was chatting recently with a writer pal who told me another writer pal
had just slam-dunked a multi-book contract with a major New York house.
Big fat advance, higher-than-normal royalties, book tour, ads in the NY
Times, the whole schlameezel. Amid my woo-hoos and atta
girls, my pal slipped in a couple of snide remarks (punctuated with
giggles, lest I think she’s envious), which got me t’ thinkin’ about
the sometimes dark and dangerous subject of professional envy.
But before delving deeper into
this quicksand-like subject, let’s define the difference between envy
Jealousy, for the most part,
involves three people (you, your lover, your lover’s lover), whereas
envy concerns two (you and that no-talent hack who got a book contract
on the heels of your latest rejection). Envy isn’t resentment, longing,
or desire. Envy is more malicious than that. It’s what prompts a
seemingly nice person, like my writer pal, to make wisecracks that
smack of, well, envy!
And simply put, envy is the
result of wanting something somebody else has. Doesn’t matter much if
it’s a better car, a bigger house, a nicer vacation, a prettier face, a
more curvaceous figure, or a book contract. Envy is the ugly emotion
that enrolled my usually nice writer pal in the Greedy Pig Club
(hereafter referred to as GP).
GPs rarely take into account
that the object of their envy worked hard for many years to achieve the
goal that turns others into green-eyed monsters. Instead, GPs become
angry and resentful, and if gone unchecked, their envious behavior can
turn a friend into an enemy.
Thomas Aquinas said, “Envy
according to the aspect of its object is contrary to charity . . .
charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.”
The GPs of the world will not be happy to hear you’ve just made the
best deal of your career. Why? Because they want what you’ve got. And
rather than admit they could have it, too, if they’d pay the price you
paid to get it, they narrow their eyes and purse their lips and cuss
(not always under their breath) while madly scribbling, “How in the
world did that happen?” and, “Ways I’d like to
torture her,”’ and, “Why not me?” lists.
Aristotle defined envy as “the
pain caused by the good fortune of others.” Right on, Ari! ’Cuz make no
mistake, m’friends, GPs suffer big time when peers’ careers advance!
Of all the emotions out there,
two scare me and tick me off more than the rest. Envy is one of ’em. It
didn’t become one of the Seven Deadly Sins by happenstance. It wasn’t
the inspiration for poetry, movies, or songs “just ’cuz.” It wasn’t
carved onto stone tablets because God was thinkin’, “Well, they’re good
people, but just in case . . .”
Envy has been around since the
dawn of man. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that caveman A clubbed
caveman B because he envied B’s cave. (Technically, that could just as
easily fall into the “jealousy” category. But it started out as envy.)
It isn’t new to stories, nor is it new in stories; Shakespeare included
it in Othello and The Merchant of Venice,
to name just two.
But I digress.
My own experience with envy
occurred some years ago, after I’d earned dozens of book contracts. I’d
happily mentored a woman whom I believed to be a close personal friend,
devoting countless hours to editing and critiquing her manuscripts in
the hope she could join me on Published Authors Row. She won a contest
and had a short story included in a friend’s anthology, but she never
managed to get That Book published.
Envy of what I’d achieved (due
to a combination of more years in the biz and a nose-to-the-grindstone
work ethic) began eating away at our relationship. She grew angry and
edgy, spiteful and resentful, and showed it in her rude behavior and
cutting comments. I shrugged it off as the result of her snobbish,
domineering spouse, rather than admit she’d started seeing me as a
Then one day, while I was
recuperating from a serious illness, she visited me. As I sipped tea in
the family room, she asked to borrow my copy machine. I didn’t have the
energy to accompany her into my office, but she’d been a friend for
more than a decade and had been in there dozens of times. It never
crossed my mind she might steal from me. It wasn’t until weeks later,
when I read an item in a writers’ organization newsletter, that I
realized she’d come calling with a calculating and deliberate purpose:
to photocopy my lesson plans and one important business plan and pass
them off as her own.
don’t feel sorry for me, dearies, because I wasn’t
the real victim here. It was my GP “friend.” What’s more, I believe she
saw herself as a victim, as well. (I’ve since figured out she’s also a
raging narcissist, but that’s a whole other blog.) Envy, for her, came
with feelings of entitlement that allowed her to excuse the crimes
she’d committed. (That, and like all good narcissists, she’d already
found another published author to “feed” off of. But I digress yet
She resented me to the point of
hatred for having accomplished what she wished she could have
accomplished. Was it low self-esteem, self-loathing, or laziness that
blinded her to the fact that I worked for
everything I have, struggled to reach every goal in my life, including
those of “the writing kind”? Only she knows the answer to that.
The power of her envy prompted
every thought and action and allowed her to rationalize away all the
bad stuff she’d said and done. Envy is like that, see. It gets inside
you and, if you let it, behaves like a hungry parasite, feeding on what
used to be your good nature, your pride and dignity, your honesty.
To paraphrase Bertram Russell,
envy is one of the major causes of unhappiness. That’s putting it
mildly ’cuz that gal, m’friends, is still one of
the unhappiest human beings I’ve had the displeasure of knowing.
Let’s not forget that envy is a
very normal human emotion, one that impacts all of us at one time or
another, regardless of social class, race, religion, age, or gender.
Most of us quickly get it under control, but left unchecked, it’s
powerful and dangerous.
But envy can
be a very good thing . . .
. . . if it inspires us to work
harder, reach farther, broaden our horizons, improve who or what we are
in an attempt to “grow” to the heights of those we admire.
Call me Pollyanna, but when I
hear that a friend, acquaintance, relative, or neighbor finally got the
car he’s been saving for, moved into the home of her dreams, returned
from an adventurous vacation, signed a book contract, or saw one of her
novels turned into a movie, I’m genuinely happy for
them! The joy of their successes and achievements spills onto me. How
can that be a bad thing?
So, alla you writers out there,
next time you feel a twinge of envy because one of your pals moved up a
rung on the Writing Ladder of Success, don’t wallow in self-pity. Don’t
speculate which relative is the editor or agent who made it all
possible. Don’t trod on her talents. Don’t call her everything but
an author. Instead, shred your Greedy Pig Club membership card, then
write her a note, letting her know how happy you are for her. Say stuff
like “High fives!” and “Thumbs up!” Then get on your knees and pray
like crazy that fifty more of your writer pals will
move up another rung, so you can write each of them
a similar note.
I guarantee that by the time you
sign that fiftieth “Congratulations!” card, you’ll actually
mean it. And there are few better feelings in life.
So until next time, keep writing
. . . and before you know it, your writer friends will be high-fiving
and thumbs-upping you!
Oh . . . and the other emotion
that scares me and ticks me off? Self-pity. But never fear . . . I’ll
save that one for another column.