Writer’s Envy

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For most of my life, I used the words “envy” and “jealousy” interchangeably. Sometime in the last year, however, I learned that there is a distinct difference between the two emotions.

Envy is the feeling of inadequacy that one feels when faced with another person’s success or status that you wish you had.  Jealousy, on the other hand, is the inadequacy you feel when faced with the threat of losing something you already have (such as a partner or a position) to someone else.

In short, they are both crappy feelings that derive from a sense of insecurity. But they are not quite the same crappy feeling.

I learned yesterday that I friend of mine got her memoir published. I don’t mean that she got a book contract, mind you. I got an invitation to a reading and book signing event next week. So… that shit’s for real.

I want to be happy for her. On some level I think I am. She’s a wonderful person who has lived a hard life and has taken those breaks and bruises and courageously made them into art. I have loved what I have read of her manuscript in our workshops. It is funny and heartbreaking and written with stark beauty and raw power.

And yet… I am also a writer. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find I’m totally vulnerable to feeling this kind of covetous burning, but I’ve been feeling it. Envy. Ugly and viscous envy, stinking and as slow to push through as primordial pond sludge.

I’m in a lot of writing groups and I have, over the years, seen many people break through various layers of success. They land agents and book contracts. I even have another friend who is on book tour right now, as a matter of fact. I haven’t felt this way about them, though, and I’m trying to figure out why. My best guess is that those friends don’t write in my genre, so I never felt like I was competing with them in the first place.

A funny and heartbreaking memoir, on the other hand? That’s what I am going for. Maybe I feel like there are only so many of those that will get published (which is not untrue) and that gap just narrowed a bit for me.

The last time I felt this way was about four years ago, when someone I know had a play produced through a local theatre company. I knew him back in my twenties when we worked together at a large national chain bookstore. Based on that two-year experience, you should just assume that most of the people who work in bookstores are aspiring writers of one genre or another. Back then, this guy was a journalist and I was a playwright. That said, imagine my surprise when, fifteen years later, I saw in the paper that he had written a comedic play about disgruntled intellectuals working at a large bookstore during the Christmas season, which was totally a play I was totally going to get around to writing one of these decades!

It hit me like a punch, but I swallowed my pride and went to see it. (After all, didn’t Liz Gilbert warn us all about what happens when you don’t act on inspiration?) About half way through the play , there was a bit where the brainy booksellers are having a deep conversation in the break room and you hear a girl ask for back-up at the “cash/wrap.” As in, cash register and wrapping area at the front of the store. They ignore her and keep talking. The third time we hear her voice, she says, “Cashiers to the cash/wrap, for the love of God, cashiers to the cash/wrap.”

That was me! I totally did that! And it was perfect, because it made all the cranky holiday shoppers in that long-ass-line laugh, which is exactly what the moment called for. And then, once they got up to my cash register, they were so nice to me because they saw how hard I tried to get them out the door as quickly as possible.

I did get in a little trouble with my manager. I didn’t get “written up” or whatever. But he did give me one of those eye-brow defined expressions and a stern voice that said, “Not funny, Rachel,” the next time he walked by. But it was. It was really funny. In fact, it was funny enough to make it into a comedy written fifteen years later, and I don’t mind saying, it got a good laugh from the live audience.

I got home from the performance and I sent the playwright a message through Facebook, ostensibly to congratulate him on his accomplishment, but mostly to take credit for the line I contributed.

He wrote back an hour or so later to say thanks but that he didn’t remember me doing that. He kindly added that of course that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it was such a long time ago, and maybe it just lodged itself in his subconscious the way things do.

Which is, I am certain, the truth. It was not, however, what I wanted to hear. Then I switched over to his personal page to do some Facebook stalking while I was at it, because why not? I was already obsessing. Might as well do it properly.

I knew he was married to an adorable wife with an adorable toddler and had another little one on the way. The discovery I made that night was he had just surprised his little nuclear family with the world’s cutest puppy as an early Christmas gift, and the photos of his toddler and the puppy were beating me over the head like a yule log, which was quickly getting covered in blood and hair.

To add a little context, at the time my relationship status was in limbo. I was with a man who moved in with me and then had to go back to South Carolina to work things out with a property he had there, “for a little while.” That was the previous March. I held out through the summer without any clarification, and then the summer turned to fall, and the temperature steadily dropped. Suddenly, it was the holidays I was forced to accept that I had been abandoned. I wanted to break up with him and get back on the dating market, but my 1,500 square foot house was chockablock full of his shit. Not only that, he left two cars in my driveway. I tried to think of a story that would make sense to some dude that I brought back to my place to explain my excessive love of automobiles, but I hadn’t come up with a good one yet. And I needed to get laid.

In addition (and needless to say) I didn’t have a new play or a baby or a puppy or any such bundle of joy to keep my mind occupied that Christmas. I had a mortgage and abandonment issues. Also, I had the new revelation that even when I do manage to do something truly funny, I’m so forgettable that people assume that they, themselves, must have been the one to come up with it.

Oh, envy. You are so gross and mean. The worst part of that envious feeling, that ugly swamp hag trying to pull herself out of the bog feeling, is the fact that the person I was losing to wasn’t even aware that I thought I was competing with him! He was too busy reading his play reviews in the newspaper, most likely by the fireplace in a wing-backed chair with an ottoman and matching plaid robe and slippers, with the stockings hung on the mantle and robust puppy snores rumbling at his feet, like a goddamned Norman Rockwell illustration from 19 fucking 26.

Or maybe he did suspect. God, that’s actually worse. Writer’s envy is common. He must have been tuned in to it. What if there was an edge in my message that he picked up on? I wonder if my friend with the upcoming signing suspects me or any of her other writing friends of covetousness? That would make me sad.

It is a rainy afternoon and as I write this I am sitting on my couch ruminating on envy and the way it seems to come up in different situations, and I’m strangely remembering something long lost in memory.

Many years ago (though after the bookstore years), my ex-husband and I bought a house. I remember the first time my parents came to see it, I was excited to show my mother the kitchen because it had this beautiful view of the Wasatch Mountains. It also had a convection oven and a marble island and loads of counter-space, but I wasn’t thinking about those things. Not until Mom walked in, took it in, then had to walk back out to another room to hide the tears in her eyes.

My parents have lived in a Victorian house from the 1850s my entire life. My dad worked as an architect and was always “going to get around to fixing it up,” but somehow that never happened. My mom, therefore, has spent the last fifty years in a house without a functional oven, range, or dishwasher. The plumbing barely works for Chrissakes. The thing that makes me really sad, something I learned just a few years ago, was that she was still working in Oregon back in the 70s when my dad came out to Utah to look for a job and he bought the house without consulting her. By the time she saw it, they owned it. I think she hoped it would be temporary, but they still live there as I write this in late 2019.

I’m sure on some level my mother was happy for me when we moved into that beautiful house. But we can’t control the emotions that come up in those situations, any more than I can help feeling the way I do about my friend’s book. I don’t like it, though. Which is why I’m writing this: to work through the silliness of it and maybe to confess my sins. Regardless, I know I’m in the wrong. And for the record I plan to be over it soon so that I can be earnest in my elation for my friend at her reading. It is really important to me to go and help her celebrate this amazing accomplishment.

Unless she also gets a puppy. If that happens, that bitch is dead to me.