Five Remedies for Writer’s Envy

Envy by Giotto 1306A close friend you cherish, a relative, your partner—someone you love and care about—wins the award, gets the job or the raise you thought was in your pocket; charms the socks off the guy you’ve adored from afar, sails for a month-long vacation—attains exactly the goodies you’ve secretly coveted.

Because you do care about the lucky person, you share in the happiness of their good fortune. Well, mostly. Your smiley face congratulations is hearty enough, but isn’t it sometimes tainted by a tightening in your gut, a cold gust sweeping your heart?

If you’re like me, you’re horrified and ashamed that your joy for the other isn’t unconditional, but what a relief to realize envy is part of human nature across continents and down the eons. What child hasn’t made loathsome comparisons between self and other, smoldered with envy, felt envy gulp down their confidence? What child hasn’t suffered the humiliating experience of feeling less than, having less than, wanting more? Who of us hasn’t worried we’re flawed or sinful (see the Bible for brutal stories of envious sibling rivalry), felt cheated when the goodies were doled out?

Most of us identify with the innocent, blameless characters in stories. I am not—the evil stepsister, the vengeful queen, the brother who rats on his brother and steals his inheritance—those archetypal figures we know so well as moral disasters. Aren’t we more inclined to identify with the all-good, too-good Cinderella, express sympathy for the pure and virtuous Snow White? It’s true that today’s heroines have become sassier, edgier, more complicated, but still their strength and fury, like those of their male counterparts, are usually directed toward admirably heroic undertakings.

Frans de Waal narrates a video of his experiment in which two capuchin monkeys are paid unequally.

But whether we admit it or not, we all experience envy. “There is not a passion so strongly rooted in the human heart as envy,” wrote the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ain’t it the truth! But it’s just so dang painful to admit that cruelty and betrayal lurk within. I would never have the courage to look at envy so directly, let alone write about it, if I had not come to recognize its universal nature and to understand that denying envy only reinforces its snarky, trickster, debilitating aspects.

Even if we ignore them, the disliked, disowned envious parts of ourselves don’t go away, they simply get projected onto the Other, often in the form of blame. So, along with the personal suffering envy causes, it might well be responsible for most wars and murders on the planet.

meg_jo_beth_and_amy_by_jessie_willcox_smith_wood_wall_art-r023ecc7054f848968dfe9c28135f6c21_z2skx_512A new realm of Envy Hell opened up to me after I became a published writer. Google “Writer’s Envy” and a whole host of links appear. This is no surprise since we artists have our eye on immortality, and fame is a very small ship onto which many hope to sail. I do find it ironic that while envy is the engine that drives many works of literature—think Agamemnon taking Briseis from Achilles and Achilles sulking in his tent for three years; Iago envying Othello or Edmund Edgar in King Lear; or Amy March’s envy of Jo in Little Women. Authors are forever weaving plots around envy; we are mighty resistant to ‘fessing up about our own.

As a commercially published writer, I have certainly felt both the discomfort of being envied and the equally painful experience of being the envier. To be the envied one causes its own set of difficulties. By definition, the envied receives the projected anger and resentment of the envier whose attacks maybe come across as confusingly passive aggressiveness or as blatant sabotage. Envy is a master at wearing costumes: the gratuitous smile, the devious offers to help. The storybook witches of our childhood abide in our adult imagination. Can’t we still feel the uncanny thrill, the fear and delicious trepidation of being invited by a kindly old lady into the gingerbread house? Envy seems to put us to a test: first we need to recognize and acknowledge its existence, then we are asked to decide how to be in relationship to it. (Run away; hide our face; attack with a weapon; cajole; outwit; succumb; reform. The possibilities are many.)

Dore Pur_12_arachneMyths and fairy tales tell us the gods can be jealous, even ruinous. These stories work well as cautionary tales to warn us not only of the gods that strike from above, but depict representations of the archetypal forces in the human psyche and ask us to consider how envy motivates us from within. For her hubris at claiming to be a better weaver than Athena, Arachne is turned into a spider. We know what happened to Icarus when he, attempting to fly like the gods, flew too near to the sun.

