"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Envy: The Worst-kept Secret In Writing

Today I want to talk about envy. As I've found in my work with writers, it's probably the worst-kept secret in the writing life.

For those who are new to this blog, here's my one-line bio: Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (the film My Favorite Year; the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, among others), I'm now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in working with creative people.

But I also still write. My work has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and just last year a collection of my stories, From Crime to Crime, was published. My first mystery novel, Mirror Image, will be out in August from Poisoned Pen Press.

The point is, whatever creative concern you're struggling with, I guarantee I've been there, done that. I've been stymied by writers' block, grappled with procrastination and been brought low by rejection. As well as most other thorny issues writers deal with on a daily basis.

Take, as mentioned above, envy. I'm thinking about a patient of mine, a novelist, that I've been seeing for some months. Despite the gains he'd made in therapy, he felt his work was continually undermined by his envy of other writers.

He told me he had to stop reading his Author's Guild bulletin, as well as publishing websites, because seeing the deals being made by other writers angered and deflated him. He'd grown increasingly self-critical about his work habits--normally a source of pride and satisfaction--since hearing rumors about a best-selling author's penchant for "knocking out a new thriller" every six months. It had reached a point where learning of a friend's having lunch with a potential new agent could trigger a depression.

None of these feelings were unfamiliar to me. During my former career as a screenwriter, it seemed as though envy was the unspoken constant in almost every conversation with other writers. The dirty little secret of the writing life. And, as I said, the worst kept.

For some, of course, hearing of another's success can be a spur to greater efforts. For others, the result can be a crippling paralysis.

It took me a long time to understand, and to accept, that envy is a natural by-product of the achieving life. Throughout our childhood experiences in our families, and then our schools, and ultimately in the adult world, we strive to achieve in a matrix of others who strive to achieve--such that comparison is not only inevitable, but often the only standard by which to measure that achievement.

With time and maturity, we hopefully develop the self-awareness (and self-acceptance) to measure ourselves by more internal monitors; to enjoy the expression of our creative talents for their own sake.

But we also live in the real world and need the validation of that world. For a writer in a commercial marketplace, that means enduring intense competition and the almost daily spectacle of others enjoying extravagant rewards in fame and money, all while negotiating the often gut-wrenching peaks and valleys of one's own career.

In other words, that means living with envy.

The key to surviving envy, as is the case with all feelings, is to acknowledge it. By that, I'm not referring merely to the fact that you're envious, but also the meaning that you give to it.
For example, if a writer sees envy as a sign of some kind of moral weakness or character failing--a view possibly engendered and reinforced in childhood--the effect on his or her work can be quite debilitating.

Equally harmful is seeing your envy as a disparaging comment on your work, a confirmation of a lack of faith in your own writing. "If I let myself feel envy," one patient told me, "it means I don't believe in the possibility of my own success."

Another patient bravely insisted that "envy is counter-productive." So terrified of anything that might derail his firmly held belief in "positive thinking," the meaning he gave to envy--as well as any other "negative" emotion--was of an insidious obstacle on the tracks of his forward momentum.

Only by investigating what envy means to us can we risk acknowledging it. The plain fact is, it's just a feeling, like other feelings---which means it's simply information, data about what's going on inside of us.

If nothing else, envy informs us of how important our goals are. It reminds us of the reasons we undertook the creative life in the first place, and challenges us to commit once more to its rigors and rewards.

Moreover, in my own case, I find that I'm rarely troubled by envy if I'm writing well, if I'm truly engaged with my current project. When I'm fully "caught" by what I'm working on, intrusive thoughts about the creative and/or career triumphs of others usually don't enter my mind. Usually.

So the choice is yours. You can deny your envy, or use it to re-double your efforts. You can talk it to death among your friends (also a great procrastination ploy, by the way), or you can suffer in silence. Or, hopefully, you can accept it with humor and self-acknowledgment, and perhaps explore what its meaning is for you.

