Tuesday, May 01, 2007

On the Path

By Amy

As an unpublished writer, there’s the tendency to look around and mourn for other peoples’ successes.

There was a time many years ago when a woman I knew was awash in international sales, over-the-top reviews, big dollar movie deals. Everywhere I turned her face was plastered on some media. A lonely Friday at Blockbuster was made worse when an ad for her movie simultaneously screamed from each of the six televisions – such a bouncy soundtrack! -- and the video-case display took up an entire wall. There were even posters with the words, “based on the novel by…” Sigh.

I’m a better writer, I fumed. Her book is predictable, how hard could it have been to write? Mine were the thoughts of a green-eyed fool.

I remember later this woman telling me how she’d been afraid she would change with success and how utterly unprepared she was to find the people around her had changed more.
As I choked down my slice of humble pie, I began to understand that her success wasn’t my failure. It’s said that we learn more from our mistakes than our accomplishments, and it’s true. I’m glad to have had the experience of being the bad guy in my own silly drama.

Know this: We writers are not competing against one another. Even within the same genre, even while jockeying for position on the same bestseller list, it doesn’t matter how our writing compares to another’s, what his advance was and yours wasn’t. What matters is how our writing compares with our own best effort. I’m satisfied that today I wrote as well as I could. Tomorrow, I expect to do better. It doesn’t matter how poorly written or inexplicably brilliant another’s book is, how much attention it receives from the New York Times Review of Books and Oprah herself. The awards don’t much matter. Frankly, it doesn’t matter anymore how well-regarded my own work is by any critic, any where. I must first satisfy my own standards: write well, write often, write with intention and joy. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

It’s a relief to be rid of the horrifying creep of envy. I’m ecstatic when I get a call or email from a friend telling me of her significant deal or glowing review or third printing. Their successes wholly belong to them, I understand that, but as a writer, I find myself basking along with them, knowing they’ve just scored one for the team. For me, though, I don’t expect to find an abiding sense of accomplishment once I’ve published a book, done the tour, glowed under some imagined set of klieg lights.

It’s the getting there I find dazzling.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the treatise on a writer's envy. As an unpublished writer who knows published authors, I do celebrate their successes. You're right--the real joy is in writing just for the sake of writing. One day it will be us reporting the book auction or third printing.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Maia, I've no doubt. Congratulations in advance. Onward and upward!


Lisa said...

This post complements Lisa’s post from yesterday beautifully! I don’t think it’s possible for a writer or artist not to pull out a mental yardstick and make comparisons between our own work and that of others, particularly those who’ve been successful. I, too find myself celebrating all those who have worked so hard for their achievements. There is room enough in the world for all our voices and yours has a wonderful melody I find myself humming to throughout the day.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

You ladies really do have a knack for tackling topics when I most need to hear them. That nagging voice of jealousy lurks in all of us, I think, and when it starts nattering on to me I shush it by knowing that another's success brings in more readers for all of us. And then I get busy and write--and discover the beauty and wonder in the lives flowing out on the paper before me and I realize how lucky I am to know them (first!) and to be part of this larger community of writers.

Larramie said...

It is the journey, along with those you meet along the way, that changes your life...not the book sale or even publication. The latter are public "successes," which can never measure up to the joy of self-satisfaction.

Your public debut is inevitable, Amy, because you've already found the joy and it shines brilliantly through your writing -- including your charming notes.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Oh, Lisa, thank you. It's true about that yardstick, though I think it grows with each success, "If I could just get the agent I want then I'd be happy. If I could just get the advance I want, the press, the reviews, the sales..."

Judy, isn't it funny that you've attained all of these goals and still that voice natters on? Maybe we're confusing envy with ambition?

Larramie, I don't cry easily, but your words brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for your kindness and support. It means everything.


Therese Fowler said...

Envy is so interesting, isn't it? I confess to having had fits of it myself a time or two.

But I never let it be personal. I've envied the achievements/good fortune/earnings of other writers but not with negativity in my heart.

When I feel that envy, it gets transformed into ambition. It fuels my drive to write better, truer, to earn my own grand successes.

And with each small success I am dazzled. It's exactly as you say. The joy for me is in the doing, not the having.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Therese, I refuse to believe that those riddled with petty jealousies get ahead in this world (I know it's true, but humor me), but that those who've learned to transform envy to yearning to ambition are the ones who achieve their dreams.

Anonymous said...

Another unpublished writer here, who is currently half insane due to the WIP.
I have never felt jealousy on behlf of another's success. Envy perhaps, at those whose beautiful words inspire me to want to write like them. Call it my Holy Grail.

I am all for the big advance and public adulation, but inside my heart I really long for admiration from my peers. Writers like you. Now that would be a buzz.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Reality, have you read Kiran Desai's "Inheritance of Loss?" Each sentence sings, accompanied by its own melody. Definitely something to admire. Please let us know where your journey takes you andwe'll buzz alongside you.


kristen spina said...

Reality's comments really struck a chord with me. The great public success is certainly a part of the dream, but what keeps me writing day after day, in the face of one rejection after another, is the encouragement I get from my peers. When a writer I admire and respect reads something of mine and says, "you must keep going," it is like I've been handed a pot of gold.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I know exactly how you feel. When I receive letters or email from people who've read or heard my commentaries, it's a surreal experience to think people are actually listening to what I have to say. Sounds like you're on the path, Kristen.


Anonymous said...

Hi Amy and Kristen
I have not read The Inheritance of Loss, so far. I intend to do so pretty soon. Coincidently I am reading a book by Kiran Desai's mother Anita Desai.

I'll shout, jump and dance when I or you succeed and we'll bzzzzzzz together.

Anonymous said...

Over a desk I keep a quote from Liam Clancy:

"No fear. No envy. No meanness."

Whenever I feel a twinge of the negative emotions, one quick glance at my personal mantra brings me to my senses.


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

What a perfect quote, Patry. Thanks for sharing it and I just may tape up a copy myself. Whenever I feel the creep of envy, I think, "you're competing against your own best self." It's all I have.


Mia King said...

Oh, I love Patry's quote. Pat Wood is also so great at encouraging writers to help one another.

This is a tough business, but unlike other jobs, there is a raw, vulnerable part that seems to get set off when we see others' successes. It evokes all sorts of self-doubt and control-freakish tendencies (Should I have done more? Could I have done more? Does anybody love me?). I think now that writing is one of the best spiritual practices we can ever have - it teaches you to stay with yourself, to pay attention to your own measure, not somebody else's.

Of course, that's all fine and dandy until your best friend unexpectedly hits the New York Times bestseller list, so I do think it's an ongoing practice! ;-)

I think it helps to be honest about our vulnerabilities, to look at the sources of those vulnerabilities, and to say that it's okay to want more - it's usually not that we want less for the other person so much as wanting more of it for us. And I think that's okay. It's okay to want more love in your life, to want more money, to want more success. But it doesn't mean that someone else has to have less in order for us to get it. I believe there's plenty to go around, and we just have to let go of the old competitive model and move towards one that's more collaborative. It feels better and it's a heck of a lot more fun!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Okay, Mia, you should ahve written this blog. Well said! It's so, so important for writers to be ambitious -- this is a business -- but that doesn't translate into being envious. It will only pain the person who feels it.

And look at you, a THIRD printing of Good Things? I'm (truly) thrilled for you. And boy, do I have a killer chocolate truffle cake recipe for you. Maybe for the next one?