Jealousy is a bitch. Professional jealousy is a bitch with a book advance.
As a writer, every time I hear of a fellow writer’s success, whether it’s a book deal, an agent, or a lucrative gig, I am quick with the congratulations. This is immediately followed by a white-hot streak of jealousy, and sometimes accompanied by the urge to push my lucky comrade-in-words into traffic. I think every writer is familiar with the green-eyed monster. Every profession has it, but writers have it in spades. We’re talking about a profession where most of us make less than the guys selling us printer paper at Office Depot. We’re fighting for a tiny slice of the economic pie – where the brass ring of resounding success means financial self-sufficiency, rather than a Kardashian lifestyle.
George Carlin once said that at funerals, the first thing people did was subtract their age from the deceased. Writers have their own rituals when confronted by another’s success. As we congratulate the writer, the wheels are turning in our own minds. Can we get an introduction to that writer’s agent? Should we pitch an idea to the editor that accepted their work? What if this writer was accidentally pushed into traffic – would they need a replacement columnist at that magazine?
It’s easy to be bitter. Nicholas Sparks is making millions and I can name dozens of incredible writers who have to save up for an oil change. Too often, we get paid in “exposure” which is hard to trade for groceries. I’m even part of the problem – as an editor of a small magazine, I’m one of those folks paying pennies for prose. I’ve paid a babysitter more for one night than I have paid for certain articles – and it’s all we can afford.
Jealousy has been a rich subject for writers since they first picked up a quill. I imagine that the first Sumerian who had his cuneiform rejected in favor of another writer wanted to smash a clay tablet over the head of the smug chosen one. At the very least, to snap their reed stylus. William Butler Yeats wrote “A Friend Whose Work has Come to Nothing” in 1913, extolling the noble virtues of not being popularly received, but I think he was just encouraging this friend to stop submitting for publication to give Yeats a better chance at the bestseller list. Billy Collins’ great poem “The Rival Poet” paints a lovely revenge daydream about a colleague – something I may or may not have engaged in myself.
I was once in a writing group, where one of the writers was just dismal. I wondered why this poor guy kept at it, when every week I struggled to come up with more helpful advice than “have you looked into a beginning writing class?” When he announced he had landed a book deal, I was barely able to contain my shock as I mumbled congratulations. My mind raced with the unfairness of it – the writer was guilty of the twin crimes of incessant passive voice and failing to provide snacks to writing group even though we had a schedule. I seriously debated keying his car on my way out, as I toted away my half-eaten cheese platter that I had brought because SOME of us followed the schedule. My jealousy kept me awake for hours.
As a writer, there’s only one feeling that is strong enough to trump this jealousy: gratitude. Gratitude that my fellow writers are getting published. Because those other writers are not just fellow writers. They are fellow readers. They share our love of the written word. They appreciate the zing of snappy dialogue, the craftsmanship of poetry, the love of this art form in the medium of words. Because without other readers, all writers are lost. It’s easy to despair about the state of the written word, when literature is being supplanted by “content” and bookstores are going under like so many paper boats. Someday, the only books for sale may be photo books of kittens wearing silly hats or celebrity tell-alls. Even now, I wonder if the community of readers we write for is exactly the same as the community of writers we compete against. In the Venn diagram of readers and writers, those circles are rapidly converging. Ultimately, it’s our writer friends who sustain us because they are readers. They are the only ones who understand us, for they too live the examined life, and see everything through our common lens of the written word.
So we continue to write. We write for peanuts, for exposure, for our sanity. We write in literary journals like this one, we write for a community of other writers. Not just for our own therapy, but to be read. So that at least one other person reads our words and finds a common truth. Success can be us connecting with even just one other person who laughs or cries because of something we wrote. Whether it’s a nod of agreement or a vehement rejection of our point of view, we are well-paid when a reader feels something we wrote about our shared human experience. That gives meaning to our lives as writers and as people. Often, that person is another writer.
So while I remain a jealous bitch of a writer, I’m still a grateful one.