Writer's Envy

Writer’s Envy—And 3 Thoughts on What to Do About It

10 thoughts about how to deal with writer's envyLast year, one of your writing buddies landed your dream agent. This year, they published with a great publisher. Now, they just sent you a #happydance email, telling you they’ve been nommed for your genre’s biggest award. You’re happy for your friend. Really, you are. But try as you might, your gut just closed up with a sick but all-too-familiar feeling: writer’s envy.

The writing community is a great place, full of sensitive, supportive people all trying to prioritize the honesty of their art and the worthiness of chasing their dreams. But the writing community also has its dark sides, and none is perhaps more pervasive or insidious than a writer’s envy. I daresay only the most centered among us have evaded it entirely.

But why? Other than the fact we’re all humans and envy is perhaps one of the easiest of all human failings, why do writers seem particularly susceptible to the poison of envy?

And just to mix things up, here’s another question: Is envy really a poison?

What’s the best way to view and deal with writer’s envy?

Let’s take a look.

Writer’s Envy: Why Are We So Competitive?

Art is a cooperative.

Stories, perhaps more than any other art form, are shared experiences. In striving to hit that perfect note of verisimilitude with our writing, we are trying to share in the larger human experience, just as we are also trying to share our own personal experiences. We are tapping into a collective subconscious that resonates to the same symbolic triggers and archetypal constructs.

Most of us want, on some level, for our stories to positively impact others. We are trying to share something good with the world. Something true. Something of worth.

We are also taking what others have shared with us—both in life itself and in their art—and refashioning it, so we might reshare it yet again. Art is the ultimate recycling system: nothing is ever wasted; everything is reused.

I believe it is an absolute truth that when one artist succeeds, the rewards belong to all of us. When a good story (or song or picture) is given to the world, and then given a platform from which it can be shared with the greatest number of people, that is one of the most perfect things in life.

In short, on a purely artistic level, there is no competition. There is only cooperation. Your art makes my art better. My art makes your art better. And we all benefit.

Buuuuuuutt…..

Pure artistry, like any form of absolutism, doesn’t actually operate down here in the grungy real world.

Down here, it’s Rottweiler-eats-Chihuahua.

Down here, it’s all my-ego-is-a-ravenous-insecure-whining-powerful-beast-who-wants-everyone-else-in-a-bleeding-pile-under-my-jackboots.

4 Reasons for Writer’s Envy

So why? Why are artists—who are supposed to be all wise and ethereal and above the common longings for worldly acclaim—so susceptible to dark and seemingly useless feelings of envy?

1. We’re Not Wise, Ethereal, or Above It All

We’re just blokes and blokesses who, perhaps even more than others, are struggling really, really hard to make sense of our own hyper-abundant human frailties.

2. We’re Vulnerable

There are technical aspects of excellence involved in every art form. Just like a master carpenter, we take pride in our ability to craft solid structures and beautiful prose. And just like that carpenter, we’re going to be bummed when our skills don’t measure up to where we want them to be.

But, even more than our skills, we’re putting ourselves on display. When that is found wanting, in any measure, it hurts ridiculously. Someone criticizing our work might feel their comments are on par with saying, “I don’t like your shirt,” when what we feel they’re really telling us is, “I don’t like your face.”

3. We Have a Hard Time Succeeding

Book publishing isn’t obviously competitive in the sense that my achieving my dreams will rule out your achieving your dreams, and vice versa. Even still, it certainly seems like there are limited opportunities for success. It’s hard to make it as a writer. Very few of us make any money off writing, fewer still make a living off it, and very few indeed become famous millionaires. When someone reaches one of those coveted milestones, it’s easy to knee-jerk into feeling our own chances just got slimmer.

4. We Tend to View Other People’s Successes as a Yardstick of Our Own Failure

When another writer succeeds—especially someone you know personally—it’s hard not to feel as if their good fortune isn’t a giant spotlight revealing everything you, by contrast, have not achieved. They’re agented, published, bestselling, and award-winning. You… are not. Pretty stark.

