Envy and professional jealousy are an occupational hazard for writers – as, indeed, for any creative. The arts are an insecure business; most creatives are wracked with self-doubt, and it can feel like you are in constant competition for a dwindling reserve of paid gigs, audience attention and market presence. You put your heart and soul into something for years and it falls flat, while some upstart seems to emerge from nowhere overnight and be lauded with prizes. Yup, it sucks – and it can drive you mad, if you let it. But it can also spur you on to greater success, if you learn from it.
Their highlight reel vs your full-length movie
It’s a cliché cause it’s true: unless you know them very well, you only tend to see the highlights of other people’s lives. Most ‘overnight’ successes have, if you look closely, a lengthy track record of slog before their breakthroughs; almost every creative you know will have a pile of rejection letters, failed or abandoned projects, and plenty of long nights of the soul behind every shiny success. You don’t know what is going on behind the scenes, so comparing yourself to others who may be at very different stages in their journey will just make you unhappy.
Sometimes the grass really is greener, but you still have to mow your own lawn
However, it’s a brutal but rarely acknowledged truth that sometimes people – including, if you hang around other creatives, people you know well, who are operating in similar fields – will just be more successful than you. They will win the gig or the prize you had your heart set on, they will be raking it in when you are broke, and they will be in the spotlight when you are struggling on the sidelines. And of course, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But choke it down you must, or you will drown in your own bitterness. The fact is, you can spend your life peering enviously over your neighbour’s fence, or you can get on with tending your own garden.
Reframe other’s success
It’s easy when you’re surrounded by successful people who work in similar fields to be eaten away by comparison. ‘I’m such a failure compared to my friends!’ Or, you could look at it another way: ‘Wow, look at me, hanging out with the cool and successful people!’. That makes you more fun to be around, is better for your ego, and maximises the chance that when you do hit it big, you’ll still have some people willing to celebrate your turn in the spotlight.
Ask yourself – what is it you really envy here? And can you get even a little bit of it?
It’s easy to see someone wreathed in laurels and feel a bitter pang of envy. Hell, it’s natural. But it can also be a learning moment. Take a minute to go beyond the ‘it’s alright for them!’ and ask: what is it you are actually jealous about? And what can you learn from that? If you are seething because someone just won the Booker and you are still struggling to get past page one, maybe this can be a kick up the arse to get the damn thing finished. If you are jealous that someone writes full time and you can barely squeeze in 15 minutes a day, ask yourself how you can make more time? It might involve sacrifices – going part-time at work, getting up earlier, giving up your Netflix habit – but it is rarely impossible. If it’s that they get to go to cool parties and swish events, is there another way you can fulfil that need – even if it’s by taking a step as dramatic as changing your job or developing a hobby that puts you at least in proximity to where you want to be. Sometimes, envy can be an arrow, pointing you in the direction you want to go.
Collaboration, not competition
Create a network where you are invested in others’ success, and they in yours. Sure, Neil Gaiman probably isn’t going to hire you to illustrate his next book anytime soon, but there must be somebody in your circle you can work with? It can be someone in the same field, or related, but having someone else on your team can make everything feel less of a slog. This may mean actually creating something together (such a writer and artist collaborating on a graphic novel, working with actors to put on a play) or it can mean using someone’s services so you end up with effective cross-selling (for instance, your cover designer will likely be keen to showcase their work on their own sites, as the more successful your book is, the better for them). Even the most successful person in a traditionally solo profession like writing will have a team behind them – an editor, agent, publisher, whoever. Seeing it as a team effort, where everybody’s success is good for everyone else, is a win-win.
Celebrate small victories
You envy other people – but are you ignoring your own successes? I know I am horribly guilty of this: of dismissing anything positive (a great review, a royalty cheque, a commission, someone saying the loveliest thing about my books on social media) with a toxic, ‘that’s lovely, but…’. But I’m still not rich and famous. But I still have debts, and doubts. But I still struggle.
Meanwhile, all the pleasures I think I am working for are going by unnoticed, and I am ignoring the vast amount of things I actually should be grateful for! (I was recently at a book launch and, at a bit of a low par generally, was getting myself into a twist about how I envied the author. I wanted to have a mainstream publisher and a fancy book launch, and I wanted cool author friends at my launch*. So I was having a proper mope. Then I got chatting to the author, and it turned out that she was still working full-time, and she was properly awestruck by me blithely asserting I freelanced and worked for myself. ‘God, I wish I could do that!’ (I felt so guilty at my churlishness I immediately went and bought one of her books.) So, let my terribleness be a lesson: wherever you are in your journey, someone is envious of you.
(*I have had a book launch – it was very swish, in a fancy art gallery. I have cool author friends. Jealousy ain’t always rational, folks.)
Change the damn world
Sometimes, professional envy comes with a side order of righteous indignation. Because not only are some people just more successful, and luckier, the game itself is rigged, and an awful lot of success rides on privilege as much as luck or talent. In almost all fields, women are less likely to get published, reviewed, have their work staged or produced, featured in ‘best of lists’, nominated for awards, or invited onto panels. People of colour, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people and working class people all face barriers that are unimaginable to the white middle classes that dominate most creative industries. And that is bloody unfair.
So instead of just being jealous, get angry, and use that as fuel. Check out, support and maybe even join some of the organisations pushing for change (Critics of Colour, Act for Change, Common). Set up your own group. Tackle your own prejudices – buy books by underrepresented authors, see plays by new playwrights who don’t fit the old ‘male, pale and stale’ mode, bung a fiver in a Kickstarter that’s doing something different. Bitterness is a paralytic but, to quote the old song, anger is an energy: use it wisely, and you can infuse your own work with purpose while also helping others.
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Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues
Paranormal adventure with snark and sexiness: Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1
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