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Ask Polly: How Do I Escape My Professional Envy?

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Dear Polly,

I’m a writer and I’ve had some success in my career. But every once in a while, I get these hot jealousy issues around one writer or another. It’s usually a writer experiencing loads of attention for something they wrote, and, like me, they’re always women. If I knew these women in real life, I might very well like them, but because I don’t know them, it allows me to project all sorts of nasty things onto them, and I get these ferocious pangs of envy. I will start shielding myself from their press— I don’t even READ the books I’m openly resenting — because I get too scared that I will discover they’re better than me, or that they got to some idea I had first and their approach was something I never could have managed. On the off-chance I hear something negative about the writer, I’m SO relieved, and I feel bad for that relief, but I still feel it.

Part of the problem is that I haven’t been writing for a while now. Or I have, but not with much success. I feel like I’ve spent months starting stories only to watch them dead-end, or coming up with magazine articles to pitch only to watch each one fall through my fingers. I’m definitely walking through a desert of some kind, and it sucks. Do you have any pointers on how to beat back the green monster in the middle of a creative desert?

Just Another Petty Writer

Dear Petty Writer,

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t petty now and then. Writing is an insecure profession. You’re forced to face a blank page every day, and while you’re sitting there, staring into that abyss, wondering how you ever tricked yourself into thinking you had anything worthwhile to say, you inevitably imagine other sorts of writers. These are the writers who seem to populate Poets & Writers magazine, or maybe The Paris Review, who will offer up their highly efficient writing habits at the slightest prompt: They wake up at 4 a.m. and write briskly and brilliantly for exactly five hours. Then they go on a long walk, have a giant lunch with one glass of red wine, get fondled by a local maiden, sleep in the sweet grass of an open meadow like Ferdinand the Bull, wander over to a nearby university to teach a class packed with fawning students, have an early dinner and a martini with their fellow fabulous (and similarly celebrated) writer friends, then deliver a speech to an audience of thousands, signing books for an endless line of fawning admirers. Finally: more fondling, a glass of muscat, a good book, and a restful night of sleep starting at 9 p.m.

Imagining these writers will make you feel petty. These writers don’t seem to grit their teeth and wonder if anything they’ve ever written is worth half a damn. These writers never get distracted by sick dogs or weird rashes or badly timed eye appointments or late bills or illogical customer-service reps and then let that screw up their whole workweek. When asked how their latest book is coming along, these writers don’t lie and say it’s great and then launch into a rambling discussion of how incredibly hard it can be to weather a badly timed eye appointment on the heels of a weird rash.

These Very Special writers talk like their lives are a waking dream, one long nap in an open meadow after another. They talk like it literally gives them an orgasm to sit down and put words onto a blank page. And if you try to ask them if they ever feel petty, they always talk about how important it is for writers to support other writers and for women to support other women and for the whole world to hold hands and agree about everything and then come at the same time.

And I get it. I’m sure I’ve said similar things at one point or another. But when I read those words, what I think is: BULLSHIT. To be a writer is to be petty. If you can’t admit that you’re sometimes petty, then you’re not a writer. You’re a robot. Or the pope. Nope, Pope Francis probably admits his pettiness. The Dalai Lama admits it. The only people who don’t admit to ever being petty are these Ferdinand the Bull types of writers, and Angelina Jolie.

Writers are petty because writers struggle to write, period. Even if you manage to be prolific and confident in your work for a few years at a time, it’s hard to sustain that. Something goes wrong. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. And then it’s hard to write. Something isn’t working. Something has crawled under your skin. Maybe you can’t figure out what’s bothering you. Or you just feel angry. Or you just feel empty. You have nothing to say. You are in the desert.

You’re still emotional, oh, yes, you are. But when you sit down to work every morning, full of hope (full of faith in yourself, even!), you just can’t put words onto the page. Or if you can? Every. Single. Word. Is baaaaaaad. And your friends say, “Push through it, don’t worry, my words are bad at first, too.” But all you can think is, No, not like this. You can’t even imagine how bad these words are.

