DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #69: We Are All Savages Inside

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Dear Sugar,

I’m jealous. I’m jealous of people who succeed at what I do (write literary fiction). I’m jealous of them even if I love them or like them or respect them. Even when I pretend to be happy when my writer friends get good news, the truth is I feel like I swallowed a spoonful of battery acid. For days afterwards I go around feeling queasy and sad, silently thinking why not me?

So why not, Sugar? I’m 31. I’ve written a novel that I’m currently revising while searching for an agent (which is turning out to be more difficult than I imagined). I received a first-rate education, holding a BA from a prestigious college and an MFA from another prestigious college. Several people in my social and literary orbit have gotten the sort of five and six-figure book deals that I dream of getting. A couple of these people are jerks, so I don’t feel guilty for resenting their good fortune, but a few of them are good people whom I like and respect and, worst of all, one is a woman I count among my very best friends.

It makes me sick that I don’t feel happy for them, especially when it comes to my close friend, but there it is. When I think of their successes, it only reminds me of what I don’t have. I want what they have, but it’s more than that: them having what I want pains me. When other writer friends are met with failure (rejections from agents or publishing houses, for example), I admit I feel a tiny lift inside. The feeling is more relief than glee—you know that old saying about misery enjoying company? I don’t truly wish others bad. But neither do I honestly wish them well.

I know this makes me a shallow, awful person. I know I should be grateful that I have a decent job that allows me time to write, good friends, wonderful parents who are supportive of me both emotionally and financially (they paid my tuition for the above mentioned colleges and have helped me in countless other ways), and a generally great life. But I find it impossible to focus on these things when I hear the news that another friend or acquaintance or former grad school peer has sold a book for X amount of dollars.

How do I deal with this, Sugar? Is jealousy simply part of a writer’s life? Are my feelings what everyone is feeling, even when they pretend otherwise? Is it possible to purge these negative feelings and feel other, positive things when I hear someone else’s fabulous news?

Talk to me about jealousy please. I don’t want it to rule my life, or at least if it’s going to rule my life I want to be reassured that it’s ruling everyone else’s life (secretly) too.

Signed,
Awful Jealous Person

Dear Awful Jealous Person,

We are all savages inside. We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed. There isn’t a person reading this who hasn’t at one point or another had that why not me? voice pop into the interior mix when something good has happened to someone else. But that doesn’t mean you should allow it to rule your life, sweet pea. It means you have work to do.

Before we get into it, I want to talk about what we’re talking about. We are not talking about books. We’re talking about book deals. You know they are not the same thing, right? One is the art you create by writing like a motherfucker for a long time. The other is the thing the marketplace decides to do with your creation. A writer gets a book deal when he or she has written a book that: a) an editor loves and b) a publisher believes readers will purchase. The number of copies a publisher believes people will purchase varies widely. It could be ten million or seven hundred and twelve. This number has pretty much nothing to do with the quality of the book, but rather is dictated by literary style, subject matter, and genre. This number has everything to do with the amount of your book deal, which is also related to the resources available to the publishing house that wants to publish your book. The big presses can give authors six figure advances for books they believe will sell in significant numbers. The small ones cannot. Again, this has no relationship whatsoever to the quality of the books they publish.

I feel compelled to note these facts at the outset because my gut sense of your letter is that you’ve conflated the book with the book deal. They are two separate things. The one you are in charge of is the book. The one that happens based on forces that are mostly outside of your control is the book deal. You could write the world’s most devastatingly gorgeous book of poems and nobody would give you $200,000 to publish it. You could write the world’s most devastatingly gorgeous novel and maybe get that. Or not.

My point is, the first thing you need to do is get over yourself, Awful Jealous Person. If you are a writer, it’s the writing that matters and no amount of battery acid in your stomach over who got what for what book they wrote is going to help you in your cause. Your cause is to write a great book and then to write another great book and to keep writing them for as long as you can. That is your only cause. It is not to get a six figure book deal. I’m talking about the difference between art and money; creation and commerce. It’s a beautiful and important thing to be paid to make art. Publishers who deliver our books to readers are a vital part of what we do. But what we do—you and I—is write books. Which may garner six figure book deals for the reasons I outlined above. Or not.

