What Writers Need to Know About Envy
A look at the origins of authorial envy and what writers can do to slay the green-eyed monster.If you write, you’ve likely experienced a panic moment or a few about someone scooping your idea. You’ve probably looked at another writer’s success and wished something like that would happen to you. Maybe you’ve found yourself stewing over the success of another writer whose work is like yours. I’ve known writers who’ve lost friends after becoming successful. I’ve witnessed authors nurse wounds and hold grudges.
Though writing is not a sport, it’s certainly cutthroat enough to rank right up there with other high-stakes competitions. Anyone who’s ever written and tried to publish knows how incredibly competitive it is. The barriers to entry in traditional publishing are higher than they’ve ever been, and the chosen few who get book deals are looked upon by the culture and aspiring authors as a royal class of writers.
It’s not surprising then that envy comes up for writers. According to Psychology Today columnist Mary C. Lambia, envy is an emotion “directed at another or others, wanting their qualities, success, or possession[s],” and it stems from shame. Knowing this can allow for some helpful self-inquiry. If we can allow ourselves to go there, we can address the manifestations of shame—addiction to approval; hypersensitivity to rejection; feelings of not being good enough; taking things personally; all-or-nothing thinking—for what they really are.
The truth is that this industry will beat you down if you let it. If you’re waiting for approval, your writing dreams will wither on the vine. If you let rejections from agents and editors be the sole measure of your work, you will lose sight of what it is about writing that feeds and moves you.
I’m lucky because I work mostly with authors who choose to green-light their own work, sometimes because those aforementioned barriers are so hard to penetrate, and sometimes because they’re preemptively taking themselves out of the game altogether. As a result, I’m able to see authors letting go of envy. Something beautiful happens to authors who decide to green-light themselves. Because they’re choosing themselves—and opting in rather than allowing rejection to sideline their dreams—they find the access to inner courage and self-validation that results in the dissolution of envy.This is not to say that envy won’t ever pop up again. In one of her Big Magic podcasts, Elizabeth Gilbert talked about the envy she felt when reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. In her transparent, self-deprecating way, Gilbert was endearing when she confessed her fear that she’d never be able to write prose like Tartt. But then she confronted her envy, reminding herself that she had something to strive for. She had not yet fully arrived, and that was okay—maybe even a good thing. The message for aspiring writers was inspiring: if Elizabeth Gilbert feels this way, we can all turn our envy into motivation to improve our craft.
On a webinar with Dani Shapiro, author of the memoir Hourglass and many other books, I asked her about envy. Her reply was compassionate but firm: “Envy is a waste of energy for writers. No one can tell your story. Do the work.” This advice may be difficult to heed if you’re up to your eyeballs in envy, but if that’s the case, you need to find ways to reframe—and fast.
I take inspiration from children. I recall the time my six-year-old son participated in a karate tournament recently. He was still getting the hang of things, and he was a runner-up. He got a medal for his effort, and he was beaming with pride while other kids received their third-, second-, and first-place trophies. Loud applause erupted after the little ceremony, and I’d never seen him grin so broadly. When he found me in the audience, he looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Next time I want to get a trophy!”
This was a reminder that the best kind of competition is against yourself. My son might earn a trophy next time if he improves enough to best the other kids. And the same is true in our writing. We will not get ahead by envying others’ success. We might think others’ success is unmerited or unfair, and sometimes that is the case. What can we do about all that? Nothing but work on our craft and be honest about what’s coming up.
Naming envy is one way to let it go, so be like Elizabeth Gilbert and fess up. Putting your head down and getting to work is another way to let go of envy. So be like Shapiro and discover how freeing it is to fully acknowledge what a waste of time envy is. And finally there’s inner confidence, which is ours for the taking, so be like my son and embrace how awesome it is to be a runner-up, with your eye on the long game and the future yours for the taking.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching, and author of Green-Light Your Book and What’s Your Book?
Note: this article was originally published in April 2017 and was updated on July 19, 2019.