Recently, I saw that a familiar name had just inked their first book deal. And it was a pretty good deal: good advance, good agent, good publisher, and intriguing novel concept. Now, I have never met or spoken to this author; he and I are not even Facebook friends. But for at least the last five years, I have carried on a bitter rivalry with him (one that exists only inside my head…since, you know, I’ve never had any contact with him).
And because of that rivalry, I sat in front of my computer and immediately started to think of reasons why my book deal was better than his, and (failing that) why I was a better writer and/or person than he was. I was like: his book sounds stupid, and anyway (googling his stories) he’s just another cookie-cutter hack, and, etc, etc,
However, after about ninety seconds of this, I stopped and said to myself, “Oh my god. What am I doing? This behavior is sick.”
Intellectually, I know that (at least for me) envy springs from the belief that I am better than other people. It’s not that I want what they have; it’s that their achievements damage my sense of self. And the way of reigning in that envy is for me to do my best to not believe that I’m better than other people.
Which is easier said than done. I know that I’m not the greatest writer who’s ever lived or ever was. But sometimes I act (in my mind) like my only competition is Tolstoy and Evelyn Waugh and Willa Cather and all the other great writers throughout the ages, when, actually, the truth is that I know and have met plenty of writers who are, in many ways, better than me. Now, I’m not saying that writing is some kind of ladder, where Tolstoy is at the top and then there’s James Joyce, and the purpose of writing is to work your way up the ladder. I know writing can’t be evaluated that way. But all I’m saying is that there are other people in the world who are producing work that is more interesting and has more aesthetic value than mine, and that’s always going to be true.
However, it’s alot easier for me to remember something like that when I’m in a professional downturn. Because when I’m in a downturn, combatting envy becomes something that is of paramount importance to my psychological well-being.
But the moment things start to go well, all the bad habits-of-mind come out, and I immediately start to sample the pleasures of feeling superior.
And those pleasures are incredible.
However, I know that I’ll pay for them.
It’s not possible to live by two value systems and pick the one that best suits me at any given time. If I, during my periods of success, choose to indulge in a system of value where a person’s worth is judged by his accomplishments, then that is the value system which will crucify me during my periods of failure.
Anyway, ever since cutting short the cycle of envy re: that particular author’s book deal (his book really does sound cool, and I’m almost sorry I can’t mention it here), I’ve been thinking about what other value system I can use. Because I think there are a number of bad value systems that writers subscribe to.
For instance, the temptation is to say, “External success doesn’t matter; what matters is the quality of the work and whether or not I’ve achieved my vision.”
But that is also fraught. Because the truth is that sometimes you don’t achieve your vision. Sometimes you work and work and the result sucks. And, of course, all writers (unless they’re incredibly lucky or short-lived or deluded) will eventually come face to face with their own waning powers.
And then there’s also the value system that says, “Life is worthless and we’re all insignificant and nothing matters because we’re all going to die.”
That’s a value system that also has the benefit of being (insofar as I understand it) objectively true. However, it also clashes with my intuition. I can say from morning until night that life is insignificant, but I don’t live as if it’s insignificant. Whether I admit it or not, I do hold some other value system than that.
I don’t know. There are no easy answers. I guess the system that I gravitate most towards is one that views life with a sort of lightness. A value system which holds that life is not exactly worthless, but also not very valuable. Something that allows me to do my work–because doing something is better than doing nothing–without letting me feel too terrible about any shortcomings I might have.
Or I guess I could also believe in God or something.