How to Resuscitate an Envy-Ridden Writing Life

Sometimes Envy shows up when we're writing, and everyone else's successes poison our work. It's a bad feeling. A bad cycle. Here's how to step out of it. |

If we're going to talk about celebrations this month--and we totally are!--then we need to talk about the big, oily vulture that camps in front of the party store, glowering at everyone.

You might have met him. His name is Envy.

... Yes, I realize how goofy that metaphor sounds. Here's something a lot less goofy:

If you're letting Envy hang out in your writing life, you're poisoning your work environment, your work-in-progress, and your imagination. And you definitely won't be celebrating much.

It's BAD NEWS, is what I'm saying.

Kinda makes a vulture metaphor sound cute in comparison.

Envy is a pretty easy companion to pick up. It slips in without you really knowing it. 

Here's how it found me: I was doing my work, minding my own business. Learning about the writing life, learning how to write novels. I realized how good I wanted to be, and how far I still had to go to get there.

The "apprenticeship" phase of my writing life has taken a lot longer than I ever expected. I can now say that's a good thing, but while I was courting envy, I really REALLY couldn't see that.

Meanwhile, everyone else I knew sprinted past me. 

Former classmates, who I didn't think could even speak whole sentences clearly, began writing books and were apparently having much more fun than I was. The next publishing phenomenon was the same age I was when I started writing. 

I was even irritated by the non-writers: They were getting promotions, moving up career ladders, earning secondary degrees, traveling to every continent.

It seemed like everyone else was successful: And I felt like I was actually getting dumber. Losing my grip on words. And kind of generally hating everyone. 

Some days it was hard to get out of bed.

And that's when I realized that, hey, I wasn't alone in my writing work anymore. I had this huge stinking vulture keeping me company, clicking its talons on my desk and grinning at me. (Vultures can grin. I just decided that.)

Get the picture? It's an ugly one. 

And when there's a vulture on your writing desk, well then. It's pretty obvious why you're not hanging balloons in your study, stringing up banners, baking cakes, and giving yourself and your writing life party favors.

Envy is the anti-party. The total opposite of celebration.

Look. I get it. I'm kind of making light of it here, but when you're really stuck in this cycle of envying others' successes, and hating your own work, things look pretty bleak. The reasons to not celebrate are everywhere. 

And there's a pretty big trend of writers hanging out in frustration and sadness and depression. How many stories have you heard of writers wallpapering their offices, bedrooms, or bathrooms with the rejections that they received? 

Can I just go ahead and say: that is the WORST idea for wallpaper I have ever heard.

I know, I know. I'm probably getting kicked out of all the writing clubs for saying that. But SERIOUSLY. Staying surrounded with failure? (Even if you're being very grown-up about it and not seeing it as failure... or pretending you don't see it as failure...) 

Can we just NOT DO THAT.

Because I have a much, much much better idea for wallpaper. 

It is backbone-strengthening, vulture-banishing, and probably a lot prettier than those form rejections.

Also: it just might get you out of your envy cycle. Yes, you. Yes, really.

But it does take a tiny commitment on your part: You have to get some paper (any kind of paper!) and a writing instrument (any kind! it's your wallpaper after all: what do you want to look at?). 

Okay, got it? Here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna make some lists.

About what we're grateful for.

No, don't roll your eyes at me. I get it: Gratitude is having a moment right now, and if the gratitude posts on Facebook from the writers you know are what got you into this mess, then I'd say very lovingly that you need to get off Facebook for a while.

Seriously. The vulture LOVES it when you go on Facebook. Take a break.

Gratitude is our anti-poison. The antidote to envy.

Envy blinds us to what is good, right now, right here, in our writing lives as they are. Gratitude fights back, by lighting up what we know. Showing the truth. It helps us see clearly again. 

So are you ready? Here's the first one: 

Start by making a big list of words you like.

Let's celebrate words! They can be your favorites, or they can be ones you like the sound of right now. They can have lovely definitions and etymologies, like gossamer, or they can be comic-book words, Dr. Seuss words, like zap and kerfuffle and pow.

Okay? Take at least five minutes. Fill as many pages as you can. Go, go, go!

Yes, you really have to. You can't just think these words: it doesn't work like that. You're a writer with a case of the Envies: you get out of it by writing. I promise.

(If you can't think of a single word you like, run grab a dictionary--yes, a real dictionary--and just flip through the pages. Take some time. Get acquainted with words. The weird ones, the prickly ones, the impossibly long scientific jumbles of suffixes and prefixes, the simple little two-letter ones. Fall in love with words again.)

Done with that one? Okay, here's your next: 

List the best moments you've ever had as a reader. All those times when you fell in love with a story, a setting, a character's voice. The moments when the writer was actually writing about you somehow, and you nearly fell off your chair when you read it. THOSE moments. 

Just capture those times, quick and fast, just a few words for each one will do. It's not for other people to read, it's for you, just to remember those wonderful times when someone else's words transformed you.

Okay? Good.

(If you can't think of any times when you loved reading, then go put your face into a bookstore, a library, SOMEWHERE where you can browse books, open them at random, find a new one that you love.)

Here's the last one. The trickiest, and yet the most important:

What do you love about the writing life? 

If that's too complicated, let's switch the question: What do you like about the writing life? What might you appreciate about it--you know, on a good day? What are the good places?

Is it the buzz of a new idea, just at the moment when you realize it will be your next story? The hole-in-one feeling when you finally get the right name for that one character? The dialogue exchange you wrote, and you felt like you were taking dictation, and not like you were thinking at all?

Maybe it's the writing tools you love--watching ink seep into paper, or text fly across a once-blank screen. Maybe you like the feel of a book in your hand. Or writing in a truly lovely leather journal.

Try to get as many things down as you can. Try for a dozen. If you can't get to a dozen, try at least six. If you can't get to six, try for two.

Write down at least one good thing about the writing life. One good thing.

And put it above your desk. Put it where you'll see it.

And then add to it, every day. 

Make it as easy for yourself as possible. Go basic. Go simple. But this is part of how I crawled out of envy, how I lost my vulture writing companion:

I figured out what was good. And I wrote it down. 

So, what about you? Did you do it? Did you make your three lists? How did it go?

Keep them handy. And try to add to them whenever you can. Read them over to encourage yourself.

We writers need to remember our love of words, our love of stories, and our love of this chosen vocation. Yes?

Because we survive the dark places in the writing life by feeding what is good. Writing them down. Turning them into wallpaper.

Focusing on the good has been one of the best ways for me to turn around my ugliest writing moods. That and, you know, chocolate.

Use 'em both. Use 'em often. Whenever you suspect a vulture approaching.