The Five Ways Professional Jealousy Can Help Your Writing

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Sometimes workshop attendees – usually people who are new to the class and/or new to writing – assume that the instructor has moved well past the more stinging aspects of the writer’s life. You’re the queen of the roost, proven yourself as a writer and now give advice and feedback to people who trust you. You have fans who admire your work, and sometimes offer that they are jealous of your success. Surely, those who have reached that point are free and clear of pettiness, ego and fears of irrelevance.

That sound you hear are my friends and colleagues trying not to fall over laughing. Bitches.

The truth is, now that I teach creative writing for a living, not only does rejection hurt even worse, there’s actually far more of it. After five years teaching while writing, I have had more than a few unbroken stretches of rejection letters, usually the same periods my students were getting their work accepted left and right, as befits the universe’s sadistic sense of humor. Last year, everyone in my workshop and writing circle submitted poems to a local writing contest – everyone including me. After a few months, I got the word that while my poems didn’t quite make the cut, just about everyone else received an honorable mention! But I can handle it. I’m a professional, she said, left eye twitching involuntarily.

When this sort of thing happens, my insecurities kick into gear, both about myself as a writer and my career as a teacher. I start second guessing, going through the comments I’ve made on their writing thinking “how puerile. How trite.” I lay awake at night thinking about how all of my students are budding geniuses who would surely win Pulitzer Prizes if only they weren’t listening to me. I start making plans to refund everyone’s money. Then, the phone rings.

Or I go for a walk.

Or the cat jumps on my computer and distracts me, briefly, from my little pity party.

Now, nobody will stop you from quitting your work as a writer, but I’d advise you to find a better reason to do so. At times like this when your emotions are high, take a bubble bath with salts and lavender or read some inspirational story about a famous poet who never thought they were any good until one morning, after years of rejection, they won the hearts of millions. Those stories, by the way, are plentiful.

Besides this type of basic self-nurturing, here are a few more substantial things I’ve found to help get you through these periods of self-doubt:

  1. Have a non-writer friend listen to your feelings.

I’m all for being honest with your writer friends, but now is absolutely not the time to tell the subject of your emotional crisis that you are jealous of him or her. Earning prizes, publication or other accolades are a small reward for the tireless struggle of writing. The last thing you want to do is dampen the joy of her or her support group and bring the attention (negative) back to you. So for now, spread hugs and smiles, say how much you like their work, how proud you are, how excited you feel for their success.

Then call up someone you’ve known since childhood, someone who isn’t a writer and won’t spread gossip, and tell them your plan about moving to a cave in the desert and cooking rabbit meat over a fire you don’t know how to build. Let them remind you that there are other things besides writing that you are good at, that winning prizes isn’t everything, and that, surely, if you stick to it, your ship will one day come in too. Their distance from the writing grind can offer you invaluable perspective.

Later on. Much later. When the person you are jealous of, or any of your other writer mates are in the heat of their own rejection-fueled meltdown (this will happen), you can take them out for a drink and coyly confide how, a few years back, when they won the major prize you had been coveting, you had been insanely jealous of them. This happened to me recently. A friend of mine who I am frequently jealous of told me she was worried her new book wouldn’t sell any copies, and she would fall into obscurity as quickly as she had risen to fame. We were drinking heavily, and I decided now was a good time to tell her about how jealous I was of her work, and how knowing her had helped me up my game as a writer, and how I sometimes worried I would never get as far as she had.

Well, her eyes went as wide as empty desert caves. She had no idea that I had ever been jealous of her, and she felt consoled.

  1. Maintain a box of compliments.

When my ego lies in pieces on the floor, it’s very useful for me to take a few minutes to build it up again.  I keep a pretty green box covered in butterflies next to my dining room table where I store all my positive feedback. Every time I get a thankful e-mail from a student or a compliment from an editor, or anything nice said about my work at all, I print it out, fold it up, and save it for when it’s most desperately needed. Sometimes I don’t even have to open the box. I just look at it, remember the last time I got some positive feedback, and my fragile, bruised psyche gets a little scotch tape and super glue to hold it together enough for me to live and write another day.

