Last week I met with my writer’s group. After an exhilarating discussion, I left the coffee shop, as always, feeling supported, inspired, hopeful-and, yes, a tad green.
My friends-Holly, Ginnie and Elisabeth-are brilliant and articulate, and their work sparkles with intelligence and insight. I can’t count the times I’ve read a perfect sentence and underlined it, thinking, God, I wish I’d written those words.
I envy my friends’ vivid descriptions, their spot-on characterizations, their humor, their luminous insight, their exquisite use of language. Unlike Deadly Sin ENVY, the demon of murderous intent, and, as Bertrand Russell puts it, ‘one of the most potent causes of unhappiness,’ writer envy inspires me. It’s a dope slap: it wakes me up, pushes me to work harder, reach higher, expand my boundaries. Channeling envy-a natural emotion, after all-and harnessing its energy has made me a better writer.
Here, gleaned from experience, are seven steps for turning writer’s envy to your advantage.
1) Stop beating yourself up. Self-flagellation, dear friends, is the easiest-and worst-way to channel your energy. We’ve all done it. I certainly have, anyway. You read an essay, a story, a novel-heck, a great sentence-and immediately think, what’s the point? I’ll never make it. I’m awful. I’m stupid. I suck. And blah, blah, blah.
Welcome to the pity party.
Go ahead: indulge. As one of my mentors told me, you’ve got exactly a minute (for big time envy, a day). Party over. Pick yourself up, brush off, and get moving again.
2) Refocus. News flash: we’re not all Toni Morrison. We don’t have to be. Success comes in a rainbow of colors. My writing may not be as insightful, as luminous, as sophisticated-choose your own word-as my friend’s; that doesn’t mean she’s better than I am. We’re different. Diversity rules. Be kind. Admire the work. Then remind yourself of your own strengths, and focus on improving your weaknesses.
3) Connect. When the demon rears its ugly head, remind yourself that the other writer, the person you want to banish into the netherworld, is human, just like you and me. Forget the pretty words. Feel the author’s presence, connect; think of her as a friend. We, writers, are in this together. Feel the love. Engage with the community.
4) Write within yourself. I could name dozens, perhaps hundreds of writer-stars, in the stratosphere to my earth. On my short list: Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker. Envying these stars, comparing myself, would be pointless, a two-year-old comparing herself to an Olympic gymnast. As Nietzsche put it: to fly, you ‘must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance.’
Too many people see writing as a race, with winners and losers. Sure, some writers make more money than others, some have more readers; others win prizes. But competition is not only ugly; it’s self-defeating. (Stephen King, for all his spectacular success, can’t seem to get beyond his never having won the Pulitzer Prize.) Writing, for better or worse, is an idiosyncratic business. There is no blueprint, no guarantee of anything. In this field, as with any artistic endeavor, the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Race, go ahead: compete if you must. Good luck-maybe you’ll win. And maybe you won’t. If you write within yourself-for you-at least you’ll be happy.
Post a sign over your desk, if you think it will help: Writing is not a competition. Say it: Writing. Is. Not. A. Competition. Louder: WRITING. IS. NOT. A. COMPETITION.
5) Study. Read as a writer, studying. It’s your most powerful learning tool. When a work blows you away, read it for love-slowly, admiring its beauty-then read it again. Notice the way the author uses language, creates cadence, builds transitional bridges, makes connections, how she weaves story and insight. Pay attention, think like a writer, ask questions, and then practice the techniques that you’ve learned.
Be like a coral reef: let the flow of water, knowledge, nurture you. Keep you alive.
6) Surround yourself with great writers: This may seem counterproductive, but, really, it’s not. After leaving my writer’s group, energized, I immediately head back to my desk. My friends’ work inspires me to push myself, work harder, reach higher. As a group, we support one another. We’re not afraid to tell each other when we’re feeling intimidated, and the admission is always met with encouraging words. The energy we derive from discussions pushes us past envy to vibrant professionalism.
I’ve been in backbiting competitive groups, too; you have to choose carefully. When you surround yourself with people whose work you admire, you’re bound to envy them or their work, on occasion. It’s how you handle your envy that matters. You can let it sour and depress you, or inspire and motivate you. The choice is yours.
7) Keep on keepin’ on. Finally, never, ever give up, not on yourself. If you’re bored, tired, frustrated, if you want to find a real job, one that reliably pays the bills, fine. Don’t let envy, or the resultant feeling of inadequacy, force your hand. Every writer I know, every writer I’ve ever met, has endured moments of self-doubt. It’s normal. Let yourself feel it, validate rather than deny your feelings-and then let it go.
What do you do to transform your envy? Channel into a force that inspires you?
