March 5th, 2008

book cover

To Cheer or To Covet

Here is the conundrum of the writer.

We need each other.

We need each other's careful critiques, but we also need shared rejection letter humor, encouragement when we're blocked, and the whispered exchange of agents' and editors' names. 

We need each other.

And yet.  
And yet, it is another writer's success that can most swiftly and surely send us to the darkest little hole in our heart.

Actually, this is probably the conundrum of the artist, not the writer exclusively. That it is our own community -- the community that inspires us and lifts us up -- that can also drive us ugly-green with envy.

I'm here to admit right now that I've been on both sides of this thorny fence. 

I have many friends who have garnered significant acclaim and/or monetary recognition for their work, and boy-oh-man do they deserve it. But if their award ceremony or book signing or big-money advance coincided with my zillionth consecutive week of editorial slap-down, I wasn't always graceful. Well, I mean, I think I usually was graceful on the surface, but there were days I suffered self-imposed lock-jaw rather than own up to what I was really feeling, which was, "Why not me???"

The flip side? My own good times that I eagerly share with my support network -- my writer's groups and blogger pals and such -- knowing that they might be locking their own jaws, even as they hug and cheer me.

Often -- usually -- I'm at my own desk, working on my own words and the world outside is (don't take this the wrong way) immaterial. But other times I sit stewing in the midst of these questions and think, "What 's a gal to do?"

This week I was newly inspired to mull it over after the wise and talented Sara Lewis Holmes announced her awesome two-book deal with Arthur A. Levine Books. The very next day, Sara posted about her own fear of success (or failure) and acknowledged that other people might want what she got. 

"I... know (because I've been there myself),"
she said, "that there is no hearing about another person's good fortune without a tinge of 'But what about me?' " 

Sound familiar?

I am relieved to say that for me, this time, Sara's good news was pure -- partly because I adore her (and her writing) soooo much and partly, probably, because I've had such a good year myself. (I can sometimes be a little self-centered that way.)

Still, her comments made me think we should out this issue. 
Let's admit what's hard and what helps. 
Better to lay bare than to bury. 

Here's what I've tried, for years. 
It doesn't always work, which I think may just prove that I'm unelightened. You all may have much greater success than I. 

Remove the ego. Writing is like yoga this way (going back to my own tried and true metaphor). The practice is the point. Judging oneself on the mat (or on the page) is just gonna make you lose your balance. It isn't about what you're doing compared to what anyone else is doing. It is about your own best work -- centered, soulful and true.

Here's something else I try. This one's a little Pollyanna but it really does help.

Allow yourself to really celebrate your friend or critique partner or colleague or competitor. Really and truly. Acknowledge how dang hard they've worked, and how nimble and vivid their art is, and even how luck was on their side. Send them flowers or a new pen or 13 emails. Really celebrate. The joy can be contagious and inspiring and better on the digestion than jealousy or greed.

And then there are the lessons to be learned. 

We can either choose paralysis or proactivity. We can freeze in the face of each other's successes or be inspired to kick it up a notch. We can ask ourselves, like my friend Lindsey does when the green-eyed monster threatens, "Am I ready? Am I in shape? Have I gotten all my proverbial ducks in a row? Is my office cleaned? Are the mss polished? Are they out in the world?" Lindsey reminds herself that on one hand, she's exactly where she needs to be today, and that on the other hand, dissatisfaction can inspire her to keep her eye on the prize. If we want the things other people have, Lindsey says, "we should put those things on the list to shoot for." Right?

Finally, there is the little itty bitty reminder that, um, it's not all about us. It's about our work. It's about what we are bringing to the table and to the world. Our contribution. Our gifts -- not as something to laud, but as something to be received by those to whom we're giving. It is, for me, about the kids I'd like to connect with through my books. Awards and big-dollar advances notwithstanding. Honest to pete...

(Note: A follow-up to this post is here.)