that green-eyed fucker
June 2nd, 2011
I’m always a day behind the news—there was a tornado WHERE last night? There was a big jealousy blog piece bounding around the writ-o-sphere this past week? Oh. I was on the farm trip with the kids.
But I’m on it today. And I’ve read Sugar’s post on The Rumpus, about an aspiring author bravely owning up, I thought, to the nasty, unpleasant jealous feelings she had toward her friends who’d all gotten publishing deals. I thought the piece offered a lot of smart insights about the difference between writing a magnificent piece of art and getting a good deal, though I’d also point out for a lot of writers, that “pure art” argument falls flat. Publication is a validation. Writing masterworks that live on your hard drive is a little like that tree falling in the forest and no one hearing it fall. Does it make a sound? Luckily, self-publishing, which is ever-growing, is offering authors a new avenue to get work out there and to an audience even, when the publishing mechanism says no.
But I have some different ideas on jealousy. I agree that we all have the savage within us. But I disagree that the way to deal with it is to pack it away or tell yourself not to feel it. Willpower might work for some. But more often than not, it’s like advising someone to put a festering cut under a bandaid without giving it a good—and stinging—wash first.
I am both a “successful” author and a human person with a petty streak so I have been on both the giving and receiving end of jealousy. I have been jealous of my friends’ successes. I haven’t wanted to be. I have been very happy for my friends and simultaneously jealous. That’s the thing about jealousy. You don’t invite it. And you can’t always will it away. The jealousy I had toward a friend didn’t detract from my happiness of her successes—at least theoretically; I was happy, even if I could not fully feel that joy. It more reflected my dissatisfaction with where my life was. And sure, I could’ve swallowed it. Buttoned it up. Told myself to get over it. Maybe I would’ve. But more likely, it would’ve driven a wedge between me and said friend. So on the occasions this has happened with close, trusted friends, I have learned to brave up. I have admitted to my friend that I was happy for him or her but also jealous. And you know what? Putting it out there. Getting that nasty little secretive green-eyed fucker out there on the table? It went away. Not entirely. But almost. Jealousy thrives in darkness and secretiveness. It doesn’t like light and air. It’s like Gremlins that way.
When IF I STAY was bought, when the foreign deals came in and the movie options! I suddenly felt like Cinderella—no more cleaning the toilets, no, sir, I was going to the ball!—I could tell some of my friends were weird about it. It came out in comments. In nasty asides. And in the eventual cooling of friendships even though I’m pretty sure I haven’t changed so much. And then there was my best friend. She was the biggest fan of the book—she left a sobbing message on the phone after she read the manuscript; I thought someone had died until she blubbered that she’d loved the book. But later on, as the other stuff happened, she admitted to that was so happy for me but that she was also jealous. And I was so GRATEFUL for her honesty. Because I understood it. My answer to her was that I would be jealous of me too. We’ve all been there. And our friendship has gone on its merry way, unchanged by the big changes in my career. Thank god. I’d be lost without her.
Of course, you can only be honest like this with a good friend. You can’t go around telling every writer who gets a good deal that you’re experiencing feelings of envy. Nor should you even want to. I mean, how is feeling jealous of say Sarah Dessen’s latest success, unless you’re BFFs with Sarah, any different from being envious of Cameron Diaz’s latest movie deal? They are both strangers to you who have no bearing on your daily life!!!!
But you probably don’t know what Cameron is up to because you’re not reading Variety. Well, there you have it. You might not feel such jealousy toward random stranger authors if you didn’t know the deals they were getting. Want to feel better? Stop reading deal reports on Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch and Twitter and anywhere else. I am sure some purpose is served by having the who-got-what broadcast like that, but it doesn’t help writers. It just makes them crazy. So I’d advise anyone with a jealousy problem—ahem, everyone—to stop reading deal reports. Stop kidding yourself: keeping up on the industry is not helping you get a book deal. Writing a kick-ass book will help you with that. Your agent (or future agent) gets 15 percent so he or she can go crazy keeping up with the industry so you don’t have to.
Sugar was right about this: You don’t want to get caught up in competitiveness and pettiness and jealousy. From an artistic standpoint, it will strangle your creativity. From a human standpoint, it will stifle your humanity. But I’d argue that jealousy is part of the human condition. The only way to deal with it is when it comes up in your personal life is to actually deal with it. To counter jealousy with honesty. And if you can manage it, with generosity.
Here’s a little secret about me. Now that I’m doing what I want to be doing—albeit still, terrified that someone will take this privilege away from me, yes, I’m weird that way, but I think it probably goes with the writerly territory—I occasionally read books that blow my mind so thoroughly that they make me think that I’m not worthy to write IKEA instruction manuals, let alone YA novels. In these cases, I have two choices: give in to the insecurity and feel jealous of other authors’ virtuosity or give in to my better angels and rejoice in these wonderful books and tell the world about them. If you read my blog, you probably know which way I roll.
So now you know the awful truth about me: Behind every book I evangelize (and lately, I’ve swooned over Libba Bray’s BEAUTY QUEENS, Holly Black’s Curseworkers Series, Franny Billingley’s CHIME and Nova Ren Suma’s IMAGINARY GIRLS–I need to read me some guy books, no? Someone get me a David Levtithan!) is a pang of jealousy. But the minute I start singing these books’ deserved praises, that jealousy dissipates in the pure joy of talking about good writing. See what I mean about jealousy being like Gremlins? Only less cute.
Which I guess is what Sugar was saying all along in her post. That it’s the work that matters. (Because I get jealous of kick-ass books, not bestselling books, though when the two coincide, I’m beside myself with joy!) And this is most definitely true. But you have to clear out that junk drawer in the pit of your stomach to get to the good place with your work, that wonderful freeing, flying place where the true work flows. And for me, at least, that only happens by shining a light on the shitty stuff.
Being honest, exploring the dark stuff, cleaning out the junk: Isn’t that why we write?