The Green-Eyed Writer

In Shakespeare’s Othello, the villain Iago speaks the following famous lines:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

Nice phrase for jealousy, “the green-eyed monster.” I’m jealous I didn’t come up with it myself.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: jealousy. It affects all writers (or at least, it affects all the writers I’m personally acquainted with, including me). We know it’s not a good thing; we know we should simply celebrate other writers’ successes, without wishing they were our own.

But writers are human. And humans get jealous. And this blog is about open and frank discussion of the writing life, so I think it’s important to acknowledge the role jealousy plays in that life.

I was stunned when I was told recently that several writers whom I know personally were jealous of me. The source of their jealousy was apparently that I have a new book out right now, as well as another book coming out next year. According to my source, these writers wondered why I was the one getting the book deals and they weren’t.

But you know, I didn’t have long to feel superior to my benighted peers. Because a few weeks later, I attended a talk with several writers I consider friends, and two of them announced that they’re currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

And man, was I ever jealous.

Why couldn’t I be the one on the list? Weren’t my books good enough? For that matter, why wasn’t I the one invited to give the talk instead of them? While I was genuinely happy for my friends, I found at the same time that I wanted what they had.

If I ever do make the list, I’ll probably feel jealous of those who’ve been on it longer.

Jealousy isn’t all bad. It’s one of the things that makes us strive to succeed. But it also has the capacity to destroy friendships, to twist our perception of ourselves and others, to stifle creativity and foment mimicry, and ultimately, as Shakespeare recognized, to swallow joy. It might be natural—organisms are hard-wired to compete with others of their own kind—but it can’t be allowed to take over.

So here’s my advice for controlling the green-eyed monster.

First, acknowledge that feelings of jealousy are normal. Don’t add to the negativity by telling yourself you’re the worst moral degenerate who’s ever lived. Allow yourself to be imperfect, like the rest of us.

Second, celebrate what you have achieved. Maybe you’ve finished a manuscript. Or gotten a nibble from an agent. Or been asked to sit on a panel. Whatever it might be, it’s worth celebrating. Your achievements are not less than anyone else’s; they’re just different than.

Third, when your writer-friends achieve successes of their own, go out of your way to congratulate them. Spread the word about their accomplishments. Enthusiastically review their books. Offer heartfelt toasts at their launch parties. They deserve it, just as you do.

None of these strategies is foolproof. Deep down, you might not be able to avoid the pangs of jealousy. But you can avoid letting those feelings eat you up inside.

Which reminds me: I’m off to tweet about my friends who’ve made the bestseller list. The last time I checked my eyes in the mirror, they were still mostly brown.

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