You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous. I shut down the why not me? voice and replace it with one that says don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person. When you feel like crap because someone has gotten something you want you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. You remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own. You remember that a wonderful thing has happened to one of your literary peers and maybe, if you keep working and if you get lucky, something wonderful may also someday happen to you.

And if you can’t muster that, you just stop. You truly do. You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you. Your letter is evidence that it has already begun to do so. It has depleted your happiness, distracted you from your real work, and turned you into a crappy friend.

You know that woman you mentioned who recently got the book deal—the one you describe as among your best friends? She knows you’re not truly happy for her. She knows it even if she’s convinced herself that she doesn’t know it; even if she’s tried to explain away whatever weird vibe you emitted when you pretended to be happy for her about her good news. She knows because you can’t fake love and generosity of spirit. It’s either there or it isn’t. The fact that when someone you profess to care deeply about shared with you something excellent that happened to her you had to fake your joy sucks way more than the fact that you haven’t yet gotten the five or six figure book deal you’re so convinced you deserve. And if you want to have a real, true, deep, authentic, satisfying, kickass, righteous life, I advise you to get that shit straightened out first.

I know it’s not easy being an artist. I know the gulf between creation and commerce is so tremendously wide that it’s sometimes impossible not to feel annihilated by it. A lot of artists give up because it’s just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists. But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They’ve taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists, that keeping the faith is more important than cashing the check, that being genuinely happy for someone else who got something you hope to get makes you genuinely happier too.

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Most of those people did not come to this perspective naturally. And so, Awful Jealous Person, there is hope for you. You, too, can be a person who didn’t give up. Most of the people who didn’t give up realized that in order to thrive they had to dismantle the ugly jealous god in their heads so they could instead serve something greater: their own work. For some of them, it meant simply shutting out the why not me voice and moving on. For others, it meant going deeper and exploring why exactly it pained them so much that someone else got good news.

I hate to tell you, but my guess is that you’re in the latter group. A large part of your jealousy probably rises out of your outsized sense of entitlement. Privilege has a way of fucking with our heads the same way a lack of it does. There are a lot of people who’d never dream they could be a writer, let alone land, at the age of 31, a six figure book deal. You are not one of them. And you are not one of them because you’ve been given a tremendous amount of things that you did not earn or deserve, but rather that you received for the sole reason that you happen to be born into a family who had the money and wherewithal to fund your education at two colleges to which you feel compelled to attach the word “prestigious.”

What is a prestigious college? What did attending such a school allow you to believe about yourself? What assumptions do you have about the colleges that you would not describe as prestigious? What sorts of people go to prestigious colleges and not prestigious colleges? Do you believe that you had a right to a free “first-rate” education? What do you make of the people who received educations that you would not characterize as first-rate? These are not rhetorical questions. I really do want you to take out a piece of paper and write those questions down and then answer them. I believe your answers will deeply inform your current struggle with jealousy. I am not asking you these questions in order to condemn or judge you. I would ask a similar series of questions to anyone from any sort of background because I believe our early experiences and beliefs about our place in the world inform who we think we are and what we deserve and by what means it should be given to us.

It is a way of going back to the roots of the problem, as it were. And I imagine you know I’m a big fan of roots.

You might, for example, be interested to know that the word prestigious is derived from the Latin praestigiae, which means conjuror’s tricks. Isn’t that interesting? This word that we use to mean honorable and esteemed has its beginnings in a word that has everything to do with illusion and deception and trickery. Does that mean anything to you, Awful Jealous Person? Because when I found that out, every tuning fork inside of me went hum. Could it be possible that the reason you feel like you swallowed a spoonful of battery acid every time someone else gets what you want is because a long time ago—way back in your own very beginnings—you were sold a bill of goods about the relationship between money and success, fame and authenticity, legitimacy and adulation?

I think it’s worth investigating, sweet pea. Doing so will make you a happier person and also a better writer, I know without a doubt.

Good luck selling your novel. I hope you get six figures for it. When you do, write to me and share the wonderful news. I promise to be over the moon for you.

Yours,
Sugar

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