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?