Last weekend, I went to a 75th Anniversary showing of “Gone With the Wind” in a local theater. It was a treat! After the Civil War ended, Scarlet OHara nearly starved with her family on their broken down plantation while she burned with jealousy toward anyone who still had money. Later, after marrying Rhett Butler, Scarlet built a gaudy mansion in Atlanta to make her enemies “pea-green with envy” in return.
Unfortunately, she found (like many writers) that having people jealous of her success caused her as much heartache as when she was jealous herself.
Jealousy. Envy. The green-eyed monster. Call it what you will, it attacks writers on a regular basis.
We don’t talk about it much. Sometimes it’s just a twinge, like a side ache. Other times it’s a full-fledged cramp. It can strike when someone in your writing group sells a story or book, when someone on Facebook posts a glowing book review, when we see that someone’s book (that we started and couldn’t even finish) just landed a major movie deal: any of these can bring the sting of jealousy.
On the flip side of the coin, if our story just sold or garnered the starred review or landed on the short list for a big award, we can find ourselves stunned, in the position of receiving cold shoulders, raised eyebrows, rejection, and backbiting. This can happen if you finally sell your first manuscript, but your friends haven’t sold anything yet. As Bette Midler once said, “The worst part of success is to try finding someone who is happy for you.” Frankly, both types of jealousy present challenges, but the second type feels like betrayal, so can be more difficult to handle.
I’m not sure why, but I only had to deal with others’ jealousy very early in my career, when I decided to break out of the farm wife mold and write on the side. I think it’s when you first do something different than what others expect that you run into the most jealousy. Oddly enough, there was nothing much to be jealous of back then! After people in the family and community got used to my being a writer, I don’t recall any more catty remarks or put-downs, even after winning awards and being able to write full-time. If there was jealousy at that point, they kept it to themselves.
What’s a Writer To Do?
If you’re jealous–or others are jealous of your success–there are a number of ways to deal with it.
First, here are some methods for dealing with others’ jealousy.
- You can call a spade a spade. Tell them they’re jealous and to knock it off and let you enjoy your success. This only tends to aggravate the problem though.
- If the person listening to your success story is a struggling writer—one genuinely working to write and sell—be sensitive to her feelings. Do share. Be happy, but don’t gloat. Don’t spend the whole critique period talking about your success. Keep it in balance.
- Find a writer who is more published than you are, then shout your success from the rooftops. Do you have an instructor or mentor who’s helped you in some way? Those are great people to share good news with, and you can pull out all the stops. They’ll be as excited as you are. I love having a former student publish, then write to share the news.
- Brace yourself with certain family members. Jealousy coming from nonwriters (including your family) is trickier, and often the most painful. Family members who were super-supportive while you played the Rejection Slip Blues can turn cold and rejecting themselves when you begin selling. I’ve never understood this type of jealousy, but I’ve seen it in my own life and other writers’ lives often enough to know it’s real. Writers tend to withdraw and shut down when their success stories fall on the deaf ears of family members. Be sensitive to your family issues, but don’t let the nonsupport go on too long. Confront it. Your sale or good review is an achievement, and it should be recognized, just as you recognize their accomplishments. [And be sure you are developing supportive friends outside your family circle.]
When You’re the Jealous One
Oops! Your claws are showing! What should you do if you’re the jealous one? Here are things to try:
- Try to distance yourself from the jealousy. Put some space between yourself and the other writer for a moment, and view the event objectively. What can you learn from this writer’s success experience? How did she find the right market for her book? How did he help promote his novel so that it got such great publicity? Did they do something you could use to boost your own success? Find the lesson in the experience. And then if you really want to nip the jealousy at its roots, smile and congratulate the writer on her success. Fake it till you make it!
- Choose to make that “enemy” into a friend. Rachel Simon, in The Writer’s Survival Guide, talked about one of her friends, Marianne, who was having great difficulty dealing with the success of another new writer. “The extreme heat of Marianne’s envy made her see just how much she wanted to succeed. So Marianne set herself to combating envy with harder work and, instead of seeing her friend as someone to revile, saw her friend as a pioneer leading the way. And so Marianne turned the object of her envy into an object of inspiration.”
- Don’t focus on someone else’s success, if it brings down your own self-esteem. Instead, get to work on your own manuscript! Your mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, the experts tell us, so turn your attention away from the object of your jealousy and address your own writing. Bonnie Friedman agrees in her article, “Envy, the Writer’s Disease,” that the remedy for jealousy is focusing on your own work. “Not the thinking about it. Not the assessing of it. But the doing of it.”
- Develop a sense of humor. Probably one of the best ways to handle jealousy, if you can muster the courage, is to laugh about it. I challenge you to read Anne Lamott’s chapter on jealousy in Bird by Bird and not laugh out loud. She doesn’t pull any punches, but her honesty about the not-so-nice feelings we can harbor about others is so refreshing. “Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster,” Anne says. “But if 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.”
So the next time the green-eyed monster takes a chunk out of your hide, remember Scarlet O’Hara’s other famous line: “I’ll go crazy if I think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” And by the time tomorrow comes, you’ll be so involved in your own writing project again that the envy will shrink to its proper proportions.