When you start out as a writer, one of the best experiences is finding a community of other writers who understand why you wake up in the middle of the night to write or why you jot down story notes on the backs of receipts. They understand why you’d write for no money and why you dream of being a bestselling author, or better yet, part of the future literary canon, even though you’ve yet to be published.
Say you form a workshop with some of these folks, and you meet weekly to exchange and discuss each others’ manuscripts. Most of these people you will hate immediately when they discuss your work or apply red ink to passages you know are already perfect. But over the years, you will collect a core group of writer friends who understand the heart of your work, who push you to be a better writer while being careful not to overstep with their edits. You will encourage each other to send stories to magazines, and you will share the frustration of rejection letters, unsupportive family members, and successes that only seem like successes to other writers (ink on a rejection letter, agents asking for partial reads, obscure poets coming to the local bookstore).
Before you know it, ten years go by, and while most of you have a number of publication credits by now, no one from the group has made money with their writing. Five or ten more years pass, and the group has shifted some – one has hung himself in a bathroom wallpapered with rejection letters; another has become an editor who encourages your submissions but has yet to accept a story for publication; another has quit her job to write full-time, hoping it will lead to pay; another has self-published, and through coersion, has managed to sell 150 copies of his books to family and used-to-be friends. But the rest of you are writing and critiquing and submitting in between real, paying jobs and families who are not quite sure what to make of your all-consuming hobby.
More years pass, and the publications come more frequently. The prestige of the publications has improved as well, though you’ve still never been paid with more than contributor’s copies. Most in the group have finished at least one full-length manuscript, and more than half of you have agents and are somewhere in the process of submitting your manuscripts to publishing houses. Some in your group have already seen one or more of their manuscripts die in the submission process. Those remaining are focused, committed to the game, and know they won’t stop until they sell a manuscript. Though it’s been years and years, and perhaps decades and decades, of work with no payoff, you know in your gut that you and at least a quarter of the group will make it if you keep pushing.
And then, finally, a publishing contract comes through. But not for you. For one of your writer friends. There is no question but this is a good thing and that you are happy for your friend. There is also a small, unidentifiable feeling beneath that happiness but you ignore it. When several others from your group land book deals, the emotion you couldn’t place becomes easier to see and harder to ignore. It’s a complicated emotion that has something to do with the thought, Will it ever happen for me?
Are we jealous of our friends? Sometimes. But mostly not, I think. We prefer when success happens to people we like, people with talent, people who work hard, and people who continue to treat us well after they’re successful.
From a purely business perspective, our friends’ success ought to give us hope, make the road seem possible, show us a bit of the map for how to get there. Our friends’ success lets us know our workshop has merit, gives us a connection to someone who can put in a good word or maybe blurb a future book. Sometimes this is inspiring and makes us push harder.
The tough thing about our friends’ success (and as Robin Slick said so poignantly) is the self-doubt. When our friends succeed and we don’t, we question whether we’ll ever make it, if we’re good enough to make it, if the manuscript we edited and edited and edited is really something small and awful. It reminds us how seldom we feel validated, and how much we’ve needed it. And sometimes, we feel despair because we are confident about our manuscript – we know it’s ready – but we also know there’s a factor besides hard work and talent (luck? timing? karma? the x-factor?) that happens to some and doesn’t happen to others.
So talk to me about being on one side or the other of professional jealousy. How did it feel when your friend got the book deal you wanted? How did it feel to be the one who finally, after years of work, got a book deal, and your friends didn’t buy it or blog about it… they just stayed quiet. Let’s hear your stories.
I want to end with two thoughts I pulled from your comments. One is from Juliet, who told a story of the joy she felt for friends who got pregnant while feeling the grief of her own struggle with miscarriages. If you’re a writer and your writer-friend has mixed feelings about your success, don’t assume they’re bitter. Try to understand it as grief.
The second thought is from Daryl, who reminded us that there are different definitions of success. He said this: “The success of my writing is in another person reading it and feeling moved.”
I admire all of you so much. Thanks for an inspiring discussion this week and for being yourselves and bringing your emotions and opinions to LitPark. And thank you to my guests, AmyWallen and James Spring – great to have you here!
(We’re missing you, Lance. You hang in there. xxoo)