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)
n.l. belardesMarch 2, 2007
This was a good week to hang out in the LitPark online onclave.
I’m going to go watch old 70s sitcom reruns now.
[Bad, Nick – I had to edit your comments. Hand slaps. Love, Sue]
Kate - LovetoLeadMarch 2, 2007
This could be applied to other walks of life too. Even if you feel it should be your success instead, it is a great thing to be able to support your friends and feel happy for them.
Tish CohenMarch 2, 2007
What a beautiful, honest post. This is why I adore LitPark and you, Susan. You don’t shy away from our collective darker side.
Have a great weekend,
PaulaMarch 2, 2007
Susan, that was kind of brutal. Honest and true, but brutal. I mean that in a nice, admiration way. 🙂 I agree with Nick, it was an excellent week to hang around LitPark.
Robin SlickMarch 2, 2007
Susan, that was a wonderfully written article and summed up our feelings (and yours) perfectlly. Are you sending these weekly wraps to the Huffington Post? I know you have a large audience here but I think your work, especially this piece, deserves an even larger one. Because as Kate says above, what you write applies to all walks of life. I especially see it in the music world, but I’m sure it’s the same in academia, sports…you name it.
N.L. you devil, you – I’m calling you later. I need to know what Sue deleted and we have a couple other things to discuss now that I’ve risen from the dead and rejoined the…bleh…living.
n.l. belardesMarch 2, 2007
It’s fun to test Susan. Except now my hand feels like sausage.
Kelly SpitzerMarch 2, 2007
Speaking of supporting writers, go read my interview with Mary Akers, an extremely talented writer and all around wonderful person.
Julie Ann ShapiroMarch 2, 2007
This moving post reminds me of my own local writers group and I suppose of all close knit writers’ circles. We sometimes shrink, we sometimes cower and glow, but most of all we huddle together and help each other.
Now off to wear a suit and play the corporate game…ah if just that big advance would come on the novels …heck, I’m easy – just send an acceptance letter.
Amy WallenMarch 2, 2007
I think I can guess what n.l added. Or maybe I prefer to make it up in my own head.
Susan–Fantastic summation. It’s all true in every way. I especially like what you said about realizing that for the friends who have a hard time with your success that it’s not bitterness but grief. It’s so true. I’ve been on both sides of this picture and I think back and wonder if I behaved as well as my friends like James have. I hope I did. I know I tried to, but on the inside I was cringing too. And I want to add that if the self-doubt was there in the first place, it’s still there after the publicationâ€”I wonder constantly if it’s just a fluke (I even had one friend (?) when I first got my book deal tell me that it was.) But we need our friends there for us before AND after publication. It doesnâ€™t get easier, but harder. Thatâ€™s why supportive friends like James are so important. How sad it would be if you had no one to celebrate with when it did happen (and it will happen with perseverance). Thatâ€™s why we have writing community, in whatever form: groups, partners, etc. We are there to celebrate, support, cry, cheer, and in Jamesâ€™ caseâ€”make sure it never goes to my head.
LitPark is great for community, and Iâ€™m going to continue to read and put in my 3-cents (everything costs more when your published) worth, and watch for each of the announcements when yâ€™all write in to say you got your book deals! James and I will take you shopping (he has to go because he knows how to work the audio equipment inside of his Minuteman jacket that smells of coyote piss.)
Ric MarionMarch 2, 2007
Absolutely wonderful post, Susan.
Thanks for distilling all our feelings into a few paragraphs.
And, it’s nice to have Amy aboard. Out here in farmland America, many friends have gotten on the organic bandwagon and, I’m happy to report, are making better money than the old way.
AnnelieseMarch 2, 2007
Yes and yes to all the above. I did not laugh at the hanging of oneself in the bathroom wallpapered with rejection letters, as that can very well happen.
I’ve enjoyed being a part of a writing group since 2004. One member has annoyed us with her grammar school teacher, red pen edits of our shared work. We established “Feedback Rules.” One rule is that we are not there to edit the grammar and punctuation, but rather to encourage further exploration of the writer’s mind in order to fully develop their work. Under such a tight constraint, the red pen member has since dropped out of the group. =)
I was shocked when one member of our group published her memoir. She’d never read any of this material at our group. I asked her why and she said that she worked better writing alone until she felt a sense of completion. I exclaimed, “I thought that was the reason we got together though, to share our work for feedback!”
“Nope. Not for me.” she said. This woman would bring other writings of hers to share, but not the main thing she was working on.
I did buy my her memoir and I read it. Amusing to me now, is my expectation for Why We Workshopped, only to find that each member has a different reason to meet.
Now I try to write with the words of Norman Mailer on my mind: “I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.”
It could be that I’m just running through yet another scenario that I think would lead to publication – when, as you said above, “…we also know thereâ€™s a factor besides hard work and talent (luck? timing? karma? the x-factor?) that happens to some and doesnâ€™t happen to others.”
