Writers, Jealousy and Generosity

Okay, lets just get this out in the open.

I am a jealous person.

I don’t want to be a jealous person. I consider it one of my worst traits. I try to keep my envy in check, but occasionally it gets the best of me.

A couple of years ago I was feeling a bit lost. My year-long novel workshop had ended, and I missed the structure and comfort of being with the group. I had just attended a conference where I had pitched my novel and received some encouragement, but not the requests for full manuscripts that I had hoped for. Then I was rejected from Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Then Bread Loaf. The same day I received the Bread Loaf rejection, I found out I had not gotten a fellowship I had applied for. Then I received the rejection for my state’s cultural arts grant. Now, everyone I knew had applied for that grant, it’s both a good chunk of money and a prestigious award, and I was aware that it was extremely competitive. I tried to stay philosophical. Then I went on Facebook.

Why do we always go on Facebook when we are feeling bad?

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And it was there that I learned that a friend of mine had won the grant.

This is a friend whose work I greatly admire, who worked tirelessly on her novel, a friend who had always been super supportive. Someone I cared about. I wrote congratulations!!! or something like that under her post, took off my sneakers, and crawled into bed for three days.

The thing about jealousy is that at its center, it’s really just the fear that there isn’t enough to go around. And the truth is, in the case of conferences, fellowships and grants, there often isn’t enough to go around. So what is a writer to do?

First, just know that all writers experience a little envy from time to time. It’s natural. Resources are sparse, and we all end up competing with our friends at one time or another.

Next, try and dig a little deeper and see what is underneath the fear. For me, it wasn’t that I really wanted or needed the grant (although the money would have been delightful!); it was that I was seeking validation. I had just left the cozy cocoon of workshop, where I received consistent support and praise, and I was preparing to send my work out into the world. I was working on my query letter at the time, and was feeling deeply insecure about my bio line, which included zero publishing credits. I had been hoping that a grant or fellowship award would fill in that space. Once I realized what I was really feeling down about, I could go do the things that would make me feel better—like checking in with mentors, re-reading old notes from people who liked my book, talking with writing friends.

Third, try to remember to stay in your own experience. I wrote about this in my post about comparison, but I think it bears repeating. There will always be writers who secured an agent faster, at a fancier agency. Who nabbed a bigger book deal, at a larger press. Writers with pricier marketing campaigns, more impressive blurbs, longer tour schedules. There will be writers who make all of the most-anticipated lists and all the best-of-the-year lists. They will win prizes and get reviewed in respected newspapers, and you will hear them chatting with your favorite radio host about their latest work while you are schlepping away at your day job. But do you want to know something? There will always be writers who wish they had your agent, your book deal, who wished they had gotten into your workshop. The most effective antidote to comparison is to appreciate what we have, and let ourselves be inspired by the success of others in our craft.

And my best advice? Be generous. Nothing takes you out of your own feelings of lack faster than giving to someone else. One of my favorite things to do is to help friends work on their agent lists and query letters. I did so much research before querying, and it feels good to have something to share. Get outside yourself and go help someone else. You will feel better. I promise.

Nine months after my friend won her grant, I sold my novel. That week we met up for coffee. She gave me a big hug and said “I’m so happy for you. And I’m so jealous.” I laughed, and hugged her again.

As a way of practicing staying present during this crazy debut year, I am participating in a gratitude project. Everyday on Instagram I post a photograph of something I am grateful for, and tag it #365gratitude. Join me!

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Louise Miller

Louise Miller is the author of THE CITY BAKER'S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/August 9, 2016), the story of a commitment-phobic pastry chef who discovers the meaning of belonging while competing in the cut-throat world of Vermont county fair baking contests. Find out more at louisemillerauthor.tumblr.com.

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This article has 7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this very wise post! It was exactly what I needed to read, in this new year, as I begin a third draft of my novel, feeling jealous of those who are further along than I am. Thank you, thank you.

    1. Thanks to you, Milton! I’m so glad it was helpful. It IS hard to not want to be further along, but I can promise you each step (including revision 3!) has its joys that you don’t want to miss. Best of luck to you in all things.

  2. This is such a wonderful post. And a great reminder that all of us, even people like Louise whom no one would guess had a jealous bone in her body, can fall into the trap of comparison and envy. In a world as subjective as writing it’s even harder to avoid, because the measurements of success are so difficult to calibrate that we can look at almost anyone and find some barometer by which they are doing better than we are. Ugh!

  3. My jealousy always comes from comparing progress. I’m not competitive, but I am comparative. I want to be in the race so badly that it’s easy to feel trapped on the sidelines. Early in December I turned down an offer of representation to focus a different genre. Since then my comparative jealousy have lessened. I think because I feel more in control of my writing and trajectory, even though I’m technically further behind.

    1. Comparing is the worst! I totally relate to this. Just try to remember that there is no “behind.” There is just you and your process, however long it takes. Also, everyday you show up at your desk you are in the game!

  4. Thank you Louise! After leaving a full-time tech writing career where I got lots of validation, to focus on fiction in the isolation of home, I realized that part of the reason I’ve been feeling so bad at times–before even starting the submission process–is missing my work community and the validation I drew from it. You’d think by now, after multiple disasters in my work life ultimately resulted in exponentially better roles, that I could survive this more easily. But no, my fiction-writing ego is still quite fragile. I need constant reminders, like yours, that things will get better when I ignore those demons and just keep at it.
    Looking forward to seeing your book!

    1. Thank you so much, Judy! I really relate to what you are saying. Community is key! Even just one writing friend who can give you some perspective and a boost now and then is helpful. All good things to you with your writing!

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