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25 August 2011 @ 02:25 pm
Jealousy - Envy - Regret  
Several people have written about professional jealousy, and have wisely (but not surprisingly) pointed out that it's a bad thing. A destructive, corrosive, creativity-killing thing. Amen, ditto, yougogirl, ihearya.

I think, though, that the analysis could use a bit more nuance -- because people will employ the word "jealousy" when they are really talking about something else, one of the other, closely related feelings which may not be as corrosive (or not corrosive in the same way) as jealousy itself. In this post, I plan to differentiate between envy, jealousy and regret, with a brief nod to admiration.

What we are talking about is the emotional reaction a creative person experiences when she observes achievement in others. I do wonder whether it's really possible to discipline ourselves to have the reaction we think we ought to have, which is what a lot of people seem to recommend. But I also think that the different reactions are so close to each other that it may be possible, by a change of focus or a deliberate foregrounding, to cultivate the feeling that is most helpful to you.

Admiration, of course, is the emotion to which we all give lip service, and the one we wish we had all the time. And it's an easy one, when the work is good. When I read a badass short story or a stratospheric novel, I'm so slack-jawed that I don't have room for another emotion. Mostly I just tell lots of people about that story. Sometimes I'll e-mail the author and tell her how much I liked it, and why. I've made quite a few friends that way.

Envy is what I think a lot of people actually mean when they say that "jealousy can be good for you." I distinguish envy from jealousy this way: Envy is wishing you had/did/could do what the other person has/did. This is a feeling I have a lot: I'll see someone doing sooo much better than I am at something -- characterization, language, style -- and I'll think, "IwishIwishIwish I were that good." I think this is healthy, because it gives me an aspiration. Maybe I can't be as good as she is, but I can try. I envy a lot of other writers: their talent, their discipline, their skill. And I try to become like them. I have a gazillion role models out there.

Jealousy, by contrast, is the feeling that the other person doesn't deserve her success, that it is rightfully yours, that there is something wrong about her having it. "Why is it her? It should be me!" Although I don't think I've experienced professional jealousy, I've sure felt romantic jealousy, and so I think I have a good idea of what the professional kind must be like. As everyone says, this emotion is corrosive and self-destructive When you think about it, it can't be anything else: when you must tear down the virtues and successes of the other person in order to bolster yourself, you proceed from an admission that your own work/virtue is so weak that it cannot survive except through such bolstering. It also externalizes achievement ("I cannot succeed because she's in the way") and consequently disempowers you.

(Let me take time out to address the issue of quality and success. We have all read works that were "successful" by some measure or other (that made a lot of money, got good reviews or had a huge audience) that we did not admire. Heck, during my Clarion class, we read aloud to each other from one such work, a best-selling novel whose sentences were so bad that we cringed. But such works are instructive (as one of our teachers pointed out) because they make the choices so plain. If you don't admire the work, then why on earth do you bother worrying about the fact that it made money? If you want to make money, being a writer is probably a bad idea in the first place. End of digression.)

But my own vice is regret. I started writing seriously rather late in life, and am the same age as some wonderful writers who have been practicing their craft for 20 or 30 years and who are now acknowledged to be at the top of their field. When I read their stuff, I get sick at heart -- not with jealousy, but with an awareness of time not spent wisely, of opportunities missed. I think to myself, "No matter how hard or well I work, no matter how much I improve, I'll never have the time to attain their skill." I feel something similar when I look at the glorious potential of my Clarion classmates, some of whom are young enough to be my own children and who are already so good. What would I have achieved if I had started at their age?

Regret is almost as corrosive as jealousy, and for the same reason: it's disempowering. When I get into a cycle like the one in the previous paragraph (and I love the sound of my own voice when I'm indulging in self pity), I externalize achievement. "Oh, I can't do as well as Kij or Kris because it's already too late" -- it gets me off the hook and takes away any present-time responsibility for my situation. Never mind finishing that first draft, buckling down to do the revision, or starting that novel - you can't win anyway.

As I say, I don't really believe in the ability to control your feelings. But I do believe in self-awareness and honesty about your feelings. As any therapist will tell you, your jealousy and my regret lose some of their power over us when we see them for what they are, see where they came from and see what they do to us. That's probably the best we can do.

