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To Cheer or To Covet
book cover
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.)

I have to say that I'm always genuinely 100% happy for the person's success, particularly if they are someone I know (even if only online) and like. My only "why not me?" moments have occurred when I hear of the success of a brand-spankin' new writer who seems not to have spent any time laboring in the trenches, or if it's someone I do not think well of. And that second category is a rare one, but I am sorry to say that it does exist, however, narrow it is.

Yes, Kelly. I hear you. And honestly, when I have thought "why not me?" it has very, very, very rarely been "why her (or him)?" Do you know what I mean?

Beautiful post, Liz. After reading Sara's words, I also thought about posting my afterthoughts. You said it all so eloquently, now I can just reflect on YOUR words!

As Kelly said, most of the time I'm genuinely happy to hear of others' success. But I have a hard time with people who "haven't paid their dues," or to whom "success" seems to come so easily, in much less time -- and in some cases they begin to flaunt it. Can't abide flaunting, by any means.

But you are so right. It's all about the work. And the practice. And not measuring yourself by someone else's progress. Rational mind knows this. But the heart is something else.

Heart and rational minds are roommates but not necessarily amicable all the time...

(Deleted comment)
Yes, a friend of mine actually calls it The Disease of Comparison. It's that virulant...
You just keep on using your gifts like you've been doing...

Liz, this post is beautiful. I had to laugh at your statement: "Remove the ego." If only I could do that, like a game piece in Operation!

I agree that it's fun when good things happen to my writer friends, because I've seen all the hard work and true passion that came before the lighting bolt. I want it for them as badly as I want it for me.

The twinges I've felt are not so much Why them? because I KNOW they deserve it. It's more like Why not me, ALSO? You know, so we can all be in it together.

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Great post, Liz! This is very honest and touching.

For me, what works is remembering that children/readers don't only get allotted ONE BOOK. There's room for all of us in this industry. Another person might get a bigger advance, or more sunshine on their side of the street--and on a rainy day, it's hard not to look longingly across the road--but ultimately, we can choose how we perceive each situation. Feeling angry and envious isn't productive. Being supportive and kind is always going to get us farther. We're all on our own roads, taking our own journey, and we may as well wave to the people along the way, instead of giving them the finger. Unless they're mean and cut you off : )

YES, Erin! Law of abundance. Plenty plenty plenty. The bigger stack of beautiful books, the better! And in the meantime, roadtrips are a LOT more fun with companions so yes, I'm waving. And sharing soda and corn nuts...

Awesome, awesome post! For the most part, I'm thrilled to know there are people out there who are getting the book deals...and if it's someone I know, even better. It gives me hope that publishers are still looking for books.

As for the green-eyed monster....Nope. Not allowed to come out and play. I'm struggling enough with revisions, I don't need anything else coming in the way.

Though this little gal does peep out every once in awhile when I read something that's semi-okay. "When will it be my turn?" she says. I think about it and then go back to work.

That's the smartest solution, isn't it? Look at it as a pesky distraction. Dang right.

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Thanks, Laura :)
I guess it's good to remember, when we're waiting for "our turn" that we're not in a line. We're all just milling about and we'll step up and be received when we're ready...

TadMack says:

Oh, wow, Liz, this is close to the bone. I feel guilty sometimes having a success because of knowing people personally struggling. The only time I actually feel "why not me" is when it's some sixteen year old kid who has a $500K advance from Little, Brown... Oh, wait. That was Kaavya Viswanathan. And that didn't end well.

Success. It comes with so much pressure.

I do think taking the ego out of the equation really helps, but for me it was understanding that I might not be a teenage genius but there would be a place for me, even if it was the smallest niche, and I had to learn to define success for myself, not for what other people thought I should be doing "after all this time."

Thanks, this was a thought-provoking post.

You're funny, TadMack.
I hear you, though. It's a bizarre thing to not want to spread your own good news for fear of disappointing someone else, but the little niche philosphy, a little niche of one's own, that's the way to peace...

