I was at a bar with some fellow writers when I shared my latest acceptance, one that I considered a turning point in my writing career. Most of those in attendance offered genuine congratulations, but one person grimaced. I caught it, just barely, in the corner of my eye. She heard my news and reacted as though I had caused her physical pain.
She quickly plastered on a smile, but it was too late. I’d seen her flinch. I registered her falseness. And yet I understood how my news had hurt her, and why.
Hearing another writer’s good news sometimes feels like this: a rushing wind carrying away everything you wanted. The publications, the awards, the recognition—it’s all pulled out of your grasp before you even had a chance to reach for it.
It doesn’t matter if you never applied for those awards or sent your writing to those publications. Whether you were actually in the running is immaterial. What matters is the sense that there’s a limited quantity of success and others are grabbing it up before you.
What matters is how you feel you’re falling farther and farther behind.
An old acquaintance of mine landed a book deal. I remembered this person mostly for how fiercely I’d once envied her writing and how I believed her abilities articulated my weaknesses. When I learned of her book deal, my entire body was flooded with a crushing sense of dread.
Rather than giving in to that misery, I forced myself to take stock of what I was feeling and why. I considered what her success meant for my own writing career, which was nothing. Most of all, I decided to reframe how I experienced her good news. This was my strategy: I told myself to not be jealous, to simply turn off those destructive thoughts and be happy for her instead.
When this strategy worked, I felt relieved and amazed. It was like I’d invented a magic trick.
Another writer once told me she was jealous of my publications. She said she wanted what I had, and it upset her that she did not have it.
For a while I didn’t know what to say. All I could think was: I am ten years older than you. I spent those ten years writing and failing. Back then, I was struggling, too.
I am still struggling now.
I think of the wonderful writers I know who don’t publish nearly as often as their work should warrant. It’s not fair. This business can be random and mercurial and cruel.
When one of my writer friends shares a success, I know what lies behind that good news: a stream of rejection, self-doubt, and hour upon hour spent working in solitude. All that stuff is like the mass of an iceberg hulking underwater, while the acceptance is the barest glittering tip poking above the surface.
I don’t experience that jolt of writerly jealousy much anymore. It’s still out there, of course. I am not immune. But I find it’s easier to not be jealous when I’m immersed in my own writing, when I’m making progress and moving forward.
When I’m knee-deep in the muck of writing work, it also seems inconceivable that anyone could be envious of my own modest accomplishments. Maybe that’s because those successes recede when I weigh them against the time I labored at my writing desk—all those hours I spent writing middling stories and flawed novels but trying, diligently and sometimes fruitlessly, to improve them nonetheless.
As a teenager, I once spent an afternoon rereading the same handful of poems in the high school literary magazine. They were penned by an older classmate, and I loved them so much that I recited them out loud just to feel the words in my mouth.
It was the first time I can recall experiencing the best kind of writerly jealousy—the kind that made me marvel at another writer’s work and strive to meet that standard in my own writing. I would experience this same brand of affable jealousy off and on over the decades to come. I ran up against it at writing conferences, in the MFA, and in writing groups, and it helped me produce better work.
That kind of envy is a gift. It motivates, pushes, drives. It gives way to action rather than negativity and despair.
In a recent Facebook post, writer Matthew Burnside wrote:
Unsolicited writing advice: be happy for other writers when they’re successful. We live in a world infatuated with guns, money, and power over other people. If someone is making art and having even a splinter of success, that’s a win for us all.
His words resonated with many writers, including me.
I kept returning to his advice as I worked on this blog post, which I initially drafted in a room with an expansive view. Whenever I took a break to gaze outside, I could see buildings, the lake, the sky.
I could see acres and acres of green.