Reframing Writer’s Envy: It Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing

Is it possible for something objectively bad to be subjectively good?

With a little reframing, it just might be.

Envy is bad. I daresay none of us enjoys it. It sits in our guts like bad sushi. It’s sickening—literally. It makes us unhappy for others and unhappy for ourselves. And then, often, we feel bad for feeling jealous in the first place. It seems pretty irredeemable.

But envy itself is neither bad nor good. It just is. It’s a symptom—like a headache—telling us of a deeper issue.

It’s what we do with that feeling that creates either a bad experience or a good one.

Envy is telling you, first and foremost, that you want something. It might be something obvious, like: I want my book published or I want to win that award too. But even these statements are pointing to something deeper, whether it’s an unresolved insecurity or simply a dream you’ve yet to fulfill.

A writer’s envy is a flashing neon sign, reminding you about unfinished business. So often in life, we sit and we wish for a sign in answer to the old prayer: Just show me what to do! Envy is about as obvious a sign as you can ask for.

So do something about it.

But do something good.

Fierce on the Page Sage CohenSage Cohen, in Fierce on the Page, said:

When envy comes up in your writing life, I propose that you don’t subdue it in the name of propriety and good citizenry. I hope you do the opposite: investigate it until you get top that place in you that saysI want, I need, I DESIRE.

Envy only becomes bad when it prompts thoughts about others. Secret wishes for another’s downfall or even just, passive-aggressively, that they might not be quite so successful until you’ve caught them up, are negative in the extreme. Worse, they’re counter-productive. Fuming—even suppressed fuming—about frustrations with another’s success just gets in the way of your ability to act productively on your own behalf.

Instead, when envy strikes, focus on yourself:

1. Identify Your True Emotional Triggers

Why are you jealous? Because it’s your dream to land that specific agent? Because right now you’re doubting your ability to even write a good sentence, much less the dreamed-of book? Because you think the other writer’s success was undeserved for a specific, quantifiable reason (i.e., “I could write a better book than that!”)?

It’s easy to gripe about other people—whether accurately or not. What’s not so easy is facing down our own motives. Looking our insecurities in the eye can be terrifying. Admitting our work isn’t yet good enough to help us fulfill our dreams is, at best, frustrating. And feeling like you’re doing everything you know how to do—and still not getting what you want—is heartbreaking.

But the only way to address a problem is to first honestly acknowledge what’s really going on.

2. Step Away From the Ego

So many of our jealousies are just plain silly. As already mentioned, art is far more cooperative than competitive. Resentment of another writer’s success is often (always?) counter-intuitive. (If you write an amazing story and I read it, I am going to be that much more likely to write a better story myself thanks to the gifts your story has given me. And then, of course, there’s the fact that if a reader reads and loves your amazing story, they’re going to be that much more pumped to read another amazing story—and maybe they’ll read mine!)

But the ego isn’t always sensible. Certainly, it isn’t easy to overcome. Just realizing and admitting a) the undeniable reality of the ego’s demands and b) it’s often childlike short-sightedness is a huge step toward redirecting its power.

Looking at the bigger picture (of life, art’s role in life, and our role in art) is a helpful re-centering trick. Humility is inevitable when we are honest about how infinitesimal each of us is within that larger picture (and yet, how each of us, supplies an inevitable butterfly effect). It then becomes easier to recognize and embrace the contributions of our fellows, rather than feeling threatened by them.

3. Act on What You’ve Learned About Yourself

Once you’ve dug down deep inside yourself to discover what’s at the root of your writer’s envy, you will have gained information you can act on. You’ve faced down your insecurities. Maybe what you’ve found is something as surface level as My characters aren’t as good as my writing buddy’s characters! or something as deep as I will never feel worthwhile unless I can write an acclaimed book!

More than that, you’ve discovered uncluttered truths about what it is you want: to be published, to be a bestseller, to win an award, to impact readers of a certain group, to write for the pure joy of it.

