Anne Lamott is the only writer I know who addresses envy in a writing book. Yet it’s present in almost every fictional treatment of writers. And then there is the famous verse, The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered, although I suppose that’s more properly filed under schadenfreude.
Here’s what I think about envy. Envy is corrosive. Envy fills you with little holes. When you are envious, no matter how much success and love and money you have, it will all seep out of you. To be envious is to choose to be miserable.
And yet it is so easy to envy. Natural, too, I suppose. Perhaps even Darwinian. The world’s resources are finite. If someone’s getting something — a big contract, a great review, an award — then it is logical to conclude that is one less contract, review, award for you. But I don’t think anyone can afford to think that way.
In the spirit of honesty, however, I will admit that I have wrestled with envy. For me, it’s interesting to see people whose success seems to come swiftly, especially at a young age. I wonder what it would be like to be someone who’s hailed as a brilliant writer from the start (or, really, at all). I hate to write “I can’t imagine” — shouldn’t a novelist be able to imagine just about anything? — but it definitely takes effort for me to imagine what it’s like to write a book like THE HELP. Or even to write a short story as wise and lovely as “Goodbye, Columbus,” published when Roth was in his 20s.
My solution? Transform your envy into admiration. It is surprisingly easy. After all, if you don’t admire someone, why would you envy them in the first place?
In the summer of 2008, I sat down with a manuscript by a young writer I admire. I planned to read only a few chapters that evening — blurbing, no matter how good the book, usually feels like homework — but it was literally a book I could not put down. When I finished it, I was giddy with how good it was. I knew I could not write a book like the one in my hands. There was a sophistication of style I did not think I could ever emulate. It also was a historical novel, steeped in research, something that doesn’t come naturally to me.
That book, Megan Abbott’s BURY ME DEEP, has now been nominated for the Edgar, the Hammett and the LA Times Book Award. It may be the first novel ever to be nominated for all three, but I am too lazy to do the research. (And I will note that Val McDermid, also nominated for the LA Times award this year, was nominated for the Edgar and won the first-ever LA Times mystery-thriller award in 2001, but she can’t be nominated for the Hammett because it’s limited to North American writers.) My hunch is that other nominations will follow. It was one of two books that I expected to see on short lists this year.*
What would I gain by envying Megan? I mean, other than an ulcer? And think of all I would lose — the pure pleasure of watching someone deserving do well. Well, what about the undeserving folks? I can’t think of anyone less worthy of envy. You can’t envy someone you don’t admire because IMHO to envy is to want to be someone.
Something else I really have trouble imagining? That anyone could envy me. Oh, I know I’m lucky, that I have the tremendous good fortune to make my living as a novelist. I accept that such a thing is enviable, but it’s impossible to imagine my life as enviable. And that’s another way to deal with envy: If you cannot imagine someone envying you, then you immediately see why it’s futile to envy someone else. Not only futile. But hurtful. To you.
By the way, the title of today’s entry is a riff on a novel by a writer who excites a lot of envy because of his age.
*Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places