Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Green-eyed Monster

Jealousy lies somewhere between sanity and madness, or so psychologists say. Among professionals, only doctors and actors are more susceptible to it than writers. Some writers seem to fear that someone else’s success is either undeserved recognition or an evaluation of their own work. The mad Salieri in the final scene of Amadeus gives voice to feelings that have tormented many creative minds: “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

Achievers as well as the aspirers fall prey to the attacks of the green-eyed monster. On August 27, 1938, Robert Frost, who according to writer Wallace Stegner was a “prima donna who was never content to share the center of the stage," heckled and humiliated fellow poet Archibald MacLeish, going so far as to set fire to papers to distract an audience gathered to hear MacLeish read. The sad thing is that professional jealousy is a double-edged weapon, wounding both parties. Frost lost a friend over his jealous tantrum, a friend who reportedly said to him after the MacLeish reading, “You’re a good poet, Robert, but you’re a bad man.”

Not many of us are going to lose control to such a degree that we show up to heckle a successful writer at her book signing or set fire to our conference notes when a competitor wins a Golden Heart or a Rita. But few of us are free from jealousy. Anne Lamott writes extensively about the emotion in Bird by Bird, warning “[I]f you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know - people who are, in other words, not you...”

We laugh at Lamott’s words, but we also recognize their truth. Breathes there a soul among us who has not at least felt the touch of the monster’s fangs upon hearing the jubilant announcement of another writer’s just-signed contract, upon seeing another writer’s book atop a best-seller list, upon listening to accolades heaped on another writer’s work? Is there one among us who has not been filled for a moment with self-pity, who has not been harassed for a heartbeat by self-doubt, who has not heard in the silent night a voice taunting us with our own mediocrity?

So what do we do with such feelings? I think I’m right in assuming that most of us want to be both good writers and good people. We don’t like sharing space with the monster. We want to rejoice sincerely in the blessings that have come to friends and acquaintances. What’s the answer?

I think we have to begin by acknowledging our feelings. Lamott continues her warning with these words: “You are going to feel awful beyond words. You are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don't believe in anything. If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed.” Yes, the feelings are negative and no, we don’t want to be controlled by them. But owning them is necessary. Denial is futile, and all attempts at comfort seem empty. Some people talk about their feelings with a trusted friend. Others find writing about them helpful. Don’t pull a Robert Frost, even if your version of burning paper consists of faint praise or sour grapes.

Second, recognize that someone else’s achievement does not diminish us. In fact, the reverse is true. The newly contracted writer gives us all reason to hope. If success comes to one unpublished writer, it means publishers are signing new writers. The title at the top of the bestseller list and more books sold are good not just for the writer who authored the book but also for the genre, good for all of us. Sure, the award winners bask in the recognition of peers and judges, but belonging to organizations that celebrate excellence is reason for us all to rejoice.

Then, use the monster. Turn the negative to a positive. I know from experience that someone else’s success can result in my self-evaluation and renewed determination to be more disciplined. We can use the monster in yet another way. When one of our characters experiences jealousy, we can pull from the well of personal knowledge to give credibility and vitality to our writing.

Finally, share the joy of the achievers. This is particularly important when the success story belongs to a friend. Bette Middler once said, "The worst part of success is to try finding someone who is happy for you." I find that statement poignant beyond words, and I never want to cause a friend to feel that way. Friends share the bad and the good. Most of us have no problem encouraging a friend dejected over rejection, and we all depend on friends who can empathize with us at such moments. But who wants a 50% friendship? Friends not only offer the shoulders to receive our tears; they also cheer at our parades. Sometimes they lead the band. The victory parade is more meaningful when it is shared with those who were there when the third draft still didn’t work, when the contest judge handed out a 59, when the fifth agent said, “No thanks.” I want to be there for my friends when hope seems like merely a pretty word, and I want to be cheering loudly when their moments of triumph arrive.

Jealousy may well be, as Anne Lamott says, an “occupational hazard” for writers, but it is not a hazard for which we have no effective response. “To cure jealousy,” writer Joan Didion says, “is to see it for what it is, a dissatisfaction with self.” Let’s take the cure and move beyond professional jealousy to confidence in our own worth and unfettered happiness in the good fortune of our colleagues and friends.

