I’ve always thought of myself as being a very envious person. Hearing about good things happening to a peer of mine has, in the past, sent me into black moods that have lasted for weeks! It got so bad that, for a time, that all of social media became a minefield for me, and I had to take special effort to shield myself from other peoples’ good news. In fact, I’m part of a writer’s group, the Codex Writer’s Workshop, that contains a message area where people report their acceptances, and I actually went into the settings and made it so that section didn’t appear for me, because otherwise the whole board was causing more negative emotions than I could handle.
And yet, when I talked, a few posts ago, about being friends with writers, it somehow didn’t seem right to talk about envy. Not because it’s a taboo subject (although it is), but because I’m not sure that I’m as susceptible to it as I used to be.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, though. Making friends with other writers can, for many people, dramatically increase the amount of envy that you feel. When good things happen to someone you don’t know, it’s hard to be envious. Envy only kicks in when good things happen to a peer. And when you make friends with writers, you start to develop a rough idea of who your peers are, and you start to develop a weird ranking system–a ladder that exists only in your own head!!!–in which you’re constantly gaining or losing status relative to these other people.
But now I don’t do that as much anymore. I don’t know why. It’s not something that I consciously tried to avoid. In fact, I still experience a twinge of envy when I hear about someone winning an award or selling a market to I haven’t sold to or getting a great book deal. But it’s only a twinge, and it rarely lasts for longer than a second. Before, that feeling used to ruin entire days! It would dramatically undermine my whole self-image!
Again, can’t say what’s up. It’s possible that I have other concerns now, and other areas where I compare myself to other people (i.e. I’m no less shallow, I’m just shallow about different things). It’s also possible that I’m more psychologically healthy and have a better self-image overall, so little things don’t shake it as much? Or maybe I finally became close enough to my writer friends that I’m able to be happy for them? I thought maybe the answer was that my ego was SO inflated that I’d always think, despite any evidence to the contrary, that I’m the greatest writer, but I recently had dramatic proof that that wasn’t true.
As I posted on Facebook:
When Courtney Sender–a 26 year old classmate of mine at Hopkins–told me she’d just finished the first draft of a novel that spanned 35 years, three countries, and ten viewpoints in only 96,000 words, I was pretty skeptical, but now I’ve read it, and I can say: [her book] is amazing. It’s so good. Unbelievably good. Junot Diaz good. National Book Award good. So good that halfway through I texted Courtney and was like, “Umm, why did no one ever tell me that you were _this_ good?”
Reading that novel was quite an experience. I cannot overstate how good it is. Let me tell you, when you read a friend’s novel, you do not expect it to be THIS good. You expect it to be, like, goodish. Good in comparison to the usual dreck on the shelves. You do not expect it to be as good as the best that literature has to offer. You don’t expect it to be incredibly self-assured and observant and beautifully structured.
Courtney’s novel is better than anything I’ve ever written. And maybe better than anything I’ll ever write. And she’s significantly (at least two years) younger than me. I’ve gradually grown used to the idea that I’m not the best writer in all of space and time, but now I’m not even the best writer out of all the people I know who are my age or younger.
But, you know, it’s okay. I’m not really upset. If the novel had been bad, it wouldn’t have made my work better. And what’s more, I’m glad it was so good. Both because it gives me hope–wow, it’s actually possible to write real next-level type novels–and because it’s exciting–It’s really exciting when you read something special. At some point, it’s not even about status anymore. It’s about something new coming into the world. And there’s something very pure and refreshing about admitting, both to yourself and to others, that you’ve read something really good. I don’t know. It’s a prayer, of sorts. Or a gift, maybe. A gift to your own aesthetic sense. If you’re able to see the good in something even when you have incentive to dislike it, then you’re honoring and strengthening the sense of beauty that we all rely on in order to create good work. (Which is why I always make a sincere effort to enjoy the work of people who I don’t like.)
And, conversely, when you start letting your personal gripes and jealousies get in the way of your ability to recognize good work, then you do real damage to your own sense of aesthetics and harm your own long-term ability to produce anything that’s worthwhile.