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.