Terri, thanks so much for such an inspiring post! It was badly needed, as I'm definitely feeling low, trying to juggle my blog-writing and novel-writing, and not seeing much in the way of results with either right now.
I wish you much success!
Thank you so much for your message, Kathy. I really appreciate your kind words. You've made my day!
Honestly, I think the vast majority of us feel at times as though we're writing into the abyss. Often, though, people are following or reading our work, even if we're not aware of it. I really believe that's the case with yours. :)
I wish you great success too! Please stay in touch.
Yeah, good post Terri. There are many ways to study a writer's work and although I know your advice is to study in general, one good specific way I learned a long time ago is to take a slab (chapter, whatever) of a book and to copy it.
It's long and hard but you will feel the words differently and have an insight into the construction which you can't obtain through just reading. Once you start to feel these differences you can see how they might change your own writing.
It's worth the effort.
Excellent advice, Timothy! For class each week, Pamela Painter, an amazing teacher, instructed us to memorize a passage from a short story, novel or poem, then we had to recite our passage in class. Memorizing, she said, made you feel the piece–much as you point out here. One week, I memorized the last page of Andre Dubus's brilliant short story, "A Father's Story." Years later, I'm still moved by that passage.
I appreciate your leaving this advice–for me and for others. Thank you!
I really love this post! I get so inspired by great writing. I can't be jealous because I know I'm just not at that level (yet :D ). I just love to come across those gems.
Thanks so much for your kind words, Sonia! You've made my day.
You're right–it's pointless, and toxic, to envy people so far ahead of us. Far healthier and more productive to write within ourselves.
I love your attitude!
Hi Terri. Excellent advice. Will tweet to our followers.
Thanks so much, Adam! I really appreciate your kindness!
Well, Terri, I'm so glad I stumbled across the tweet announcing this post — I SO needed to hear this. It's common sense, right? But still, it's one of those things that when you hear someone else say it, it clicks into place. As I read, I found myself saying, okay, right, yes, keep reading the greats, keep doing what you're doing, because I will never be satisfied with what I've written. I will continue to self-flagellate simply because I am just SO good at it. But it makes each piece stronger. It has to. When I read stuff from ten, even five years ago, it's proof that I'm doing the right thing by tearing into the fleshy parts of my soul. It's bloody work, but the scars heal nicely. Thanks so much again… :o)
Thank you so much, Jennifer! I'm entirely with you. I think writers, in general, are very, very good at self-flagellation. Once I realized I didn't have to do that to myself, I could turn those nasty demons into something positive, I was so much happier. Like you, I look back at old work and know it's been worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. Yes, the scars heal nicely–so beautifully put!
I wish you all the success in the world with your writing!
Wonderful words, Terry!
Thank you so much for your kind words, Linda! I'm so glad we've connected.
Honestly, I think this is a problem most writers encounter at one time or another. For me, figuring out how to turn it into something positive made all the difference.
I wish you the very best!
Hi Terri. Thanks for reminding me about all these things – I know them but tend to forget them and it can seem like a long, lonely road sometimes. Thank you. :)
I know exactly what you mean. Funny, isn't it–how familiar ideas feel so different coming from someone else?
It's a pleasure to meet you! Thanks so much for stopping by!
Sorry, what is with the case that I know many of writers out there suck more than me, but still people love them?
It is real envy, darling.
I feel like I am turning into a monster. After that, it is exhaustion and sadness. However hard I try, nobody would check them out to find out what is inside the story. It's like making an elaborate gift with nobody to open it.
It sucks, it sucks.
It comes to the point that I start to curse my readers.
Ah ha ha, I think writing is driving me crazy…It is finally driving me insane…
I agree: I don't know a single writer who hasn't had moments (or more) of self-doubt or who hasn't envied – perhaps even hated – other writers. So, yes, the emotions you express are very real. And I don't think there is any quick fix. For me, the decision to turn these feelings into something positive has made all the difference – in my mental health, sure, but also in my writing. I can't write well or fluently when I'm distressed. Do I always succeed? Of course not. But, over time, those dark moments receded; now they're rare.
I hope I don't sound like I'm on a soapbox. :) I really appreciate your stopping by. Thank you very much!
Wise words for writers to live by. Thanks for sharing.
Awww, thank you, Diane. Glad you enjoyed this post :-)
I'm glad finally somebody wrote about this little queasy nagging feeling we probably all have but keep in private called "writer's envy". Thank you for being brave and honest! It is far too easy for forget that each one of us has our unique gift. We just need to give it wings! And no, writing is not a competition. They'll just have to buy bigger bookshelves! Thank you thank you!
Aaahhh, it all rings so true. I'm actually reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird right now and your post is good reinforcement. I like that you can turn envy into a positive energy — we can't always make these feelings go away, so better to do something useful with them!