Your envy has given you an indication of your progress. It tells you you’re not yet where you want to be. It’s a road sign, saying “120 miles to Graceland.” You’re not there yet. But you are on the right road. Congratulate yourself—and keep driving.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you ever struggle with writer’s envy? What do you do about it? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I feel much better now, currently only blogging and through blogging meet others who blog so much better than I do.
    This gives me a start towards changing that.

  2. I read this yesterday and kept thinking about one particular insight: even negative emotions can be helpful because they reveal something that was already there. I think this is a useful insight for character development within a story, too.

    So often I am sorry for reacting badly to things — sorry that I snapped at someone, that I was impatient, that I bragged or showed off, that I deliberately played on someone else’se insecurity to feel better about myself, that I was envious of someone else’s amazing success. And I think, oh it would have been better if I hadn’t read that thing on Twitter that made me react that way, or if I hadn’t gone to lunch with those people.

    But you are right: the insecurity that caused the emotion and the bad behavior was there all along. It was good that I learned what I was really feeling. It is bad when I am prideful and vain, and especially when I hurt others, but it’s also a good thing when my pride and vanity come to the surface, because that’s the only way the poison will come out. It’s the difference between feeling like you’re a good person and actually being one. If I am honest with myself, I am often sorry not because I did wrong, but because I found out I wasn’t as good of a person as I thought I was, which is something I needed to know.

    And another point: so often I grade myself on a universal scale applied to everyone. So-and-so had already achieved this by the time she was my age. So-and-so already made partner at his firm. This writer’s emotional insights are so far beyond what I could ever achieve; this book’s plot is more tightly organized than I could ever manage. But life is not school, where there is a single curriculum for measuring everyone. There is no single timescale for what we’re supposed to achieve, no universal standard of success or quality. Someone else’s achievement is just that: not a standard I fall short of. The only standard I can fall short of — and I definitely do — is making the most of what I’ve been given. I know, intellectually, that this is totally separate from what anyone else does, but of course I don’t always feel it. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. This is something I’ve realized consciously in recent years, but still have a hard time actually *feeling* and implementing. Negative emotions aren’t “bad.” We’re not “bad” people for experiencing them. They’re just pointing out honest truths about ourselves and our interactions with others. If we bury them, deny them, or (my personal favorite) talk ourselves out of them, we’re just running from the real problem. Much better to admit them, face them, and deal with what’s really causing them. Sometimes the cause isn’t even close to the trigger.

  3. Fantastic article! I used to get jealous of one writer in particular. She was making the rounds, marketing what I felt was a truly lousy book. I know now it was just guilt. I wasn’t devoting time to my calling. Now that I’m marketing, I have nothing but respect for the other author. I know how hard she must have been working!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for this post! I am an absolutely jealous writer even though i try to deny it! It’s so severe that if someone else’s fanfiction (not even an original story!) gets more reviews than mine , I get the blues and start thinking my work majorly sucks! Now i know there’s a long journey ahead and i must work on myself. It’s not easy though 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No, it’s definitely not easy. But at least identifying the root causes gets you on the climb upwards. 🙂

      • Elizabeth says:

        Thank you! I think crafting something superb is just one aspect of writing and authorship! Self-discovery and that inner journey is also both crucial and helpful 🙂

  5. Thank you! This is so helpful, this happens to me all the time and I never even noticed. When I hear of success stories my stomach drops. I now suspect it is the perception that there are limited opportunities. Of course this is not true but somehow my brain arrived at that conclusion. So rather than suppress or deny the dread, I should channel it. Brilliant.

    I also think that the internet and social media is helping feed the jealousy, because the bar is now stratospheric. The benchmarks have become JK, Stampy Long Nose, Ronaldo etc. When in reality, I need to set my benchmark at… oh I don’t know, to finishing a single paragraph :!)

    So thank you for bringing light to this topic, maybe it will give rise to a new generation of optimistic authors!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I don’t think any of us are likely to make it up there with J.K. Rowling. But we can all benefit from learning from her success!

