I mentioned to my Pulitzer finalist poet husband that I wanted to write this post about envy being a grave disease for the writer’s mind, and he glanced up at me with a serious yet playful smile and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Every writer feels it.” Sigh. Here is my brilliant husband who has been nationally recognized for his talent and he too knows what it feels like to compare artistic merit and careers with other writers. I always hoped poets were immune from this kind of torture, that somehow their special way of seeing the world protected them from this lowly fiction writer’s troubles. Alas, I was wrong. He was a finalist for the prize, he reminded me. Not the winner. Which, of course, is not to say that he’s unhappy about this recognition. What an incredible honor. We both know just how fortunate he was to receive it. Still, runner up, honorable mention, finalist—all of these terms leave a little space in our day dreams for wondering what if? What if I were the one? THE. ONE.
We all want to be the one—the wittiest, best-selling, best earning, most read writer the world has ever produced! (Move aside, Shakespeare.) And despite how irrational this impulse is, it’s still an impulse that plagues us, one that’s very hard to train to sit and stay still. And writers these days have so many more metrics with which to compare, just as we all do, like how many thumbs up we received on Facebook, how many hearts on Twitter, how many shares, how many reviews on Goodreads, the Amazon ranking, the fabulous blurbs from stellar sounding writer names with internationally bestselling tags attached to them, the review on NPR or lack thereof, the TV and radio appearances or lack thereof, the book store appearances, signings, readings, or lack thereof, the big advance or reduced advance or sad advance and the deep wonder about your friend’s advance and whether it’s a big advance, a reduced one, or a sad one, and on and on goes the monkey mind of the writer, one that always seems to benefit greatly from hours of transcendental meditation and mindfulness. (See: George Saunders.)
If I had a solution to this, well, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post. To be in this field is to observe and compare. The writer’s ability to imagine is a horrifying prospect for some people who would rather not detail the worst case scenarios day after day after day with extraordinary precision. The writer’s mind exaggerates. We assume a great deal about other writer’s careers and experiences and all the happiness and satisfaction that comes with it. Many times I’ve met writers who I admire deeply and they generously reveal that they too are still consumed with fears that they’ll never write again, that their best work is behind them, that other people are writing better and more than they are. So why write then? One, it’s a compulsion. Hence, the blog. Two, the community. Though writers all find someone to envy in this field, we find comradery with each other. Only other writers understand writerly envy like I do and can share in the occasional misery of it. You won’t find a more interesting group of self-conscious people in this world like a big group of writers. And together we’re all searching for some kind of truth, which is a goal worth envying.