I read a lot of blogs. Some I read regularly, some I occasionally swoop down upon and catch up in a big glut of reading, some I read only once. Many of these blogs are writer blogs, and I’ve seen more than one post about Writer Envy.
What is Writer Envy? It’s that niggling feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hear that Jay Lake averages 2,500 words per hour. It’s the pang you feel when you hear someone’s broken into a market that you’ve been dying to get into. It’s the discouragement of feeling that maybe you’re being left behind as one by one, all your writer friends get agents and publishing deals and more and better sales than you think you are getting.
Well, guess what? I’m giving you permission to be jealous, whether with Writer Envy or because of your friend’s superior cooking or for any other reason. To envy is to be human. And, it turns out, it can even be good for you. Psychology Today recently ran an article citing a recent study about envy. The results are fascinating: it turns out that feeling the emotion of envy both causes us to focus more on the object of our jealousy and boosts our memories. Basically, jealousy allows us to more efficiently learn and remember how to achieve what we’re jealous of.
Therefore, instead of beating ourselves up when we feel it, we can begin to think of envy as a tool. We can use it to make ourselves better writers (or cooks, or car washers, or underwater basket weavers). We can harness that energy to motivate ourselves instead of to discourage.
Example: Let’s say my friend Beth makes a sale to Greatest Ever Magazine, which is the market that I most want to break into. I can wallow and feel terrible about myself because Greatest Ever Magazine still sends me form rejections. Or, I can use my desires and feeling of jealousy to motivate me. I can read Beth’s story and analyze why I think Greatest Ever Magazine liked it. Perhaps the subject matter is perfect for the market, or perhaps the market prefers upbeat endings like Beth’s. I can figure out the strengths of the story, and then compare it to my own recent work. Perhaps Beth’s story shows excellent use of setting, whereas I have too many under-described, white rooms in my recent work. Or perhaps Beth’s story has a twisty and exciting plot that drives it, while my recent stories have all been character-driven. I can learn from my friend Beth’s success where the weaknesses in my own work are and how I might get started on improving them. Beth might even be willing to share her own insights on Greatest Ever Magazine. Meanwhile, because I am jealous, I’ll be more likely to focus and remember what I’ve figured out.
(This can also work, by the way, with embarrassment. I was so embarrassed that I forgot the names of the two rivers of Mesopotamia in seventh grade social studies that I will probably remember that they are the Tigris and Euphrates for the rest of time.)
Of course, experiencing jealousy doesn’t mean we can’t also feel happy and pleased for a person who has succeeded. And it certainly doesn’t excuse any bad behavior on our parts. However, knowing that our brains are designed to feel jealousy on purpose to give us a better chance of survival can change our outlook. Instead of seeing jealousy as an embarrassing weakness, we can see it as another way to move forward towards our goals.