Giving up on Envy, but not on judgement

A friend of mine made his first professional short story sale yesterday. It’s been an immensely long time coming.1 He was writing at a professional level years ago. Why does it take so long? I have no idea. Just luck. It’s hard to stand out. Sometimes I sell a story these days, and I’m like, “This story feels like a story I would not have been able to sell five years ago.” The opposite also happens. Editors get tired of you. The stories you send in are just as good as before, but that’s the problem, they’ve published too many, nobody wants them.

When you haven’t broken in, or when you’re being kicked out, there are things you can do. Switch stuff up, try new venues, give up writing for a while and come back, switch forms and formats, write longer, write shorter, read differently, etc. But to be honest that’s the stuff writers are always doing. You do that like you breathe, just because of curiosity and playfulness and a desire for new challenges.

With two books out and thirty-five sales at ‘pro’ rates, I’d say I’m not in my early career anymore. I feel early. I still feel like I’ve done nothing and haven’t broken in. But that’s not objectively true. I’m definitely in the part of my career where I’m just doing whatever.

The other day I was talking about revision with a friend of mine, and I said I’m not a big believer in it. My experience is you can completely rewrite a novel, and peoples’ reaction to it will be more or less the same. You get the same criticisms after the rewrite as you did before.

She said that was ironic, because I am the biggest rewriter she knows. We Are Totally Normal was completely rewritten three times at least, and my current literary novel is going on five or six rewrites (I am talking blank page rewrites). I said yeah, but I just do that to make the book better, not because it affects the reception.

I’m feeling pretty contented these days. And by these days, I mean Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning, because all weekend I felt miserable over problems with my current rewrite. I still have those problems! It’s an utter mess! But what can you do?

I would definitely like to be a bigger success. I think that I deserve it. I think my work is really good. I think I’m a good writer. But, you know, lots of other people in the world are good writers too. My friend deserved to have a pro sale years ago. He wrote stories that were better than lots of stuff that’s in the magazines! So what can you do? Today I was thinking that failure (or at least ‘not earth-shattering success’ like my own, because I am definitely not a failure) can be a blessing. You can just do your own thing, write, be terrible, no expectations. if I was Junot Diaz, I couldn’t submit my terrible poems to all kinds of third-tier literary journals. It would be embarrassing! And it’d be even more embarrassing that I have no idea the right number of ‘r’s in embarrassing. I’d need to conduct myself entirely differently if I was Junot Diaz. I have none of those artistic restrictions now. I can write whatever I want.

That’s a blessing. If I was Junot Diaz, I would have fame, I could give lectures, I’d be interviewed, maybe even get on TV occasionally (bit not often, I mean I’m not Norman Mailer, I’m Junot Diaz). But when I woke up in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to write what I wanted. That’s an immense cost. And it’s one Diaz has clearly suffered from (witness the ten years it took to follow up on his acclaimed first book, Drown).

I’ve been reevaluating a lot in my life lately. Mostly as a result of reading Torrey Peters’s book, Detransition, Baby. This is a bourgeois domestic novel (her words, not mine), with trans women as protagonists. I am writing a bourgeois domestic novel with a trans woman as a protagonist! But my book has been rejected by many people, including Peters’s own literary agent. It’s hard not to feel envious. But I really liked her book! It enriched my life! And, more generally, my life has been enriched by the writing of other trans women, queer people, black writers, and a whole host of other writers whose success has made me burn with envy.

I was discussing with another writer how difficult it is to read honestly when you’re reading a contemporary’s work. It’s so hard to be generous and to engage with it as it’s meant to be read. And that to me has been the biggest cost of envy. It’s one thing for me to be miserable, but when envy starts harming my aesthetic judgement, it’s just too much.

There’s been a reckoning. I’ve been thinking about the roots of my own envy, and how they go back to all those years of struggling, when I was overweight, socially anxious, alcoholic, underemployed, celibate, and just generally rejeected in a whole host of areas of my life, including my writing. I built up this idea that I was the most brilliant and intelligent writer in the world and BY GOLLY I WOULD SHOW THEM ALL.

And that myth was very sustaining. For some writers, that sort of myth kills them, closes them off, makes them bitter and convinces them there’s no reason to work. For me it did the opposite, I said I would batter my head against the wall until it fell down. I was frequently very confused. My work was so brilliant! Why was it being rejected!

It’s easy to say, well, maybe the work wasn’t good enough. In a lot of cases, that’s true. But it’s hard to know for certain. Maybe if an early story had gotten picked for an anthology or won an award, my career would’ve been different. Maybe if I’d gotten into Iowa or won a Stegner, who knows? Or if I’d sold my first book as a literary novel instead of as YA. You can never know.

But what’s not good is that I’m still in that angry place, even as the level of self-deception needed to maintain the illusion (that I am the best) has grown increasingly untenable. And I don’t know what meaning or purpose any of that scaffolding serves. At the point when I am rewriting a book despite not believing it’ll make a huge difference in how it’s received, I am way beyond temporal ambition, and it’s become about something else. Maybe just having fun!

Which is to say, I’ve been dropping some of my envy, and it’s been great! No regrets. I am not dropping, however, my ability and desire to make snap judgements about whether or not an artist is overrated, and then to gossip about them with my friends, because that is a pleasure too exquisite to be denied. I just won’t do it from a place of envy.

young women with contrast appearance on sandy beach
Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com. Found it by searching for “envy”.
  1. In the science fiction world, one marker of whether you’ve ‘made’ it is whether you’ve sold a story to a journal that pays ‘professional’ rates, which is the rate set by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as their benchmark for determining if selling a story to that journal qualifies a person for membership in the organization. I think the pro rate nowadays is 8 cents a word. When I started out it was five cents a word. The list of sci-fi journals that pay pro rates is relatively small, I believe right now it’s limited to Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF (the only three remaining print journals in the SF world), Lightspeed / Fantasy / Nightmare (a trio of journals run by the same team), Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Apex (though Apex has been going out of business and back into business and has run so many kickstarters over the years that it’s hard to tell when it’s operating and when it isn’t). I’m sure there are others, but these are the main ones. Very few of these journals were aaround 17 years ago, when I started out (only the print zines and Strange Horizons). And in that time a number of zines have died, amongst them Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Shimmer, Chizine, IGMS, Subterranean, Absolute Magnitude and others. This trip down memory lane has been brought to you by my recent discovery of Markdown’s footnote functionality. []