Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2009

How to Deal with Jealousy

I remember when I read Anne Lamott's wonderful, pithy and straight-talking book on writing, Bird by Bird, reading about when Lamott had her first book published, and having the experience of dealing with jealousy. Writer friends who had stood at her side through all the struggling years before the first publication suddenly turned on her, vicious and desperate. And Lamott wrote, too, about her own feelings of jealousy, for example, when she found out that some people did not always have to go through the same agony of the writing process that she did.

I thought at the time that I was "above" jealousy. I figured that I might see people turn on me for my success, though I told myself that this would just be proof to tell me who my "true" friends were and were not. Then I could keep all my true friends, dump the other ones, and be a happy, successful writer. As for my own jealousy, I couldn't imagine having to deal with anything like that. I was a good person, generous and clear-thinking. I had celebrated the successes of friends who were published before me without a twinge because I believed strongly in myself.

This view of myself was largely right, for a while. Then some crappy stuff happened.

I had a contract for a revolutionary knitting book for kids with an easy no cast-on method that I invented myself. Canceled, and no one bothered to tell me until a month before the book was due out, after I had spent hundreds of hours knitting samples, taking pictures, drawing illustrations, and of course, writing. The next year, I walked into the bookstore and found a book on knitting out by the same publisher with some suspiciously similar projects in it, credited to an in-house editor.

Then, after my first book sold, I spent two years trying to satisfy an "option" clause with my first house with a second book. Finally, I gave up and started searching for another house with an editor who might appreciate my darker, older fantasies. But the same thing happened again. My option book was rejected, after I'd worked on it for two years. My agent sold that book two weeks later (bless him!) and I had a third house for a third book. Not a good track record. In the midst of working (at last!) on a sequel, my lovely third editor was let go and I am now working with a new one.

At the same time, I had to deal with low sales, occasional nice reviews (and some bad ones), the local Barnes and Noble refusing to stock my book, the local independent store refusing to answer my emails asking if I could come do a book signing there, and generally being considered a nobody. I dealt with seeing other writers around me suddenly hit fame and fortune with first novels that I thought were only mediocre, getting movie deals and being seen as celebrities that I was lucky to know.

And I felt jealousy myself. It is not a pleasant feeling. It makes it difficult, in perfect honesty, to go to conventions and talk to other writers, congratulate them on successes, and listen to their stories of all the reasons that it is so "hard" to be in so much demand.

How do I deal with this feeling of jealousy? There are a few different ways. I don't know which to recommend, because I use them all at different moments. A list of things I tell myself:

1. That any author's success is my success, because it brings people to books instead of other things they could be spending their money and time on.

2. That my books will outsell others in the long run, because my good writing will be appreciated in the future.

3. That I am writing a particular kind of book that may not be for the masses. It's the kind of book I love, and that's all right with me.

4. That I write for the pleasure of writing first and foremost, and that what happens after that is not something I can control.

5. That flukes happen. Were hula hoops the best toys ever invented? Maybe not. But there was a time they outsold everything else. It's unpredictable.

6. That there is something to learn from every bad book that is a commercial success. If I can figure out what that is, I can write the books I want to write and have more success, as well.

7. That I don't want fame and fortune. I don't want to be stalked and sent thousands of emails a month by fans who want to tell me what to write in my next book. It wouldn't be worth it to me. I just want to earn enough to justify spending my time writing, and to keep being published.

8. That bad things will happen to whoever it is I am jealous of, to even out the law of fairness in the universe. (I warned you that I can't recommend all of these strategies, but I am admitting the truth here, and I do sometimes tell myself this.)

9. That I will eventually get my turn in the sun and I will be much better prepared for it then than I would have been if it happened to me with my first book.

10. That I do other things in my life besides writing: music, knitting, quilting, triathlon, drawing, raising children. Writing can't be the only thing I derive my self worth from.

Maybe you will be above all professional jealousy in writing. If you are, though, that will be something else for me to be jealous of.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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