Thanks for a good read this morning. Now I must return to my “real, paying job.” 🙂
James SpringMarch 2, 2007
Christ. I had so much to write here, but nobody will ever see it, because reading Amy’s post will take them until the end of their natural lives.
Susan – you’re brilliant and wonderful. In the books section of my MySpace page (NOW WITH 18 FRIENDS!), I tell the world (or my 18 friends) that you’re the one to watch. A lot of people probably don’t know that the idea for this interview came to me during the night that you and Josh and I went drinking in Manhattan, and later, while one of us was torching up the spoon full of heroin, you made the observation that when we were done shooting up, we should go through town with a big stick and treat all the famous authors like baby harp seals. I agreed, and stated that, in Manhattan , there were probably a dozen on every block. But then we remembered that Josh is famous, and he brought the smack, and we realized that not all famous people are bad.
A lot has changed for me in these few weeks. Here’s what I’ve learned: famous authors stick together, especially when their bodies have been piled in the back of my SUV for three days as I search for a suitable mass grave.
As for that filthy, filthy n.l. character, I’m pretty sure I know what he wrote, too. That he didn’t know he could have those kinds of feeling for another man until he read my words. And that he would love to see me in a pink negligee (or as Amy says, “nagligly”), perhaps after a Crisco bath, and singing the song from the musical Rent, the one with all the math in it. Am I right, you pervert? Am I? Five words for you, then, pal: “Offer me a book deal.”
Mary AkersMarch 2, 2007
Sue, you are so real and brave. I agree, this week at LitPark has been especially fabulous. Thank you.
Carolyn Burns BassMarch 2, 2007
I love the community of writers I’ve found here and at Backspace, but like Annaliese’s friend, I prefer to write alone and share it as a whole. Yet, I love critiquing other writer’s material in various stages of completion.
I’ve recently seen one of my favorite online colleagues, Jon Clinch, taste enormous success with his book FINN. Watching him go from an author with six novels he couldn’t get representation for to literal overnight success just feels great. I mean GREAT!
(Read my little FINN fanpost here.)
Amy WallenMarch 2, 2007
James is just trying to see if he can get his words banned by Susan too. The reason he knows I mispronounce negligee is because he wears them to our writing group. they’re actually quite nice ones. lacy.
I belong to two writing groups and I know I learn more from other people’s writing than what’s on my own pages. Still, trust is essential.
n.l. belardesMarch 2, 2007
I’m the one who pissed in James “Minuteman” jacket. Now it has total punk rock sex appeal.
Susan better not tell what I wrote. It’s only for her lusty mind…
James, come and visit Paperback Writer. You might have two cents on this article about me being a DIY bastard. You can also see photos of me beating the shit out of myself right before I lusted after your “kalaidoscope of boobs” quote…
By the way everyone, The Noveltown Review went to press yesterday, which means a few things 1) I still need Shapiro’s rewrite of TOXIC CLOUD, and 2) James Spring better write some good stufferooni for it… 3)Susan will finally get to see what I named her story…
lots of love! -n.l.
Julie Ann ShapiroMarch 2, 2007
Awww…just back from the corporate run for a creative job. Can you spell OXYMORON and how many different ways? Oh man…many of my long term clients lost their niches because of changes in Google, which sent me in the market. But man oh man – I need to write stories and now more material. Not that there is ever a shortage!
I just want to give everyone a hug because this place is wonderful in so many ways. There are writers here that I previously would never have met or realized that I could connect with and who understand this journey and how incredibly necessary it is as a writer. Without the support circle it’s writing and challeges. With the support circle there is warmth. Pardon me for getting all mushy, but I’m truly touched.
Hey Nick – How cool to find your call more for my rewrite. I’ll send it off to you. Even, wound up with a part two on that story.
Lori OlivaMarch 2, 2007
I’m not much of a “writers’circle” kind of person. I don’t belong to a group and I keep my opinions to myself…(with the occasional nod to organic food markets, but excuse the lighthearteness…it’s been a shitty week). With that said, what I love about Lit Park and my online community of writer friends is the openness and the freedom to ponder, question and examine work and more importantly, the life of a writer…successful or not. It seems as if we’re all cut from the same cloth.
Julie Ann ShapiroMarch 3, 2007
Oh yeah…It’s like we’re the weird round pegs in a square peg world or visa versa. We just get each other.
Susan HendersonMarch 3, 2007
Just wanted to say I’m enjoying all the conversation here, and I’ll comment more when a few things slow down for me. Right now, I’m kind of racing, racing, racing. Hi to Amy’s mom, who commented in the other thread. That’s wonderful. Okay, see everyone when I get a spare moment. xo
Linera LucasMarch 3, 2007
So glad I read this! It really resonated with me. I have been in several writing critique groups, but now am in a group that is for accountability, and I like that better. We meet to set goals, and then write as we sit together at the coffee shop. Very odd. I didn’t think I could work that way, but it has been very helpful.
Thanks so much for this heartfelt essay.