Ugly Realities of Writer’s Envy

I found a link to a piece of flash fiction today. Actually, I thought it was nonfiction, a beautiful little compact essay, because recently I’ve been following the nonfiction scene and trying to write my own. I thought I’d given up reading short fiction. Long ago, I did one of my Master’s degrees–the creative writing one–in fiction. For my thesis I wrote a collection of interrelated short stories (dear God, how many times did I utter that phrase, “collection of interrelated short stories,” with my naive-intellectual grad-school pride?), but the truth is I don’t like short stories that much, I don’t read short stories, and the only reason I decided to write a “collection of interrelated short stories” (what a nauseating label! so many syllables, so very pretentious…) was because Amy Tan and Louise Erdrich did it and I was too scared to say I was writing a “novel.” Novels took too long to write, were WAY too long to workshop, and weren’t conducive to being broken up into easily publishable lumps. I was an enterprising devotee of Writers’ Digest back then, and always ready to sell off my writing as soon as a workshop was over.

Anyway, today, on Facebook, I find this lovely little story that reads like an essay, and (goddamn it) it wasn’t written by me. Here’s the link so you can check it out for yourself:

“Another Acceptance” by Curtis VanDonkelaar
http://passagesnorth.com/2014/05/another-acceptance/

As I read this over, once, twice, I could feel the stages of Writer’s Envy kick in. Because that’s what always happens when I skim through a literary journal. Either I hate whatever I’m reading and think I could do a much better job (which is the stereotypical bitchface reaction of the Writer-Reader; more on this later), or (which is worse) I like the piece and then find ways I can discount its value as Good Writing. I clicked on the author’s web page (curtisvandonkelaar.com) and checked out his picture–well, at least this guy isn’t some 23-year-old whiz kid with a newly minted MFA. (Which is why it reads like nonfiction: writing skill plus real-life experience. Goddamn it.) Then I started with the nitpicking–well, I don’t know if the ending’s all that great. You’ve got to knock things out of the park with endings. (Translation: I didn’t get the ending. I still don’t, but, of course, that doesn’t automatically mean anything’s wrong with it.) Anything else? Vague storyline? No, the stuff that’s out of sequence here makes the story ambiguous, more real. Structure issues? Hell, no. Never in a million years would I come up with such a simple, subtle format. So now we’re basically saying, never in a million years could I come up with a piece of prose this complex, this profound, this capable of reflecting human consciousness and its dance to the edge of awareness and back, the way so many of us respond to lingering pain.

So it appears I must concede defeat. I will never write like this. Son of a bitch. I hate everything.

Well, okay, not really. I’ll lick my wounds for a day or so and then go back to my little patch of the universe, open up a Word file and see what happens. But this is the kind of thing I deal with (and I suspect other writers do, too) when I come across a piece of writing that I really love, that never existed even as a possibility in my imagination. I rise up. I do battle. I walk away thinking I’m a failure. I could say that, well, this is just a conflict I wage with myself, it’s a question of self-confidence, blah blah blah, but I think everyone who writes (or, for that matter, ever experienced envy) knows such analyses are true, and they hardly ever help. When you find someone who does your thing better than you do, it a) hurts, b) pisses you off, and c) requires you to withdraw until the initial ugliness wears off and you can come back and face reality again. Otherwise, you get eaten from the inside out. Because the truth of the matter is, if you’re a writer, you can work hard and improve, but you will always write like you. Your mom and every teeny-bopper sitcom you ever watched was right: someone else will always be better. And that doesn’t make anything feel better, either.

The only strategy I’ve ever encountered for relieving Writer’s Envy was passed along by friend and phenomenal fiction writer Beth Goldner. She introduced me to my husband (also a writer), and the two of us watched as she got published everywhere and snagged a two-book deal (for a novel AND a short-story collection). Beth and I were fellow workshoppers, and before she totally surpassed me in terms of writerly success, she told me that the biggest compliment writers could give one another is to be envious. One day, when I’d published a poem in a moderately big journal, she went out to dinner with me, raised a glass, and said, “Miss Fickle, I envy you in the best way possible.”

So, to Curtis VanDonkelaar, if you’re out there reading this: I envy you in the best way possible. Thanks so much for your story. Now I’m going off to play Kindle games until my latest wallow of self-pity dries up.

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3 responses to “Ugly Realities of Writer’s Envy

  1. I admire your honesty Miss Fickle. Not everyone feels pissed off when they realize someone else is better than they are at writing or painting or physics or whatever it might be, though. Some people feel deeply melancholy, some people feel weirdly relieved, and some people, I believe (the possibly pathologically well-adjusted) are genuinely able to keep their evaluations of other’s work relatively barricaded off from their sense of self-worth. My own reaction in these situations, is more on the melancholy end of the spectrum.

    Actually, I do get pissed off, if I think the person who is succeeding where I could not is not actually any better than I am at the relevant activity. When I genuinely believe the other person is more talented or smarter or what have you, I feel mopey and insignificant, or on a good day, possibly even inspired by their example. As an armchair psychologist, and an actual licensed psychologist in my free time [you will nevah guess my true identity], I would be curious about the anger that you feel in these situations.

    • Ah, Donnabella! Your comment would lead me to an excellent segue into one of the major topics I have on the back burner right now. I may not get to it right away, but soon. My brain will now commence burbling!

      • Yay. I eagerly await this major topic making itself known (much like your deep-seated rage).

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