But one thing I know. For a writer, to coin a phrase, nothing's certain except death and taxes. And envy.

Then again, that's just my opinion. I'd love to hear yours.


Peter Anthony Holder said...

It's an interesting topic, because I've always thought there was a difference between envy and jealousy and it's the latter that I don't like.

Perhaps others will disagree and I am wrong, but I've always thought that envy was a healthy thing, in that you would strive to achieve something for yourself that you have seen others achieve. In other words, being the best that you can be.

Jealousy, on the other hand, at least to me, is wanting to have something that someone else has, instead of them having it.

With jealousy, you can't imagine how or why that person has something that could or should be yours. It is self destructive, misplaced anger.

I can be envious of a great writer, such as yourself Dennis, but your success with the written word only wants to make me a better writer, but not at your expense.

If I were jealous of you as a writer, then I would want to be successful, perhaps at your expense.

I think therein lies the difference. So at least in my little world, I think envy can be productive, while jealousy is not.

I'd be curious to know what you think about that.

jeff said...

great to know i'm not alone!

Debbie said...

I wish I could have written that column as well as you did.

writingpi said...

Great blog, thanks. I'm sharing this blog with other writer pals.


LAWEBFEST 2010 said...

great aticle. and so true, but i've never heard it captured that way on paper. so so true. thank you for writing that. it's good to get it out (smile)

LAWEBFEST 2010 said...

@ Peter Anthony Holder
Have always considered envy and jealousy as one and the same and very unhealthy, even potentially dangerous. When someone has something I want and it encourages me to do better, try a little harder, I call it "inspiration" or "motivation."

What a great topic to write about. Hats off to Mr. Palumbo. Not sure if I'm inspired by what he wrote or jealous that I didn't write it first. Hmmm... (smile)

Greg "Mr Goodhelp" said...

Great article on how some creatives spend their time focusing on what other people are doing.

Always good to know what's going through the minds of those who write for a living.

--Mr. Goodhelp

margocole said...

Hi Dennis, my mother-in-law "Mary T" (as she is called back home) sends me your updates. I always read them because I'm a think-y writer myself (too think-y for my own good, sometimes).

I relate more to admiring a writer and gleaning "motivation" from them (as Lawebfest put it) than envy. But, it's not because I believe envy is wrong. I have a feeling it's because in addition to revising my YA manuscript, there's toddler-rearing, Copywriting full-time for a digital marketing agency, and keeping up with my own writing blog to be done. In other words, I have no energy to waste on envy.

Thanks for the great post!

Rachelle said...

Thanks Dennis for your honesty.
As we know, awareness is the first key to healing.

Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul) writes of jealousy in a positive light: it is calling us to something: in this case to write..with our passion and love of our own unique voice.

To write with our personal vision without attachment to outcome. We hear that a lot, but it has to be true. Think of EMILY DICKINSON or the artist, VINCENT VAN GOGH.

And if the desire is there, what put it there? The mystery, but a mystery to fulfill with JOY.

And to know we all struggle (we are One Mind, are we not) and therefore someone elses
success mirrors our own.

When in doubt, be sure to have that supportive friend. All we need is one.

Rachelle Benveniste, Writing Coach, Instructor, writer, poet, journalist.

Rachelle said...

Hi Dennis, Thank you for your honesty. As we know, awareness is the first key to healing.

Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul) writes of jealousy in a positive light. He says it is calling us to something and to pay attention; in this case to our writing and our own unique voice.

From this perspective, we honor our passion and vision without attachment to outcome. I know we hear this a lot, but think of EMILY DICKINDON or the artist, VAN GOGH.

Also, if you know that we all one mind, then the other's success mirrors our own.

Thus, knowing we struggle together can keep us from feeling so alone out there. So, when in doubt count on one supportive friend. More is great, but one is all you need.

Rachelle Benveniste, Writing Coach, Instructor, Writer, Poet, Journalist