energy I am able to concentrate on making the best of myself and my own work. I wind up despairing of my ability and bitter about its fruits, and all I manage to do is sabotage myself . . .When I read a writer who does things better than I do, enable me to learn from him . . .
A hearty Amen to that. 

16 thoughts on “Envy

  1. Great advice on a problem that can present a stumbling block to all of us. And thanks for reminding me of Lawrence Block’s great prayer from one of my favorite books on writing. I need to review that one again.

  2. I guess I’m weird, but I always want talented people to succeed, especially the people I know. I’ve had success and I’ve known failure first hand, and I think I’ve learned from both. Success you work for is the only success that matters in the long run. How others react to your success is about them, not you. Remember that jealousy is their problem.

    If your friends are jealous of your success, and it affects your relationship, they aren’t friends worth having, are they? Your family is jealous and treats you badly, you should have good friends to replace them with. It’s how you see yourself and your success that really matters. Life is about relationships, lessons and balances. I just do what I do and let the pieces fall where they may.

    I will say that at the worst professional points in my life I’ve had John Gilstrap helping me find my way back to working my craft, and I’ve had my wife steadfastly believing in me, and a good dog to accept me unconditionally. If you can have one good friend who is always supporting you with jokes and solid advice and one person who is always there holding your hand, and a dog to look up to you, you’re way ahead of the game.

  3. “. . . remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Everyone should stop and think about those words for a moment. Certainly as writers, we have all acquired something more within our craft than we had yesterday. Be grateful.

    Thoughtful post, Jim.

  4. I too love Block’s writing books, Doc. He has a way of getting into the writer’s mind that make his essays so on point.

    John, that’s an unbeatable trifecta: a good friend, a great wife and a loyal dog. Works every time.

  5. Joe, your “be grateful” is a perfect addition to this discussion. Again, the world’s religions and philosophies all point to this: What makes us unhappy are “expectations unfulfilled,” and envy is part of that fuel. What makes us happy is gratitude. “Count your blessings” and like sentiments.

  6. I must confess I’ve felt envy before, but not necessarily toward my fellow writers.

    Jealousy seems to love keeping Blame for company.

    When *it* happens, I remind myself it was my own choices that got me to where I am now, and it’ll be my own choices to move me past. No one else is to blame for any of my own hold-ups or lack of success.

  7. You’re right, Jim, writers are not immune from this disease. Envy likes to rear its ugly head when we’re faced with recent disappointments while being confronted with another’s success. But there comes healing when we can genuinely congratulate another’s success regardless of our own circumstances. Good post.

  8. Madison, that’s great. We can only take responsibility for our own choices. That alone is an empowering thought.

    ThrillerLib: that cracks me up.

    Mark, you’re exactly right that envy has an “ugly head” that rears up sometimes. Contentment is the sword that cuts it off.

  9. About the time I fully realized how subjective success in writing was, I came up with a philosophy that has served me well. So long as I am unpublished, when I get down, I tell myself there are published authors I write better than. Keep plugging away.

    I hope to get a chance to utilize the flip side of that argument: no matter how much success I might have, there are unpublished writers who write better than I do.

    Helps to keep everything in perspective.

  10. It’s really hard not to be a wee bit envious when I read your dialogue…but I’m planning to do something about it by learning from the master at ACFW Early Bird this year!

  11. I don’t know who said it, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently: the trick in life isn’t to get what you want, but to want what you have.

  12. “. . . remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

    That is so powerful. Thanks Jim. I’ll remember that one. And in addition to Joe’s comment on being grateful I think we have to remember that all these things could disappear tomorrow. I hope not, I’m just getting warmed up.:) But it’s not worth having the envy monster stalk us.

    And I just LOVE Ann Lamott’s:
    . . . It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.

    I hope to never feel that way toward a friend’s success(that would be pretty shallow), but I’ve been to national conferences where envy reigns and some folks, luckily not many, seem they would sell their souls for a contract, an agent, etc.

    Count our blessings indeed.

  13. Envy is part of life. Mostly, I think it comes from thinking too highly of ourselves. If we truly believed the other person was better or more deserving than we are, we wouldn’t experience it, but it’s hard to develop humility. It’s one of those things we’re afraid to pray for because we’re afraid of what we’d have to give up to get it. That ought to tell us something.

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