Writers are not the only ones who experience professional jealousy. Whether you are a writer, a teacher, a businesswoman, or a member of some other profession, have you ever been wounded by either edge of the green-eyed monster?


Keri Stevens said...

I'm definitely a fan of "using the monster." I always analyze it when someone else's success makes me twitch. What did she do that I didn't?

Because it always comes down to that. The story that is sold is the story someone wrote, someone pitched, someone queried, someone entered in the contest I did not enter (or, even worse--the one I DID enter!).

The cure for jealousy, I find, is work.

J Perry Stone said...

I wish I could be healthier about my jealousies, but I'm usually so ashamed of myself.

I do have coping options, however, and depending, choose one of the following three:

1) I deny/repress/ignore it
2) I go through 12 pugilistic mental rounds ... against myself.
3) I call Manda. I don't know why it has to be her (poor woman), but she just makes me feel better about it. Even telling her about it makes me feel better about it.

Janga, this blog is golden. I wish instead of retweeting, I could repost it on at least ten major writing sites.

Thank you.

Maggie Robinson w/a Margaret Rowe said...

Jealousy, schadenfreude, we haz it. But it's so important to just worry about yourself and what you can/will do. When you succeed, nothing has really changed but luck. If you don't feel grateful for every day no matter what, you are silly.

quantum said...

I think that jealousy may well be maximal in the sciences.

With the knowledge available, there is normally only one acceptable explanation for some natural phenomenon and the first person to publish it gets all the credit. No prizes for coming second!

The prize in science is reputation and recognition by peers. The spin-offs include improved research funding, attraction of best students, improved prospects for a prestigious chair, invitations to speak at conferences and to write books and explanatory articles.

When there is ambiguity in who was first to the post, the bickering and invective can be extreme, witness Newton and Leibniz over invention of the differential calculus!

For these reasons scientists sometimes jealously guard details of their work, until it is published. After that, all is sweetness and light and most are happy to give credit where due.

For example in the discovery of the 'omega minus' elementary particle, the Americans just pipped the Europeans. Abdus Salam in London famously acknowledged the achievement adding that the Europeans however had proved that 'God was an American'!

I don't think scientists are jealous of other's abilities or achievements, though when rival theories exist and await decisive experimental measurements, then some sniping may occur. But humour is invariably restored in the bar when it is all decided.

With poetry and 'artistic' writing in general, I can see that much depends on personal opinion so that scope for the monster to flourish is much greater over long time scales.

We scientists are indeed fortunate to have Nature decide these disputes. There is no arguing with God!

Fascinating blog Janga.

irisheyes said...

Loved the blog, Janga.

I don't know if the jealousy I suffer as a writer is as intense as jealousies I suffer in other areas of my life. Maybe because I just don't consider myself in the same league as other writers out there. I know that talent isn't all there is to being published. I think I'm honest enough with myself to know that those who get to see their names on book spines in Borders or Barnes & Nobles did a whole lot more than put a few well crafted words on a page. It took a lot of hard work, maybe sleepless nights, probably quite a few rejections. They just didn't give up - it meant that much to them. I'm not at that point yet and I guess I don't feel I deserve the right to be jealous of something I didn't really work for as of yet.

Now, being a good parent, wife, homemaker, etc. that's a different story. I do see the jealousy erupting there every now and again. It seems over the past couple of decades our society has inspired a new breed of woman to emerge - the Type A, SuperWoman to the extreme. I know in my head, being the sensible woman that I am, that being all things to all people is impossible and completely irrational. But every once in a while the little voice whispers "I wish I could be like so and so and accomplish all she does". Maybe that's where adding a published author to my list of accomplishments rears its ugly head. LOL

I find your steps to dealing with the green eyed monster are right on target and ones I often avail myself of.

In the end, though, I have to agree with Maggie - when all is said and done you do what you have to and feel grateful for every day and try to count the blessings you do possess not the ones that slip away.

Tris said...

What an interesting post =D I think I just ignore the green eyed thing when it come to writing because (ha ha)I'm not even in that field and it's hard to be jealous of people you know and who you've seen go through it all though.

But in other areas of my life... yea - it's hard! I think I just have to step back and give myself a good talking to =D

TerriOsburn said...