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.

That. Yes.

Cloudscome says:

Thank you for this post, and all the comments too. I might think "Why not me?" Or "when's my turn?" but then I have to quickly admit that I haven't been trying all that hard. It scares me too much! Easier to cheer others on I am afraid...

Fear is a bigger brick wall than jealousy, to be sure. Put on your crampons and go for it, Cloudscome!

From a. fortis:

Great post. Thanks! Every so often I find myself getting sucked into that black hole of "why not me?" There's nothing more paralysis-inducing and work-inhibiting. (And I can affirm it's true for visual artists, too!)

"Remove the ego" and "The practice is the point"--so true. I have a book I really like called Art and Fear which helps provide the much-needed reminder that the real core of being an artist (visual, written, musical, whatever) is to just work on your work. Not someone else's work. Not stewing instead of working. Easier said than done, though...

I have that book, too. It IS wonderful, and now I think I should read it again!

I reckon that every first-time writer who gets fished out of the slushpile, every out-of-the-ordinary boo that gets published, brings me closer to publication, because it's not a zero sum game.

There aren't x slots for publication in the world and someone else getting one means I shan't. If books are doing well, and writers are submitting superb stuff, and publishing houses can make money by persuading the public to buy more books, they're *more* likely to invest in another new writer, to pay a decent advance, to, in short, spread the love.

And it helps to know that even while I'm jealous of other people, other people are jealous of me - we're all in this together.

Yes. The more superb stuff the better. Hip hip...

And the thing I tell my kids all the time comes to mind, Fair is not everyone getting the same thing but everyone getting what they need.

Still, would it be wrong of me to think, "hey, why don't I have 28 comments on MY blog???"

Kidding aside, beautiful sentiments Liz. Great to share all sides of the work.

And I always get what I need when I read your blog.

We all get what we need on our own paths to our own endpoints...
I love this way of looking at it...

Liz, thank you for the wonderful, refreshing, honest, helpful article/post. I really enjoyed reading it. And I really enjoyed reading all the thoughtful comments as well.

I am excited and happy for my writer friends when they achieve success. And, sometimes, I also wonder 'when will my turn be?' Sometimes it's hard, sometimes painful, because I've worked so long and hard at this, and it seems to take so very long. But books, they are such treasures to me, I'm always glad to find another that speaks to my heart, that fills me up. And, I want mine to touch others that way, too. So I tell myself that it will come. I think I'm taking a few sideways steps away from this, but what helps me is to hear about other writers who also took years to get their novels published, or to achieve some measure of success with their novels. Then I know I'm not alone, and that it can happen for me, too.

Cheryl (

This is a lovely sentiment, Cheryl, and especially about the books, the treasures...
You are NOT alone...

I'm late to this party (what a surprise) but I have to chime in and agree with pretty much what everyone else has said. But hats off to you for giving voice to a subject many of us don't want to admit we think about.

Jealously in some fashion or another is a part of this business. The trick is to not stay there long. I am jealous of people at every level. There, I admitted it. But I am also happy for most of them too.

Like other mentioned, it is hardest when it doesn't appear that someone has paid their dues.

I am trying to adopt the mindset of "enjoy the journey" but let's face it, it's not always possible. When I hear of someone with a multi-book deal with a lot of money coming there way I always always always wish it were me. But then reality sets in and I have to admit that I can't sell what I don't write. And it usually (not always) motivates me to get back to work.

But then I am also jealous of every single person who is home and not in a cubicle during the day, which I could be if we lived anywhere but the Silicon Valley but we will always live here, so ...

It's all hard and I think it's good to acknowledge that.

Susan... You're so right. "The trick is to not stay there long." It's a lot about acknowledging a feeling -- green tho it may be -- and then kickin' its butt out the door so you can get back to work, isn't it???

I'm jealous of someone who keeps up such a brisk and entertaining correspondance with her characters :)


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