In Natalie Merchant’s 1995 song “Jealousy,” a woman asks these questions about a rival for her lover’s affections: “Is she bright/so well read/are there novels/by her bed?”
The singer might have been even more jealous if those bedside novels were written by her rival. Jealousy and envy are common emotions for writers. When someone you know becomes a successful and well-published writer, envy can be inevitable. And when megacelebrities who never paid their writing dues get big book deals for novels and memoirs that they didn’t actually write, the envy can become…unenviable.
So how will you, as a creative writer, react when confronted with the green-eyed monster? You could become a jealous maniac (like one of the 10,000 Maniacs, the band Ms. Merchant fronted before going solo). But we at Writer’s Relief know you have to be realistic, so here are six practical tips for turning envy into empowerment.
How To Deal With Jealousy In The Writing Life
1. Use your jealousy as motivation. If a friend or member of your writing group gets a poem or short story accepted by a prestigious literary journal, cultivate an “I can do that too” attitude. If that person can get an acceptance letter, you can too!
2. Congratulate the person on her or his publishing accomplishment. Being gracious is the right thing to do. It will make you feel better to know you reacted well. And staying on good terms with the worthy wordsmith might eventually pay dividends, which leads to our third point:
3. Rather than stewing in jealousy, ask a successful writer for help! Turn a negative experience into a positive one. Often, honest communication can help alleviate jealous thoughts.
4. That’s why it’s important to talk things out. Confide in a close friend or spouse. Don’t keep jealousy all bottled up. And also, when your kind friend reminds you of all the reasons you shouldn’t be jealous, be open to hearing—really hearing—the words.
5. Don’t be afraid of jealousy. If being uncomfortable with jealousy makes you avoid writing groups and writers conferences, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Push through jealousy. Accept it, then either find a way to use it as a motivator OR let it go.
6. Take appropriate action when celebrities get lucrative book deals. If you’re jealous of notables such as politicians, musicians, and actors reaching publishing nirvana (often with ghostwriting or cowriting help) while you struggle, vote for their opponents, avoid their overpriced concerts, and ignore their TV shows and films. They’ll be devastated.
Well, okay, maybe not…but you’ll feel better, anyway!
Finally, don’t forget that when Natalie Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs for a successful solo career, the remaining group members eschewed envy, plugged along, and eventually recorded a top-40 hit (with new lead singer Mary Ramsey). Jealousy can be a negative influence—or just another stepping-stone on the path to better things. Ultimately, it’s up to you!
QUESTION: Have you overcome jealousy in a constructive way? Please share your experiences and tips with us!
This reminds me of what legendary writer Pete Hamill told me in a 1978 interview, “You emulate, you imitate, you equal, and you surpass.”
This article hits very close to home. My friend Rod Moore is coming into town next week. Rod and I spent a year together in a fiction writing master’s program at U.C. Davis way back in 1975; Rod was the most lionized student in the program, because he’d started publishing even as an undergraduate, and had an impressive, ornate, Jamesian writing style. The next year, I got into Columbia’s writing program, so headed to NYC and earned my MFA two years later, while Rod stayed at Davis and finished his MFA there. Now, about 35 years later, Rod has managed to continue writing fiction, quite successfully, winning the prestigious Iowa short story collection annual award a few years ago and now just coming off a stint at the fabulous MacDowell writers colony. Meanwhile, I published one piece of fiction in 1978, and none since. I write fiction infrequently and desultorily now, in fact read it infrequently as well, though the desire to write short stories and novels still beats deep within me — life with all its problems, financial difficulties, family, tennis, crosswords, and other kinds of writing (I’m a medical editor and sometimes magazine freelancer) have taken over. So, it’s a wee bit difficult to see Rod’s success in the field where I wanted success. However, Rod has earned it–he’s continued to plug away, and has reaped the rewards. He’s not rich because of it, he has to make his living as a teacher, but he has continued to write fiction, while I have not. It’s my own damn fault. So Rod, my hat’s off to you, man, for your due diligence and confidence and talent. Continued success, my friend. And after all, I ain’t dead yet — if I want to write fiction, all I have to do is write it.And hopefully I will. Hopefully Rod has set an example for me that I can one day follow. Hopefully sooner than later, because I ain’t gettin’ any younger. Rod, see you soon, buddy.
Great piece — fearlessly deals with a troublesome emotion. “Don’t be afraid of jealousy!” Amen! My further thought on the matter, something that helps me deal with both jealousy and disappointment, is that “success” in the form of publication, prizes, etc. is only the tip of the iceberg. Developing as a writer and truth-teller is a lifelong process and you will run the emotional gamut as you pursue it. The deeper issues are craftsmanship and the hidden truths of being alive. Success ebbs and flows, and comes to everyone who sticks with something — AND is always temporary. But deep feelings between and among writers based on a common search for personal and universal truths is not capricious. When you connect with other writers at that level, their success is your success, and vice versa.
I can’t help responding to this even though I’m supposed to be writing….Back in 1976 I was an English lit major at Worcester State College. One day my poetry professor announced that one of his best friends not only had a couple of book deals, but had a movie deal as well. The book? Salem’s Lot! Now there’s a reason to be jealous.
Though — in that very book one can find the secret to the author’s success. One of the tenants at the hotel where the protagonist is staying complains about the typewriter noise. “He starts at 9 am and goes until noon. Then he starts again at 3 pm and goes until 6. Then he begins at 9 until midnight.”(I’m paraphrasing of course) Even writing every day, how many of us can claim to work that hard?
Alyne, thank you for sharing this story with us! And you do make a very good point. Talent and vision are so important, but many writers get sidetracked and don’t devote the kind of butt-in-chair time that success requires.
