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How to Combat Writer Envy

Check it out! New blog design to match the rest of my website. This is a work-in-progress, so if you find any glitches, please let me know, and I will remedy them as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, feel free to click around to check out my new digs right after you read this post:

A friend asked me the other day if there is much writer’s envy at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, where I do most of my writing. Do authors who get $25,000 advances get envious of the ones who get $200,000 advances? Do authors who aren’t published at all (moi) get envious of those who are? I imagine for some writers that is the case, but I’ve never experienced that kind of envy myself. Maybe it’s because I still have delusions of earning a big advance someday. Maybe it’s because even if I get a $5000 advance for my first book, I will still hold hopes of getting $50,000 for the second, and six figures on the third. Maybe it’s because if I don’t get published at all, I plan to self-publish and make more money that way anyway. I’m optimistic when it comes to my writing career. When I read an amazing book like Love and Shame and Love by Peter Orner, I don’t feel envy; I feel awe. I think, “I want to write like that. How can I learn to write like that?”

Years ago when I was earning my BA in English at UCLA, I read an excerpt from an article in People magazine in which Walter Mosley said that it wasn’t until he read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple did he realize that he had the skills to be a writer. “I’d read a lot of the French—Camus and all that—and I love their writing. But that voice, that narrative—I couldn’t write like that,” he says. “Then when I read Walker, I thought, ‘Oh! I could do this.’ ” So he started writing at nights and on weekends.” That quote influenced my own decision to become a writer. Having lived in France as a fashion model for six years, my English wasn’t as advanced as I thought a writer’s should be. I was 25 and had only completed a year of college, and I had been speaking mostly French for the previous four years. I thought in French, I dreamed in French, and French words for objects popped into my head before the English words. I didn’t know any GRE words, and I thought you had to know them in order to write. Mosley made me realize that writing well was about authentic dialogue, great characters, and a plot that glides along like a catamaran. You only need to write like Nathanial Hawthorne if you’re taking the GRE.

I’ve learned to accept that my writing style is more like Mosley’s than Mann’s, but there was a time when I felt very insecure about my writing, and insecurity breeds envy. How can we fight writer envy when we are feeling a little down about our careers? What can we tell ourselves when it seems like we are the only ones in the world who aren’t published? My strategy is to remind myself that my goal as a writer is to write the best I can today while continuing to learn the craft, so that I can write even better tomorrow. Here are six ways to do that:

1. Read great works by other authors
Reading is the best writing teacher. 1Q84 and The Marriage Plot are next on my list.

2. Write often

If you can’t write every day, write least several hours per week. You must. You must.

3. Remain humble

When you receive feedback from critique partners, don’t get defensive. Listen, note whether you’re hearing the same comments from more than one person, and consider seriously whether those suggestions could improve your manuscript.

4. Root for your peers
When writer friends and colleagues get published, be happy for them. Attend their readings. Buy their books. You’ll want them to do the same for you some day.

5. Never give up
Persistence pays off in every pursuit. As a writer, keep reading, keep writing, and keep studying the craft through books and conferences and classes. You’re never too old or too experienced or too amazing of a writer that you can’t learn something from someone else.

6. Have fun!
People want to be writers because they think it will be more fun than sitting in a cubicle all day crunching numbers. So make it fun. Write about what you’re passionate about, and that passion will come out in your writing.

What about you? Have you experienced writer envy? How did you handle it?

32 comments to How to Combat Writer Envy

  • Kristan

    Wooo, Meghan, I LOVE the new look! Love the new masthead, the new typewriter icon, the new typography… Love love love! PS: This is NOT helping me wait for my own xmas present to myself, which is also a blog redesign. (Although I don't think it will turn out as awesome as this…)

    Okay, onto the post.

    "I’m optimistic when it comes to my writing career. When I read an amazing book … I don’t feel envy; I feel awe. I think, “I want to write like that. How can I learn to write like that?”"

    YES. THIS. #1 and #6 are my keys too.

    Whenever I find myself feeling jealous of someone's MegaHypedBookOfTheYear, I also try to remind myself that I'm only seeing them cross the finish line. I didn't see the whole marathon they ran beforehand — I didn't see them fall and scrape their knees, or puke behind a bush, or stop to cry for a few minutes, or whatever. Nor will anyone else really see/understand those parts of my journey when I get to my finish line.

    Furthermore, their marathon has nothing to do with my marathon. They can cross 10 finish lines and it won't affect me. I just have to keep running. I'll get there someday.

    • meghancward

      "Their marathon has nothing to do with my marathon. They can cross 10 finish lines and it won't affect me. I just have to keep running. I'll get there someday."

      Yes! So true. It's a competition with ourselves, not with other writers. And can't wait to see your new blog design!!

  • Like the changes to the site. When I read about big advances, etc., I always look beyond the headlines to the meat of the story like how the author did it — revisions, multiple rejections, etc. It's like everyone reads the Amanda Hocking story and only "hears" the big advance. That girl hustled and worked hard to achieve her goal. Of course, I do hate it when you say you write and someone says, "So, why can't you be like …. (insert author's name or a Harry Potter book title). "

    • meghancward

      Stacy – What bothers me most is IMAGINING what people think and say about me. I imagine my friends talked to each other: "Hasn't she been working on that book for five years?" "I think it's been even longer than that." "Is it any good? Have you read any of it?" "I haven't. I wonder if she'll ever get published. Does her husband support her?" Etc. etc. I hate those imagined conversations!