  6. Good article but you’re examples are about envy, not jealousy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You sent me down a dictionary rabbit hole. :p

      My dictionary has this for the first definition of “jealousy”: “Envious: feeling bitter and unhappy because of another’s advantages, possessions, or luck.”

      However, I think you’re right that “envious” is probably the more unambiguous of the two terms in reference to what I’m talking about.

      Thanks! I’ll change that.

      • I think they are similar (yes, I looked them both up as well!) but what I have found helpful is to treat envy as an emotion, and jealousy as an emotion attached to an interpretation or judgment. That is, to envy someone is to feel “I wish I had what they have” and that could be a whole host of things in the writing world! I think it’s pretty normal to feel that, as you have outlined in your post.
        However, jealousy is something more: “I wish I had what they have, and their having it prevents me from having it.” As you point out, storytelling and publishing aren’t a zero-sum enterprise, but they ARE difficult. Someone else achieving the success you wish you could doesn’t take it away from you, but if you see it that way then you’re jealous.
        The difference, for me, is you can envy someone’s success and still find a way to support them and cheer them on. I don’t think you can do that if you take envy a step further and get jealous of them. And I think jealousy also prevents a writer from doing any actual good work of their own.

  7. So true!

  8. Hi, I think your blog and website (and How To’s) are terrific, so I thank you. Writer envy is a toughie. I’ve been at this (fiction writing) for 9 years and a half dozen friends have zoomed past me, signing with major agents, scoring multi-book deals.

    I’ve watched some folks ink glamorous, jaw-dropping deals and then have rather tepid sales, and they eventually self-publish. Or there are folks who have niche audiences and self-publish, and freelance as editors (for less experienced aspiring authors). An agent and an advance and even spectacular reviews will not guarantee sales. Readership has changed. I worry that we’re not as literate as we used to be, so books have become less sophisticated and a lot shorter.

    It’s a really odd thing. I used to struggle with writer envy a lot more, and then I watched others struggle, too. They wrung their hands over sales, e.g., “Will I earn out my advance?” They worried about a sophomore slump, their second novel not measuring up to their first. They wrestled with depression or family problems. Just because they had a book contract did not stop real life, or lessen its occasional sting.

    I’ve really come to admire their dedication, their steadiness, that daily discipline it takes to be a successful writer. I feel for those who attain their dream of a contract, of landing an agent, and then discovering that even harder work lies ahead.

    And who resonates with an audience — that’s so hard to predict. Impossible to predict. Some element of success boils down to dumb luck and great timing. It’s true of other creative professions, musicians, for example — why does one pop song become a mega-hit, and another one doesn’t?

    All any of us can do, is to keep at it, (the hard work), root for each other.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “All any of us can do, is to keep at it, (the hard work), root for each other.”

      I agree with this so much. It’s a journey for all of us.

  9. The guilt is the worst of it all. You are happy for your friend and at the same time a small piece of you kind of hopes it explodes in their face.

    You shake those thoughts away, smile and pretend you never had those thoughts….until another friend succeeds.

    This is common. A viscous cycle that some of us simply have to accept. We are competitive.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In my experience, guilt is always a sign pointing to something deeper. If we can dig down and figure out why we’re really experiencing these negative emotions, we can usually find and deal with the fear that’s truly at work.

  10. I enjoyed this article and I agree that is is easy to point fingers at others who have achieved what we think we want and think that we should be in their place. It is harder, as you eloquently state here, to look yourself in the mirror and confront these feelings and then do something about them. Comparing oneself to others in any avenue (not just writing) IMO is wasted energy as there will always be someone who seems to have what we want.

    I strive to nip in the bud any potential feelings of envy or jealousy and instead congratulate that person for his or her success. At first, it was a labor to be happy for others and reject the natural envy we all feel but now it comes naturally and I am genuinely happy for them. It is similar to the happiness we feel when do something for others and often the good karma will come back.

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