I recently had a friend get published. At first I was jealous; then I started helping him sell books. It shouldn’t be all about getting published; it is just as important to see your friends succeed.
Great article. I’d also like to add to try not to think of everyone as being a direct competitor. You only compete against yourself. Other people’s successes spur me on to try harder, and then there are times when I have to admit I will never be Toni Morrison. But it’s a big world and there’s room for all of us.
Perfectly explained Suzette. I feel the same. There is a place for every writer somewhere in this world. We all make a mark only that the depth of the mark makes us popular and not so popular.
I’ve often found my jealousy to be misplaced, whether related to someone’s job, life situation, or perceived success (i.e. thinking someone makes sooooo much money when they really don’t, or blowing a supposed big break out of proportion). It is so easy to sulk because my friends are living in great cities and getting fabulous jobs two years out of school – but the superficial details never tell the whole story. And when I worry about those issues I am simply projecting my own insecurities onto other people and taking my focus away from my own issues.
Easy enough to say now. We’ll see what happens when I go to grad school.
I find when I get jealous at other writers’ successes I write myself. So I
that is a kind of motivation to get off my rear.
Great article! The irony…I found it when I googled “dealing with envy” after reading of a bloggers (whom I hardly know!) newfound success with a book deal! I won’t go on and on with excuses about my lack of time (while a stay at home mom with two small children)…some people wouldn’t “get it” anyway…I need to use what I have, where I am to do the best I can…some great comments!
Lisa, we’re glad you found us and enjoyed our article. Thanks for commenting!
Wow! I’m just finding this but I’m so glad I did! I haven’t found myself directly envious of anyone yet, but my mind keeps poking me with that “what if” moment. What if a family member succeeds where I have yet to? Or a writer-friend? Sometimes it’s so intense that I refuse to speak about my writing, except to say that, yes I am a writer.
I’ve been working on handling this though. Not, getting rid of the envy. It pushes me to put “butt in chair.” 🙂 So, I kinda like it – to an extent. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing …
I smiled when I read the headline of this article, because it reminded me of a PBS show (“American Masters”) that I’d just seen on Harper Lee — whose friendship with Truman Capote cooled when her novel (To Kill A Mockingbird) won the Pulitzer Prize, and his book (In Cold Blood) didn’t. The irony, of course, was that he called on her to help him with it.
In light of that situation, I’d question tip #1 — because neither of them finished another book. So jealousy may not be such a great motivator after all.
Then again, your example is not the best one, since the ex-Maniacs recruited a lead singer who sounded much like her departed predecessor. While that factor enables them to make a living, in pure commercial terms, Natalie Merchant’s name will always be the bigger draw.
A better example of tip #1 is the Clash’s ex-guitarist, Mick Jones, who put his own groundbreaking outfit (Big Audio Dynamite) together right after they kicked him out in 1983. Mick enjoyed a high degree of success through the ’80s and early ’90s — while his ex-partner, Joe Strummer, spent much of that time struggling to find his creative footing again.
OK, enough rock ‘n’ roll history lessons — one other comment I’d make is that beating the green-eyed monster is often far easier said than done…all too often, folks seem willing to trample their grandmother in a heartbeat when those big prizes (status, money, fame, etc.) seem within reach.
I speak from experience: back in college, I wrote for several fanzines, including one started by a guy who decided to found his own “proper” literary magazine (as in, glossy paper vs. photocopy). However, when I — and some others who’d written for the former rag — checked out the possibility of being involved with the new publication, we were blown off, rebuffed, and treated in a pretty unpleasant manner. My blowback got more intense, because I called the guy out (and got a fairly nasty letter back).
The overall impression left was one of being “traded in” for a new circle of local heroes that (presumably) would be used to burnish the guy’s reputation (as well as his new project).
In some respects, this is neither here or there, because the new project ran out of steam after one or two issues (I think), and the guy moved on to other things. I didn’t talk to him at length again (other than a couple of quick encounters in public spaces).
So, I enjoyed reading your article, but I do think we need to qualify a few things — I don’t think anybody really begrudges the Stephen Kings of the world, because he’d have been discovered somewhere along the line.
If people get riled up, it’s more likely to happen in low-rent situations like the one I’ve described — or, as a friend of mine reminded me recently, “entering contests where the favored local writer always seemed to win.”
So it’s not realistic (per tip #2) to expect folks to say “congrats” in every instance: relationships often get soured or trampled in the “chase” for the prizes, making it difficult for the parties to get past that point again.
You live and learn, and chalk all it up to experience — that’s why Dave Mustaine, of Megadeth, has gone on record admitting that he shouldn’t have burned so much energy on trying to scale the same mega-heights as Metallica, after they booted him out early in their career.
If there’s a moral here, it might well be: stand on your own, if you can…and let the chase take care of itself.
I am a writer with steady writing success, and can’t seem to escape the jealousy, no matter what group I join, or writer I hang out with.
My whole opinion of writing jealous is that it comes from feeling the need to support your ego and prove something to other people. I knew diagnosed narcissists who couldn’t stop being jealous of other people’s success.
I am a firm believer that people who focus on striving for excellence, and willing to get writing education, shouldn’t get jealous. I know writers who are jealous of other writers, yet barely seenlm comfortable with getting critique, and don’t have a history of having writing education.
I also think when other writers get jealous, it is because they are too focused on competition, rather than personal growth. I have got pushed out of groups (even those I paid to be in) simply because of excellence in my work, and success. If you mention your writing success then you are arrogant, if you repeatedly share excellent work, then you are showing off…etc. Once you become a great writer that’s achieved, it’s like you got to watch you back, and go into hiding, and never speak of it. I keep to myself now, and don’t bother joining writing forums or critique groups anymore, nor expect to have any real writing friends.