  • julia

    Yes envy is a problem among writers. And there's a tendency to be bitchy when someone's book sells better or is turned into a movie, etc. etc. It's just cause to work harder. I feel grateful to make a living as a writer, period, these days. I didn't start out writing to get rich — altho money would be nice — but because I loved story-telling.

    • meghancward

      Julia – sounds like you have experience with writer envy! I do think we all want to make money writing, even if that doesn't seem like a noble goal to some. The more money we make, the more time we can spend writing instead of at a day job.

  • Totally love the new look! Great post. I think the envy comes from only looking at the prize instead of the steps it takes to get into the ring. "She's an overnight sensation" –Yeah, but that "night" was fifteen years long. Beginning writers do love to get together and dis the current bestsellers. It's so much more fun than going through the slog of learning to write well. But when/if they do, they usually drop the attitude. Especially if they get to be friends with the authors who are getting those famous advances. The actual payout is so much less than we think, and the pace is grueling and there's a whole new set of frustrations and failures..

    • meghancward

      It's so true. And something I've noticed about myself – I sometimes get envious of the success of other writers (not their advances, but their credits), but only if I've never met them. I don't get envious of writers I know in person because I see they're just normal people like me, trying to pay the bills and get their kids to swim classes on Saturdays just like everyone else.

  • Site looks great – congrats on the redesign – and thanks for the good advice. While i know there are a lot of bastards out there, I have to say that most writers I meet are unfailingly encouraging and supportive – if they're envious of one another, they're very good actors. Maybe because we know it's a lot easier said than done to be a working writer – I had no idea how hard it was until I tried it, and it gave me new found respect for the people who do it well.

    Great post!

    • meghancward

      Nancy – two great quotes here:
      "if they're envious of one another, they're very good actors." I think that may, indeed, sometimes be the case.

      "I had no idea how hard it was until I tried it, and it gave me new found respect for the people who do it well."
      SO true. I read other books with awe now and think, "Wow. She can really write better than I can. She's really pretty amazing!"

  • The temptation to be envious is huge when all your friends are getting agents and book deals, but my friends are not me! There can be no envy when I write differently, with a different story and learning curve. But I only arrived at that realization after a few years 🙂

    I love the new site. Well done.

    • meghancward

      Thanks, Sierra! (about the site) And you're totally right – we're all different, all learning at different speeds, all spending a different number of hour writing each week, etc. It's silly to compare – although it's difficult not to, sometimes!

  • lindseycrittenden

    Envy is such a devious, insidious little pest. I wish I could say I've never felt it. One thing that helps me is to recall what Nelson Mandela once said about resentment, a similarly destructive all-too-human tendency: "Resentment is like drinking poison and thinking it will hurt someone else." At the same time, it helps too to laugh with another writer (or painter, or musician) about how we all, at some point, feel jealous. The trick, I suppose, is to not get stuck there. Thanks, Meghan, for raising the topic. And the new site looks great!

    • meghancward

      Thanks, Lindsey! And thanks for the great Nelson Mandela quote. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have experienced writer envy in the past, but only of people I don't know – never of someone I know in person. It's like the way we idolize movie actors until we meet them in person and realize they're just regular people like you and me.

  • Redesign looks great–although old site looked great too!

  • Julie

    LOVE the blog redesign! I always go back to the fact that we can't know the inside of anyone's journey except our own. It's easy to think some people are lucky or have it easy or got a big break, but the truth is we don't know anything about them. In addition, I've found the writing community to be nothing but generous, helpful and supportive. So if any of us writers has success, it feels like success for all of us!

    • meghancward

      I agree, Julie – writers, in general, are incredibly supportive. I think that's because most of them have struggled so much to get where they are. Thanks for stopping by!

  • I'm so happy to hear that someone else has writer envy! I thought I was alone when I cursed an article I see in the paper … that I thought about pitching. But I do try and channel that feeling and work harder to get that big break. And I agree with Stacy Jensen … very few people just sit and write a bestseller. There is hard work and re-writes and edits for everyone. Thanks so much for bringing up this topic and making me feel "normal!" And I love the red plaid 🙂

    • meghancward

      Molly – I'm sure we've all experienced writer envy. How could we not? It's what makes us human. And I'm glad you like the red plaid! I wasn't sure at first if it was too busy/bold, but I like it now. There's something writerly about it 🙂

  • Jon

    Great tips and like the site redesign. I think the slightest bit of envy isn't a bad thing. What else motivates most people to write and submit their work? I try not to practice it, of course!

    • meghancward

      Hey Jon, I just saw that Alta designed your site? Did she customize your WP blog? I don't think people are only motivated by envy. I'm motivated by wanting to make a career out of writing, to pay my bills without getting a desk job somewhere. Thanks for stopping by!

  • […] How to Combat Writer Envy, by Meghan Ward – “Do authors who get $25,000 advances get envious of the ones who […]

  • Jon

    Yes, Alta was in charge of moving me from to Neat we have a friend in common!

  • AGH I just woke up to some MORE writer envy! I am in awe of how people get their work in places like cnn or the NYT. OK … time to quit whining and get to it!

    • meghancward

      Molly – Yay for your friend! Someday it will be you! I think I still owe you a response to a previous comment about whether it's easier to get a personal essay or a service piece published in a magazine, by the way. I still don't have an answer, but will get more info soon.

      • Thanks Meghan — I really love your blog and am so thankful to see your responses to everyone's comment! And just today, an editor came to me with an assignment that is due Tuesday but I happily accepted with enthusiasm!!! And I'll look forward to more words of wisdom from you!

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