Catriona writes: I've just got back from three days in San Francisco, at the American Library Association Annual Conference (+ Pride). High emotion, high caffeine, high engagement, and all in a cavernous convention centre. I'm exhausted and that might be why Lori Rader Day's guest post here on making use of envy has just made me cry big fat tears. Read on and let me know if you get a lump in your throat too. (And make sure to check out the giveaway of Lori's terrific second novel, LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, at the end.)
Envy may be a deadly sin, but it’s always worked for me.
When I was writing my new mystery, Little Pretty Things, about young women friends estranged over a contest they both lost, I had the opportunity to think about the nature of competition a great deal. I didn’t have to dig all that deep to find a source for those feelings because I’m a competitive person. I wish I could wave my hand and direct your attention elsewhere, but there it is. I am. It’s unseemly to admit it, but probably worse to lie about it.
It’s probably tasteless to have this conversation at all, but can we agree that envy is a potential hazard in writing and publishing? It doesn’t matter how many books you write, how many copies you sell, how many awards you win. Someone else will have already been there, done that and also bought the beach house with their royalties.
The great thing about the mystery community is that writers are actually very generous with one another. My theory is that we realize how voracious our audience is. There’s always room for another mystery author at the table because, as many great mystery novels as there already are, mystery readers want more.
Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t find things to covet. On a bad writing day, when your measly word count took all your internal organs with it on the way out, you can check in with Facebook and find someone who’s just typed “the end” on her manuscript, someone else who just got another foreign edition deal to a country you’ve never even heard of, and someone else listing off one more award nomination (sorry).
So even though I’m not yet a recovering coveter of other people’s naturally curly hair or summerhouse in Maine, I’ve come to understand two things about envy. The first is that you can be envious of someone’s achievement and still be happy for them. We call these people grown-ups.
This one’s not hard, and it’s basically required as a writer. It’s not just a growth opportunity. To adopt this policy means that you can get on with your own work and your own sanity.
This is how I learned the lesson. In 2006, one of my closest friends from high school published a book. A good book. Christopher Coake and I always wanted pretty much the same thing out of life—only he had put in the time and the effort to make it happen and I hadn’t. On the day I went to the bookstore to buy his book, I hadn’t written a word of fiction in five years.
I could have continued being happy/being jealous. Instead, I turned the joy for my friend into book sales for him, and I turned the envy portion into fuel to get myself sorted out. It took a little time, but in 2014, my first novel, The Black Hour, was published.
So the second thing I have come to believe about envy is that it can be useful.
Maybe I was a life coach in a past life—and you can hate me appropriately—but why not turn the feelings I should be ashamed into action? Envy of what others have achieved, shame, regrets. These feelings seem like secrets we should keep hidden away, and I would never say that bad feelings should be encouraged. But if you’re going to have them anyway, why not figure out a way to spin them into gold while you’re busy forgiving yourself for them?
How do you learn from your envy? When someone else’s achievement pings your sense of hey-what-about-me, give it a good, close look. Do you actually want the thing they have? No? Then what is it about their move forward that drives you wild? Is it perhaps only that they have moved forward and you haven’t? If you can examine the green monster in the light of day, you might find your own path forward and a next step to get moving. Make sure the next time you feel that pang of resentment, the “under construction” sign is already up. You’re already hard at work on your own goals.
And you probably already have a lot worth celebrating yourself—remember that. There’s no race. There’s no finish line. In all the ways that count, we’re all on the same team.
Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014), received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second mystery, Little Pretty Things, is out in July. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago with her husband and spoiled dog and is active in the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.
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