Current Location: Home
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: Air conditioner
Mishell Bakermishellbaker on August 25th, 2011 06:54 pm (UTC)
An early start doesn't always help. I've wanted and planned to be a novelist since I was six years old. I went to summer camps, I read books on craft and publishing, when most kids were playing video games. By the time I was thirteen I'd already written two novels, real ones, 100-150K, with semi-coherent storylines. I took detours into playwriting and screenwriting, but always, my entire life, I have cared about nothing besides writing.

After nearly 30 years of caring about nothing in the world other than storytelling, often at the expense of my relationships, my sanity, and my employability, I am still mediocre.

I am starting to believe that people don't improve all that much after the first 5 years or so they study writing. That you are given a certain amount of talent to start with. You learn the basics of writing a coherent story, and that takes some time. You eradicate the worst of the bad habits that are making your work unsalable. But there is nothing about having 50 years rather than 10 that is going to make your work any better. You are the writer you are. The limits are not in training, but in your own intelligence and perception and the way you see the world.

What separates Kij Johnson from me is not that she has learned better ways of smoothing out her prose. It's that she just thinks better stuff in the first place.

So I'm battling my own demons, trying to accept that I am not going to be the universally-admired beacon of brilliance I had planned to be at six years old. But I still might sell a book one day, if I keep at it.

My main point here is that your age is not going to stop you from achieving your potential. It might shorten your bibliography, but for better or worse, I think you are already the writer you are going to be, no matter how many years you have left. I happen to think that is a damned good writer, and several publications I could never dream of selling work to seem to agree with me on that count.

Jealous? No. Envious? Certainly.
Ken: Blowing Kissken_schneyer on August 25th, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks, M.

I think that many of these feelings -- jealousy and regret epsecially -- lack a grounding in reality. Anything that tends toward despair is probably wrong by inspection, because it presumes to know the future. As soon as one says never or always, one is usually wrong.

I've told you often enough what I think of your writing. (You are one of the people whose skill and talent I envy. I aspire to become more like you.)

But I don't agree with you that it all comes down to thinking up better stuff to start with. There are a gazillion good ideas out there, and everybody has them. Writers are people who take those good ideas and turn them into things that are fun to read.
Mishell Bakermishellbaker on August 25th, 2011 07:10 pm (UTC)
Is your avatar blowing me a kiss? Squee!
Ken: Winkken_schneyer on August 25th, 2011 07:29 pm (UTC)
Shauna RobertsShauna Roberts on August 25th, 2011 09:46 pm (UTC)
During the 24 years I was a medical writer and editor I continued to improve as a writer. Since I seriously started writing fiction in 2000, my writing has improved dramatically and I still see it improving with each new piece I write. Each life is different, but I'm proof that people can continue improving forever.

The rate of improvement slows down, of course. And given it's hard to evaluate oneself, I see my improvement mainly in that certain things have become easier and faster, in the comments of my critique groups, and at conferences when concepts that baffled me before now make sense.

What separates Kij Johnson and you may be as simple as she has more effective ways to "fill the well" or knows more brainstorming methods.

You wrote two great stories at Clarion. You definitely are not mediocre and you definitely don't see the world the way most people see it. My aunt used to say, "the first million words are just practice." You've got a lot of those words behind you, you have a unique perspective, and you have talent. Forty years from now you can judge whether you're going to be a beacon of brilliance; now, at the very beginning of your professional career (defined loosely as having sold two short stories to good markets), is the time to prepare to be brilliant and expect to have failures on the way.

You're welcome to Skype me and talk about these things. Or we can talk in person soon.
Ken: Blowing Kissken_schneyer on August 26th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC)
Thanks, Shauna. I agree.

As I look over your reply and Mishell's, I notice that I wrote more evocatively about my own vice than the others, and what was meant as a commentary came out sounding like a whine. Drat.

Seriously, I'm happy with what I'm doing and eager for the next thing, and my self-flagellation mostly takes the form of "Aw, nuts." But I'm grateful for the love.