At Christmas, I received the biography of an author whose work I’ve loved for over twenty years. The bio was great, but it also left me with terrible feelings of envy, reading about all the wonderful projects he’d already completed by my age.
I suspect that a lot of writers feel like this at times.
I’ve always been a little ashamed of these emotions, because they run counter to my values, which are egalitarian. But I think they spring from feeling forced by circumstance, and socio-economic conditions, into competition with other writers. In other words, they're a survival response.
The problem is that, in writing, an element of competition seems to me unavoidable. When you submit a short story you are competing in quality and marketability against all the other people who also want to see their work in print. And this competition can be fierce: at the Guardian Masterclass I attended recently, they told us that the ‘Comment is Free’ section of the paper received 200 pitches a day.
At times this can seem like a dog eat dog world of social Darwinism, where everyone's fighting for scraps. This also runs counter to my values; it’s also the default mode of what Oliver James calls ‘selfish capitalism,' an ideology that erodes wellbeing and happiness, and rewards very few.
Instead of a world where few people ‘win’ and a lot of people ‘lose,’ the ideal should be win/win. Everyone has something in which they can excel, and the best aspects of the writers' communities of which I've been a part is mutual aid and cooperation, not hostile competition.
As for envy, Dennis Palumbo, in his Writing from the Inside Out, admits that it was 'the dirty little secret’ of his own writing life, and notes that while for some, it’s a spur, for others envy can result in ‘a crippling paralysis.’
I’m without doubt in the latter party. All envy has ever done for me is to freeze up the creative process and destroy peace of mind. But twinges of it seem unavoidable, especially in a competitive situation.
Palumbo concludes that if nothing else, envy ‘informs us of how important our goals are’ to us and suggests that the emotion is a consequence of doing ambitious things. My own solution is mindfulness; to acknowledge the envy, but not to let it dominate things, and in response, to change focus to the everyday, creative process. Usually, this works quite well. Usually….