How to stop envying other writers

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Do you ever suffer from literary envy? If so, today’s column is for you.

I’ve been lucky enough to be born with little envy for other writers. I think this is because I’ve never identified primarily as a writer. My thing? Editing.

I was born with a natural talent for it and had early success. Even at college, I was editing papers for friends and, six years after graduation I became the youngest-ever senior features editor at my metropolitan daily newspaper (and, incidentally, the first woman.)

I knew I was a lousy writer — slow, blocked and boring — but I took comfort in my editing chutzpah and razzmatazz. Once I left the newspaper I decided to get better at writing. Learning these new skills was slow and difficult, but I enjoyed a burst of accomplishment when I’d nailed them. Today I feel only gratitude for my new ability to put words in sentences like a child stringing beads in kindergarten. (Thanks Brenda Ueland for that metaphor.) Sure, I know there are many people who are way better writers than me. I’m just happy I can write competently and not feel angst-ridden about it.

And, extra luckily for me, editing is a hidden process. Readers never know how much editing has gone into a piece of writing. As a result, editors are seldom lauded or celebrated, so I have little reason to be envious of the other people doing the task I care most about.

But if you’re a writer who’s envious of other writers, you can be making your own life miserable. Here’s how to corral those wild-horse feelings and use them for something positive:

  1. Understand that envy is an evolutionary hiccup that comes from your reptilian brain. Also known as the fight or flight response, envy (and anger and fear) cause your heart rate and adrenaline to increase. Your blood pressure rises and your breathing changes. You sweat more and your hands become moist. Acidity increase in your stomach. In other words, you’re going to feel crummy. But don’t blame yourself for envy, because blame will only make things worse. If anything, curse your reptilian brain and take steps for better self-care.
  2. Realize you don’t know the whole story. You have no idea about how hard the other writer worked. Was it easy for him or her? Or fiendishly difficult? One of my favourite newspaper writers, the late Lloyd Dykk, always complained (politely and gently, because that’s the kind of guy he was) that everyone assumed he was filled with talent. They thought he dashed off his bons mots and clever allusions with ease and aplomb, never understanding how hard he worked to look effortless. New Yorker writer Brendan Gill (1914-1997) — widely regarded as a superbly talented stylist — rewrote most of his articles 17 times. Was that talent or just damn hard work?
  3. Remember that the success of others has absolutely no impact on yours. We don’t live in scarcity — at least not in the developed world. We live in abundance. There are plenty of materials, tools and readers to go around. If you can improve your own writing — and if you develop a reasonable definition of success (don’t assume the New York Times bestseller list is the only option) then you will be able to succeed, if you’re willing to work hard enough at it. So….
  4. Focus on yourself instead of the other writer. Can you change other people? No. Can you have any impact on what other people write? No. Not the subject, nor the style in which they do it. You have no control over this! But you have 100% control of yourself. So why waste a nanosecond of time focusing on something you can do nothing about? Instead, focus on you. If you can improve your own writing you’re going to feel better about it. Try copying the works of others  (although maybe don’t pick the person whose work you envy most.) Add more stories and more figurative language to your work. Make sure the copy-editing is clean, even if you need to hire a professional.
  5. Think about how envy harms you and turn your envy into appreciation instead. Envy will poison you and make it even more difficult for you to write. Don’t drink from that glass! Instead, be grateful for all that you have. Motivational experts such as Sean Achor have found that we’re not happy when we succeed. We succeed because we’re happy. (Think about that one a bit. It’s counterintuitive.) To make yourself happier, keep a gratitude journal, writing down three things you’re grateful for each day. I’ve been doing this for several years now and it’s made me a much happier, more grateful person.

Envy is not a useful emotion or feeling. Instead, it’s a limiting, destructive one. The sooner you can batten it down, the better off you — and your writing — will be.

Special thanks to my artist friend Anna Landry for the photo of the green-eyed cat she calls Miss Green Eyes.

Do you suffer from literary envy? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.