No Fear, No Envy, No Meanness

James Scott Bell

Liam Clancy was one of the great Irish balladeers and a key figure in the folk renaissance of the early 1960s. Naturally he ran across 20-year-old Bob Dylan who was starting to get noticed in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village.
In the superb Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan recalls Clancy giving him some advice (fueled by more than a few pints of Guinness). “Remember Bobby,” Clancy said, “No fear, no envy, no meanness.”
That is a trinity of sound advice for writers, too.
You have to go to new places, new depths, if you’re going to be worth anything as a writer. Fear will keep you safe but it will never get you up the mountain.
Fear is not something we can always control. It’s a feeling that sneaks up on you, and is actually healthy in certain situations. It can keep you out of a biker bar at midnight, for example. Not a bad thing.
But fear can also debilitate you and hold you back from your best work. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Go there. Write fearlessly. Let loose. Don’t be afraid to fail aggressively.
Socrates called envy the “ulcer of the soul,” and the wise old sage knew what he was talking about. Envy is a useless emotion that is, unfortunately, something most artists are prey to, even if they don’t want to be. Suffice to say if you envy another’s success you are only hurting yourself.
Besides, envy is baseless. The person you think “has it all” probably doesn’t. I’ve known some bestselling authors who are miserable, to themselves and other people. A few are paranoid. You would not want to be them.
Just work hard toward your goals and leave other people’s success out of your equation. Practice gratitude. That is the key to happiness.  I love what I do and what I have, my family and friends and career. I’m not going to poison that with pointless comparisons and petty thoughts.
Epicurus, one of the few Greek philosophers who got a whole school named after him, said, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not.”
Meanness in a writer is something I just don’t understand. Most of the people I’ve met in the writing business are good, decent folks. I count many of them as among my closest friends in life.
There are exceptions. The diva. The narcissist. The sun around whom the rest of us are expected to orbit. I remember being at a book conference once when one of these exemplars was getting ready sign (as I was). But a sufficient supply of books was not at the booth, so this paragon of magnanimity started barking at the poor staffers, though they had several other tasks to attend to. The smile that was reserved for the public was gone, as was any hint of charity or appreciation.
It was all about this writer, you see.
As author Michael Bishop once put it, “One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that.”
So there you have it. Simple, clear and solid advice from Liam Clancy, an Irishman who lived it: No fear, no envy, no meanness.
Try it. You’ll be the happier for doing so. 

28 thoughts on “No Fear, No Envy, No Meanness

  1. I’ve been fortunate–haven’t run into much of the meanness factor in the writing world–yet. But I’m sure it’ll come eventually.

    Of those three things, by far, conquering fear is the hardest one to learn.

    BK Jackson

  2. I agree, BK. It comes in many forms–doubt, self-criticism–but if, when you feel it, you write then you can stay, as Stephen King has said, “ahead of the waves.”

    The fears don’t seem so powerful after you’ve put typed a thousand words or so.

  3. Excellent post, sir.

    It’s amazing how the most complex of problems can be solved using the simplest equations. Clancy was indeed a very wise soul. Great words for the writer, great words for our world.

  4. a maxim to live by.

    fear is of little value unless it is conquered
    envy is senseless, there’s plenty to go aroumd
    meanness does nothimg but close doors and burn bridges

    so sing, dance,share,and love … and the greatest of these is love

  5. Such wonderful advice in six short words. Words to live by for everyone, not just writers.

    Thanks for sharing!


  6. Awesome, Jim.
    It’s one of those reminders that we could all frame and put on our desks. And I just don’t understand meanness. Life is hard enough.

  7. Great post as always, James. I’ve tried to teach my children that while you don’t have to like everyone you meet the social contract requires that at a minimum you be civil and courteous to all (unless they manifest the ability and will to cause you harm)and that you unhesitatingly supply aid to those in dire need. Your six words sum it up.

    There is an artist in New Orleans (on Chartres Street in the Bywater) who paints signs that say “Be nice or leave.” Amen. You can find them hanging in several establishments down there.

  8. Great post, Jim.

    Isn’t it funny how we tolerate fear in others easier than we tolerate their envy and meanness? At the same time, we tolerate envy and meanness in ourselves easier than we tolerate our fears.

    I’m just thankful that when we ask God to be a part of our lives he is able to help us overcome each of those vices (including unforgiveness) in both ourselves and in others.

  9. I need one of those “Be nice or leave” signs for my plank (aka what passes for a desk at my place of employment).


    BK Jackson

  10. Or I have my “Day jobs suck” button that I got at the Screenwriting Expo several years ago.

    But that could be construed as mean of me so I better just continue to keep it hidden in the recesses of my drawer. ๐Ÿ˜Ž

    BK Jackson

  11. Here, Here, James!! Great post.

    No fear. I love to duel down that emotion. The results always satisfy.

    No Envy. Never gonna happen here. I see another person’s success as proof I can do as well. (However, I do envy a woman who can wear a pair of stilettos well. Never mastered those stilts . . . LOL!)

    And Mean? Can’t imagine. The writing community with which I’m affiliated comprises some amazing folks. However, is it not mind-boggling how the mean kids in the sandbox really stand out? Even the air changes around them . . . like this big heavy blob of sludge. They certainly offer an excellent example of how NOT to be!

  12. I’m with Kathleen on the stiletto thing. I admit it, I envy Tina Turner. Not for the voice, that is god-given, but for the ability to not just wear stilettos, but to dance in them.

    Clancy’s maxim is going on my bulletin board with the assorted and sundry wisdom of xkcd.

    Great post!

  13. “Fail aggressively” may just become my new mantra! To do otherwise is to be the wicked servant who hid his talent because he was afraid.
    Thank you! Terrific post today!

  14. Great advice. I’ve had the chance to meet several of those writers I admire at writer’s conferences, and I’ve (overall) found them to be a lovely bunch of people who are so down-home and encouraging that I just can’t envy them. I hope to learn from them, and to someday achieve what they have achieved, but I heartily applaud what they’ve accomplished. Most of the writer I’ve met, in person and online, are an amazing bunch of people who are willing to share what they know with other writers. It’s wonderful.

  15. Jill Kent posted the link to this on the ACFW loop today. So glad she did. I’ve bookmarked the post so I can find it next time the green monster roars when someone else reaches my goal.

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