  1. Set an example for how to fail gracefully.

Remember that when you are part of a writing community, you are not only setting an example of how to use craft or complete a poem. You are also setting an example of how to deal with the writer’s life. When you feel jealous, ask yourself what you would say to the others if they were feeling your present feelings. Would you tell them to give up, apologize to everyone who has suffered through their writing, and go live in a cave in the desert? Probably not. Probably you would tell them failure is part of the game. Probably you would tell them to write for the joy of writing. Probably you would tell them about all of those stories of writers who thought their work wouldn’t amount to anything, who wound up winning Pulitzer’s. Be your own support system.

  1. Go home.

The truth of the matter is, not all of us are going to win a Nobel Prize, be selected by The New Yorker or become household names among the literati elite. And yet, that lack of fame should not stop us from the important work of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Elizabeth Gilbert has a TED talk – “Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating” in which she talks about writing as her “home.” Writing is the place where she goes because she belongs, absent of even the concept of acceptance or rejection. It’s the writing itself that feels good and meaningful. Whether you are making waves with your writing, or just getting submission after submission kicked to the curb, you need to have a reason besides external validation to go home again. Let the writing itself be its own reward.

  1. Use jealousy to motivate and improve.

The truth is, (deep breath) I know that a lot of my students are more talented than I am. Some of them have surpassed me in both reputation and resume; their work drips with lyrical brilliance, and their insights into life pack a more powerful punch. My ego would love for me to believe otherwise, to be teaching because, clearly, writers everywhere would be wise to bow down to the sheer power of my mighty metaphors! However, while being the best writer in the room might feel good, sometimes being the worst writer in the room also makes you the luckiest. A smart, evolving artist brings with him or her the humility to arrive with ample room to grow.

After losing that poetry contest, I read through the work of all the winners (naturally), and realized something – they were all “better” than the work I had submitted… deeper… braver. They took risks with style, they took chances on language, but they were more personal too. I had to admit to myself that a lot of my poems had been skating the surface – my love of pretty flowers and how much I wanted to go to Paris to eat cheese. I began asking what more there was to explore about me. I had rarely written about my family before, my parents’ disabilities, growing up in poverty or being raised with an Eastern religion in the middle of California’s Bible belt. The dread I felt at blowing the contest compelled me to dig more deeply into my psyche and my past.

(By the way, the two poems I wrote during that time have now been published in two different poetry journals. Does that make you jealous?)

Now, your jealousy does not necessarily have to force you to write poems about your mother. Poetry is not a contest to see who had the worst childhood or survived the most trauma. Sometimes jealousy has different things to teach you at different times. At readings, I may feel jealousy about pieces that are the funniest, the most experimental or the ones with words I need to look up on dictionary.com.

However it manifests, jealousy has a task for us. As stated in this article in Huffington Post, jealousy is a sign that you feel you’re not living up to your potential. You feel jealous when someone else has something that you not only want, but can achieve if only you put your mind to it.

In a way, this blog itself was inspired by my jealousy of Anne Lamont, who wrote her wonderful book, Bird by Bird, all about the writer’s life and what she had learned. As someone who has now racked up quite a fuselage of useful, funny, interesting anecdotes about writing and teaching, I thought, “Hey, I could write a book like that,” and so I have. I am. I’m doing it right now.

The funny thing is, even if I don’t ever transition these essays to a published book (fat chance), the writing itself feels good. I no longer wake up haunted by the idea that somebody else is stealing my great idea. When I read and reread Bird by Bird I get less jealous and more inspired to see what I also have to contribute to the literature of writers writing about writing. And now the awards and accolades don’t matter so much. Just knowing that I’m doing the work I was once jealous of makes me feel good on its own. It brings me away from feeling like an outsider, the way jealousy does, and instead it makes me feel like I am where I belong. Like Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk, it’s my way of going home.

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