So you have all of this focus and energy and it has nowhere to go. Where will you put it? Yes, why not funnel all that energy into creating an enemy out of thin air? Here is someone who is also a writer, but somehow it seems like it’s just easier for her to write, possibly because she’s more talented than you are. And people love her soooo much. Does she deserve it? Is she actually a terrible person, but you’re the only one who can see it? Are you a worthless envious worm who’ll never write another word?

So here’s what you have to keep in mind, at all times: The targets for your jealousy are irrelevant. Even as you get this or that whiff of something you don’t like about any given writer, you’re still just engaged in your own private, creative exercise. You’re creating a voodoo doll because you’re angry at yourself. You are looking for an enemy, for catharsis, so you can release all this strange, formless emotional turmoil trapped inside of you.

That doesn’t mean it’s pathological. Emotional, sensitive people are like hot springs, constantly bubbling over with more, more, more. It’s hard not to be at war with yourself. It’s hard not to assume that you’re poisonous, simply because you’re bubbling over, and you have opinions and feelings about LITERALLY EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. But with so much inside, you are going to suffer sometimes. It’s not always going to explode out of you the right way. And when you get all bottled up? Oh, Jesus, watch out.

So imagine you didn’t have the internet or access to any books or newspapers, but you still spent all of your time either trying to write or beating yourself up for not writing. What would you do? You wouldn’t have anyone real to turn into an enemy. So you would sew together a little writer-lady voodoo doll and you would say to yourself, This dumb button-eyed bitch thinks she’s all that, BUT SHE’S NOT. Because you would need somewhere to put your bubbling, churning, volatile, beautiful rage and longing.

This doesn’t just apply to writers. Imagine you’re a loyal, sincere guy who just got dumped by his boyfriend out of the blue, for some sleazy younger creep he met at a dinner party. You’d also need to make a voodoo doll. Because you’d be furious and there would be nowhere for those feelings to go. And imagine that everyone else just loves the sleazy creep! That’s how it always is, isn’t it? You’re feeling like the lowliest piece of shit in the universe for getting dumped and you can’t even talk to any of your friends about it, because they’re like, “Jeez, your ex is really in love right now, can’t you just be happy for him? I mean, Rico is such a better fit for him.”

Professional jealousy is like that. Shameful and gross. And feeling unexpectedly competitive with random women or random writers who really, truly shouldn’t get under your skin, feels like that. It’s embarrassing, and really tough to talk about. You have to be very vulnerable to talk about it. You have to admit that you question your ability to create works of pure genius. You have to admit that you’re not sure you can pull it off anymore. You have to admit that you feel competitive with other women sometimes. You’re not above it.

All of these shameful feelings are part of being a sensitive person. Your mood changes often. You have so much to offer, but you turn on yourself regularly. You hate your own words. You say, “Who would read this drivel? Why am I wasting everyone’s time with this mess?”

So you have to make some room for that. You have to own it instead of beating yourself up for it. Talk to a trusted friend about your petty feelings. But also, be clear with your friend (and with yourself) that you don’t actually hate this writer lady you barely know. She is just your voodoo doll. She is helping you to uncork your hot springs. She has brought you a gift, god bless her, the stupid button-eyed piece of shit.

That sounds pretty twisted, I’m sure. But let me tell you something about being a fucking writer and a woman and a sensitive person. Let me tell you something about wanting a lot – wanting true love, wanting real connections, wanting to create something brilliant, wanting to let out your bubbling rage and lust and fear and jealousy. You can’t always behave in clean, pretty, polite, easily explained ways. You can’t always be “healthy” according to mainstream culture. Because if you walk around saying “I believe that women should support women” and “Writers should never be jealous of other writers” and “I am never petty or lost or half-mad” and “I chew each bite of my food thoroughly before I swallow it,” you will also cork up your goddamn spring and you’ll never write another thing in your life.

It’s normal to feel competitive and to feel jealous. You can work very hard to support others – and you should. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t competitive and arrogant and nasty sometimes. Men don’t run around feeling embarrassed just because they want to grind each other’s faces into the carpet. They celebrate their competitive feelings! There are a million and one raps out there that boil down to “GODDAMN YOU WISH YOU WERE ME SO BAD.” So why do women have to braid each other’s hair around the clock? Embracing your competitive urges, indulging your pride, encouraging your own bravado – these things might make you feel better.

