Thoughts on Publishing Envy
In this week's Kind Reader column, Jessa Crispin offers interesting and helpful advice to an unpublished writer who is repeatedly asked to share in her/his friends' joy in their publishing success. Crispin reminds the LW that William James was not published until he was forty-nine, and urges him/her to channel these feelings of envy into greater focus and productivity.
I think this is excellent advice, as far as it goes. (And it goes exactly as far as intended, since the premise of the column is the application of literature to life problems.) But it assumes that the writer will, eventually, be published, and statistically, this is nothing like a sure bet. Maybe the LW is a lousy writer. Maybe s/he is a wonderful writer whose subject matter doesn't have great popular appeal. Maybe s/he is a great writer on universally appealing topics, who yet will never be discovered. There is no way to know.
So the question remains: How do we deal with envy and resentment toward friends who have achieved (or, we may feel, been handed) our hearts' desire?
I think one important factor is acknowledging that life is inherently unfair. If it were fair, nobody would own two houses while others go homeless. We wouldn't eat in nice restaurants while some people are hungry or malnourished. And so on.
This is not to shame anyone for having a more pleasant or easier life than others may, but merely to point out that we can only play the hand we're dealt. And the deck is not distributed equally among players.
Some are dealt superior intellectual or artistic gifts, or experiences that foster the development of self-confidence and assertiveness that will help them push forward in the face of repeated rejection. Some have educational advantages; some are economically privileged, able to pursue writing time, coaching, and workshops that others cannot. Some are born into the "right" ethnic group or social class. Some are physically conventionally attractive, which is increasingly important to publishers' marketing departments. And some have simply led lives that others deem more interesting or valid.
The point is, there is no such thing as a level playing field. Each of us starts at a different place and follows a unique trajectory. Conventional success doesn't indicate artistic or moral superiority; neither does starving in a garret for pure art.
So comparisons are futile. Our friends' success has little to do with us--it's not a race, and the finish line, if there is one, will be different for each of us. The best "cure" for envy--either envy of others or fear of others' envy--in my experience is to acknowledge this and live by it. We choose to write because writing nourishes us. We choose our friends because we love them. We are not in competition, because we can't be. So we can rejoice in their happiness while still wishing for our own, possibly elusive, success. There is a conflict only if we create one.
Obviously, this is easier to say and understand than to put into practice. But I think it is worth keeping in mind.
An artist friend sent the following quote as her New Year greeting this year. I plan to make it my resolution:
"Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art."
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. She can be reached at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.