Great blog, and an interesting topic, Janga. One I've experienced quite recently.

Oddly enough, I don't feel jealousy when my friends get the agent or get the deal. It's wonderful and I don't even blink. Plus, I know my stuff isn't finished or out there. Hard to be jealous when I'm not even there yet.

For me, it's when a story very similar to mine gets the attention. And then it's not so much jealousy as disappointment that mine didn't get there first. Again, I know this is silly because pretty much every plot has been done several times over. Still, it's tough when it cuts that close.

But I'm like Tris, I do the good talking to thing. I wallow for maybe a day or two, admit to the jealousy. Then put it in perspective and let it go. I'm not one to let things eat away at me. Life is tough enough without me making it worse. LOL!

Janga said...

Keri said, "What did she do that I didn't?

Because it always comes down to that."

Oh, so true, Keri. I know that examining success stories always makes me aware of the discipline and perseverance that led to most of them, qualities that I have in short supply.

J,the mental pugilist--what an image! I can understand your calls to Manda. She's one of the best confidantes I know, equally good at offering sympathy and sound- sense advice.

If I ever get to be as good as you think I am, I'll have my own success story. Thanks for the kind words.

Janga said...

Maggie, that's genius. It is impossible to feel grateful and jealous at the same time. Schadenfreude--I bush to admit that I have been guilty of harboring that emotion upon a few occasions.

Q, I'm always fascinated with the different view you provide with your scientist's perspective. My experience with academia, however, suggests that at least there professional jealousy is common in all disciplines.

Janga said...

Irish, your comment made me remember a time when I found my sister in tears because one of her boys had asked why she didn't cut his sandwiches into animal shapes like Justin's mommy did. This happened, mind you, when sister was working a full-time job, working toward her degree and maintaining a 3.9 gpa, and parenting four kids. I always think those SuperWomen must have weaknesses we lesser mortals just don't see. Remember the poem "Richard Cory" by E. A. Robinson?

"In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place."

But the glittering Cory "put a bullet in his head."

Janga said...

Tris, I think jealousy strikes in all areas, and its causes and cures are much the same. "Talking tos" can work wonders. Mine often sound like replays of my mother's words. :)

Terri, I celebrate my friends' successes with unshadowed joy too. For one thing, I know all the hard work they have put in and how talented they are, so I never feel their victories are undeserved. But the battles are bitter sometimes when the "winner" is someone I don't know. I need more of your pragmitism and optimism.

MsHellion said...

Great blog. I find it easier to be happy for friends' successes if they're not in a field I want to succeed at. *LOL* If they're a graphic artist, that's great! I'm thrilled you received accolades on your new projects--you deserve it--but if we were both writers and she got acknowledged and I didn't? I'd indulge in a complete sulkfest.

PJ said...

Excellent blog, Janga. I think we're all touched by the "green-eyed demon" from time to time. We are only human, after all but the important thing is how we respond to the jealousy - how we treat the person of whom we are jealous and how we use the feelings to motivate and improve ourselves.

I just finished a wonderful book that delves into this very topic. The Accidental Bestseller by Wendy Wax is the story of four women romance authors at various stages of their careers. They meet at a national conference and eventually become best friends - but that friendship is tested by secrets, personal demons, success, failure and, yes, jealousy. It's a terrific story that I highly recommend.

Manda said...

Janga, I am busy putting blogs into my Google reader so I won't miss great blogs like this one. So, here I am commenting on this two (three?) week old blog. And read it at just the right time.

It IS hard being in this business where so many of us are friends and are at varying stages of our writing careers. Because it just stands to reason that we aren't all going to succeed at the same rate. The odds, if nothing else, are against it. (And I have no doubt we will all succeed.)

But it does help to vent to someone you trust. And J always says something about there being enough pieces of the pie for all of us. And that's true, I think.

And I have definitely put that green eyed monster to use. And more often than not it's paid off. Working harder always helps--whether it gives me more writing practice, or it makes me seek out opportunities I wouldn't otherwise have known about.

And Janga and J, you guys are rock stars. Thank you so much for the lovely compliments. If I've given you one tenth of the encouragement you've given me then I'm doing all right.

Can't wait till I see all you guys on the shelf at Wal-Mart. It will happen. I am convinced of it.