You cannot be an artist – or a passionate, sensitive, loving, generous, angry writer or woman or human in general – without admitting that you are wild and conflicted and it never fucking stops. The second you say, “Welp, I was envious before, but now I’m great! I made peace with that! I believe that women should embrace other women and I’m about to teach the whole world to sing in perfect harmony, did I mention that?” Guess what happens next? You get hit with a wave of terrible sadness or jealous or inexplicable contempt and you fucking hate yourself for it.

That’s what this desert is made of. It’s made of guilt. You SHOULD be writing. You SHOULD NOT be thinking about other writers. You SHOULD be happy with what you’ve got. You SHOULD NOT tell anyone, even for a second, what’s going on inside of you.

But sometimes, to find your way out of the desert, you have to say this out loud: “I am doubting myself. I am not loving my words. I feel like I wasn’t meant to do this.”

And I think there’s something else, too. I think we all go through stages where we just don’t want to be honest. Because writing requires honesty. That doesn’t mean that we’re putting every single detail of every single experience down on the page. We still get to choose which stories we want to tell, or whether or not we want to tell them through fiction or essays or coy little haikus. But we do have to be honest with ourselves about what’s crawling under our skin.

If I can’t admit that I’m feeling mad or sad or petty about something, I have trouble writing. Because not wanting to tell the truth about my feelings also means not wanting to tell the truth about anything. I feel self-protective and private. I don’t want to share myself. I want to hide.

Escaping from the desert is not just about vulnerability! That’s what the vulnerability-embracing motherfuckers never want to admit! Because some days, sure, you can admit that you feel small and stupid. But other days? Some mean-little-bitch part of you wants the soft part of you to shut the fuck up. You don’t want to teach the world to sing. You want to kick the world in the shins and sing the whole goddamn song by yourself.

Some of us just can’t hide. We want to, but we don’t have a choice. But that doesn’t mean the only choice is to be vulnerable or to be totally reserved and polite, either. We might be able to bring our sweet, “Let’s support each other” higher selves to the picture 90 percent of the time, but the other 10 percent of the time we’re just haughty and pissed off. And I would argue that if you can’t admit that you’re petty, then not only do you not know how to be truly humble, but you also don’t know how to get mad, where your anger fuels you and makes you feel more alive and allows you to believe in whatever scary amazing thing might spring up from the ground next. If you want to be a writer, you have to show your full self TO YOURSELF. Not to the whole world. Just yourself.

You have to write down words you don’t want to write. You have to write down the truth. You indulge the exact things that you’re afraid to indulge – your vulnerability, and also your rage.

And then you put the voodoo doll away. Do you read the books by these writers or avoid them? That depends on what feels right. If you feel panicked when you read their words, don’t read their words. Who cares? But don’t Google their press, either. Don’t go to their author websites and sneer at their blurbs and their dumb button-eyed headshot. And accept that, yes, some people will write about ideas you had first and their approach will be something you could never manage. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes, in order to get out of the desert, you have to close your eyes and just find the center of what you want to express, even if a million other people are tapping out the same words somewhere. If you nervously glance at their words, your words will lose their power. Cultivate your own bizarre hot spring and let them do the same.

Whatever it sounds like in The Paris Review, writers don’t lie around in open fields all day. Writers dig tunnels through mountains of gravel, using their bare hands. And sometimes the gravel gives them a bad rash, and they cry and then call their friends and say, “I’ll bet that fucking button-eyed fucker never gets a rash, ever.”

But the truth is, we sort of love all of it: the digging, the crying, the bitching, the recovery. Anything that pulls up more stories, more words, more ideas, is luxurious to us. We love bad writing days and empty feelings and hot rushes of jealousy and voodoo dolls. We love the good and the bad. We love the sweet open field, and we also love the desert, in our own terrible way.

Sometimes we forget that we love all of it. Sometimes we want to cork our fucking springs. Sometimes we’re running away from ourselves, as fast as we can, because we know that cork is about to blow. When we’re running scared, we don’t want to feel what we feel, and we don’t want to do what we do. We don’t want to tell the truth.

But it’s time now. Stop running. Sit down. Tell the truth.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

Ask Polly: How Do I Escape My Professional Envy?