Dealing with Envy

If envy turned you green, there are days I would look like a cucumber.

At the moment, I’m reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. In it, she talks about how difficult writing is: how you sit down each morning in front of the blank page, and you have to fill it. She describes her writing routine, which involves writing in the morning, revising in the afternoon, in a room of her house in rural Connecticut. And I find myself envying her.

This is what my writing routine looked like yesterday: In the morning, I got up and prepared for class, which involved grading the papers I had not gotten to the night before. I went over my lesson plan, made sure I knew what I would be talking about that day. Then I taught my morning class. Back for lunch and to drop off my laptop. Then I taught my two afternoon classes. Then I went directly to physical therapy — usually I would have office hours, but it was the only time this week I could schedule an appointment, so I moved my office hours to another day. The physical therapy helps me so much — makes it so much easier for me to do my teaching and writing — that I don’t want to miss a week. Being able to write without back pain is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

Then I had time to run to the grocery store for oatmeal and sugar, and when I got back, it was time to Skype with one of my graduate students. Then dinner. Then a bath. And then, finally then, at about 9 p.m., I sat down in front of my computer, honestly feeling a sense of despair because I had not been able to write for about a week — all the other days had been even busier. Finally, I had time to write, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to.

But I started anyway, because one of my mottoes is “Do it anyway.” So I started, and then I was up writing until midnight, because once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I need to get back to novel revisions, but first I need to finish all the administrative work that one is given at the beginning of any semester. I’m almost done, but in the meantime, I wanted to write something else to clear my head — so I’m writing a fairy tale, called “Red as Blood and White as Bone.”

But envy . . . I envy other writers their time, their space, their financial resources. Their awards.

The way I’ve found to deal with envy is to tell myself, quite sternly, “All right, you can have everything she has. But you have to be her. Do you want to be her?” And when I think about it, I realize that I don’t. Do I want to be Dani Shapiro? No. She seems lovely, but no. Her childhood was a mess, and while my childhood was a mess too, at least it was my childhood, my mess. Would I have wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence, then get married and live in rural Connecticut? Sure, I hated law school, and sure, it was difficult getting through my PhD. But the furniture of my mind includes Alan Dershowitz and Derrida, and I would not trade that furniture. Not even for more comfortable furniture.

I want to be the writer I am, not the writer she is, even if that means being less successful. Even if it means working very hard, and being tired all the time. And trying, day after day, to find the time to write . . .

There is a day, in the life of every writer, when you realize that you have to cut your own path through the forest. That day, you look at the trees in front of you, and you feel your heart sink with despair. Because you just don’t think you can do it.

And then, you start to do it anyway. One tree at a time, one word at a time.

Bay 4

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14 Responses to Dealing with Envy

  1. I know this sort of envy only too well.

  2. I envy your ability to sit and write from nine till midnight, not being able to stop because the flow is so good.

    • Elizabeth, I’ve learned that when you have to do something, you do it . . . In some ways, it’s a good thing that I have to fit writing in whenever I can, because it means that I’ve had to learn to write pretty efficiently. But of course it had its downside as well! Like, less writing overall.

  3. Thank you – this was a shot in the arm. I am not alone!

  4. Amber says:

    This is so funny because I’ve envied you! I discovered you after reading a brilliant short story in an online magazine that rejected me. You get to travel all over and take beautiful pictures and your obnoxiously beautiful hair! You truly get on my nerves with your wonderful life. I’m in school to become a teacher (after 10 years of meaningless jobs), but I’ve still got a long way to go, but you’re teaching effortlessly then going grocery shopping. You might envy others but I envy you and your perfectly organic blog. 🙂

    • Awww, thank you. 🙂 I try to remind myself of how very, very lucky I am, and that other people probably envy the things I have, just as I envy the things they have. It’s like a big, green, vicious circle!

  5. HJS says:

    You’re familiar with Journey? Yes, I know you are:
    “. . . Strangers waiting
    Up and down the boulevard
    Their shadows searching in the night
    Streetlight people
    Living just to find emotion
    Hiding somewhere in the night
    Don’t stop believin’
    Hold on to that feelin’
    Streetlights people
    Don’t stop! . . .”
    ——Journey – Don’t Stop Believin’

    Your emotions speak the truth. Don’t let anybody take your dreams away. Don’t ever give up on your dreams. Your dreams are not giving up on you!

  6. What a joy to read this. I too was jealous about anybody who (1) Made it through
    college having enough money to graduate as I didn’t until I was 30 (2) Divorce
    and suddenly a single mother who needs a job that will work out while advocating for
    my head injured son and not much time to write (3) Feeling I was falling behind,
    always.

    Then I too had that flash, would I want any other’s life? Oh no. No childhood love
    of fairy tales and miracles and living a while in an enchanted forest. No wonderful
    friends, people I cherish and would not have if I were some-one else. My horse,
    my cats, my imagination, planning to turn into stories and poems that could be
    only mine.

    I am now retired and all I wished for has been granted as if some fairy godmother
    Or father woke up, snapped magic fingers, waved wands, and I am now so much
    better off, with a bundle of a past that is mine and full of stories and poems. And
    (blush) some prizes and publication here and there.

  7. Emily Gilman says:

    Thank you for this! My strategy for myself, especially when I’m envying someone for something artistic (a story, a musical performance, etc.) has lately been to find the way in which it is different from what I would want to make (or would involve more practicing than I’ve ever wanted to do). I hadn’t thought to extend “Would I really want to make what that person made?” to “Would I really want to be the person who would want to make that?” but I think it’s a useful way to think about it, especially since it combines the reaction to writing envy (“Well, yes, but I wouldn’t actually want to write that story, or I’d write it totally differently”) and the reaction to musician envy (“Well, yes, but I don’t actually want to practice that much, or have to spend large chunks of my life on tour away from my friends and family”) very neatly.

  8. maeryrose says:

    Loved the post and the comments. I’m in the crowd of envying you. Well, and almost anyone who is younger than me and published while I struggle at the age of 57 with enough written pages to fill a room, but nothing to show for the time I’ve spent. Except maybe the skills I’ve earned a long the way. I work on a computer about 50 hours a week in the computer field. Yawn. Facing a computer screen on my off-time is my challenge. I still believe that the book I’m working on will get done and it will be good. And if no one reads it? I will still have learned and grown so much by writing it. Thanks for opening this topic!

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