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?