Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Writerly (NAY! All Creative!) Jealousy

Earlier today, I tweeted a link to this article on writerly jealousy, over at The Rumpus. It seems a lot like something I would have thought about and written — the question asker is very jealous of her writer friends, to the point where it is like “swallowing battery acid” when something good happens to them. Sugar, the blogger, dishes out an answer that would fry eggs, talking about how jealousy is only as powerful as you let it be and how the original asker’s point of view came from a false sense of entitlement.

I found myself nodding along and going YEAH! WHO ARE YOU TO BEGRUDGE THOSE PUBLISHED AUTHORS ANYTHING!?

But then, as I tweeted the link and talked back and forth with folks on Twitter, I realized that I wasn’t the fairest person to be talking about writerly jealousy. I know y’all are thinking it’s because I’m sitting in a very lovely writerly place now, and I am, but that’s not the reason. The reason is that I’m just not a jealous person (and I realize this sounds very egotistical, so bear with me as I explain). As a non-jealous person, me giving advice on how not to be jealous would be like me giving advice on how not to gamble — something else I’ve never felt the remotest affection for. I have my vices, like an addiction to sweet tea and an obsessive-compulsive streak. Both of those would be valid things for me to write about, but jealousy? No.

And that made me start wondering why I’m not generally a jealous person. Because I do seem to remember, once upon a time, knowing quite a bit about being jealous. I was one of five kids, and monsters of the green-eyed variety tended to arise when one sibling got to ride in the front seat and I didn’t, or when someone got to stay up late and I didn’t, or someone got an extra present at Christmas (oh yes, we counted).

This is where it starts to click for me. Really, the reason why I got jealous as a kid is because I didn’t understand why my brother or sister got something that I wanted and I didn’t. It was out of my hands, a benefit gifted by a capricious, inscrutable parent, a surprise windfall that landed in someone else’s lap instead of mine — all because they happened to be standing closer to the prize than I. Everyone should have had an equal shot, but that didn’t matter when they were handing out the goodie bags.

Sugar, over at the original article, tells the original asker that she thinks jealousy stems from entitlement. “A large part of your jealousy probably rises out of your outsized sense of entitlement. . . There are a lot of people who’d never dream they could be a writer, let alone land, at the age of 31, a six figure book deal. You are not one of them.”

But, the fact is, I’m 29, and I will have six novels published by the end of this year. Richelle Mead is 34. Lauren Kate is 30. Stephanie Meyer is 38. There are a lot of authors who have become wildly successful by age 31, so it’s not really an impossible dream, to be published by 31, not anymore. That dream isn’t just a product of entitlement.

I think this is why jealousy is such an issue among writers. The dream seems more achievable than ever and still, it doesn’t pan out for everyone. It’s like being one kid in a family of five of them — why did SHE get to sit in the front seat this time!? There’s really this sense that luck rules the publishing industry. There’s this idea that someone got published because they met the right editor at the right conference. They had the right idea when a trend was hot. They submitted a manuscript right before an agent had a vacation in Aruba and the agent signed them because forever their work reminded her of beaches.

But if you believe that, it will eat you alive, wondering why it couldn’t have been you who hit that lucky strike. Why did the publishing gods gift that deal to someone else?

I think this is why I’m not a jealous person, as an adult. Very early on as a teen, I decided to take complete control of my fate (actually, being a control freak is one of my vices). Mostly, I wanted to be able to take credit for my successes (and oh, was I determined to have them), and if I believed that luck was guiding my hand, that meant I had to give luck the credit. But taking ownership of my destiny meant that my failures were my fault as well. My query was sloppy. My characterization was lax. My concept wasn’t commercial enough. The fault was mine, but I was okay with that — because it meant that when I fixed them, success was inevitable.

That’s right. I believed it was inevitable. I remember telling my husband when I was 19 that I was a poor history major at the moment, but one day, I’d be a rich and famous author and would keep him in the manner to which he’d soon become accustomed.

So I guess, as a non-jealous person with no right to dole out advice on jealousy, this would be my advice, nonetheless: take ownership of your destiny. Own your faults and your successes, and let others own theirs. It’s hard to be jealous of someone who you know worked for what they got. Harry Potter’s a great example — Ron’s always a little jealous of Harry, because his scar and his status was an accident, outside of Harry’s control. But no one’s ever jealous of Hermoine’s skill in magic. We know she fought for it.

As mystical and uncontrollable as this business seems from the outside, I can tell you from the inside that most everything happens for very valid reasons, and most of those are totally within your control. It’s far more about attending those potions classes than it is about being around when Voldemort rings the doorbell.

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