Three thousand years ago, the Buddha recognized envy as one of the root causes of suffering and suggested to his students that they develop genuine happiness for the success of others—mudita in Pali—one of the four brahma-viharas, practices that cultivate our highest human virtues. Mudita or vicarious joy encourages us to develop the opposite of a scarcity mentality that supposes there is only so much happiness to go around. Scarcity mentality is in part responsible for envy since the envier feels the other’s good fortune diminishes the possibility of her own.

May I be happy

May you be happy

May we be at peace

These are simple, elegant phrases I use when I become conscious of envy’s presence. Practicing these cleansing loving-kindness phrases has a quality of restorative justice, whereby I remember that envy, being a universal trait, is yet one more oddball way I am connected to the human race.

Other remedies?

  1. Laugh at oneself! Just plain sit down in a chair and think of the absurdity of assuming life is fair. Fairness was conceived by mankind. The nature of Nature is something altogether other.
  2. Recognize envy is universal condition. You are not being singled out. Every wisdom tradition includes instructions about envy. Educate yourself.
  3. Especially if you are a writer dealing with writer’s envy. It soothes the soul to read writers you love.
  4. Devise a ritual or ceremony to deal with envy. Invest a stone with your uncomfortable feelings and bury it. Light a candle and recite a wish. Draw a picture of envy or the feelings it arises, then burn the drawing and scatter the ashes. Using your creative energies in this way ignites and inspires the good muses to hang around.
  5. Talk to a trusted friend about envy. Find out you are not alone.



How Do We Know We Have Come of Age?

The-Three-Ages-of-Woman KlimtI want to tell you right off that I had every intention of writing this blog about coming of age, what it might mean here and now in the States, and even dip into a look at classic and current coming-of-age novels, of which there are many, and which has, at times been a moniker for my own novel, The Conditions of Love.

But true to how my writerly, associative brain works (I’ll actually be exploring using the associative mind to deepen one’s writing in a workshop I’m giving in July—see events page), I started investigating one thing and it led me somewhere other than where I intended.

My mind led me to the HBO series Girls, a show that has garnered much acclaim, as has its author, Lena Dunham, and which, having recently spent evenings in the company of that most deliciously malevolent of couples, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards, and awaiting the availability of the last episodes of Mad Men, in a restless, between-series state of hunting new characters to adore, I discovered Girls.

girls_sexscene14I’d read some interviews with Dunham, heard it was touted as the next Sex and the City, and well, I’m interested in the lives of women and mighty curious about the inner lives and politics of twenty-something contemporary American women. I’m interested in this because I’m a woman and these things concern me, because I have daughters, and because, in part, I write about girls growing into womanhood.

Not too far into the pilot episode of Girls, after Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath loses her job and is rejected by her parents who refuse to support her, Hannah drops by a buddy’s apartment to cheer herself up, and, as therapy or an antidote to despair, has what looks like anal sex.

My first thought was—why this sex scene, front and center, naked butt in the air? Sex depicted so dispassionately, so lacking of the erotic, of ecstasy, fury or fetishistic delight, Samantha from Sex and the City would have yawned and walked away. I had to wonder: what is this about? What’s the meaning here? Is there meaning?

girl-at-mirror-Norman RockwellAnd then I thought—am I watching a rite of passage, a coming-of-age ritual that signifies something I’m too out of it, too focused on the romantic to understand? Is casual, non-emotive sex a marker for a generation that honors irony and detachment, a way of claiming authority over the often urgent needs and drives of childhood, those pressing I needs, I wants of the Id? (Does anyone still talk about Ids?)

I had to wonder, what, if anything, marks the transition from adolescence into adulthood for the representative Hannah and her cohort? Gone, long gone are the days in which the start of menses and a woman’s ability to bear a child held that stature. Especially now when many girls reach menses at the astonishingly young age of eight, long before they are emotionally mature, physical development outpacing moral, ethical, emotional development, it is impossible to consider an eight-year-old menstruating girl an adult.

coming-of-age-sunrise-ceremonyLosing one’s virginity, separating from parents, becoming self-supportive. Marriage, giving birth, at one time these too set the definition for female adulthood. No longer. In other places, rite of passage ceremonies are intact. We do not send our daughters to live for a time with the wise grannies in the Moon Hut; we do not scarify the faces of our young men or set up contests for them to jump over a castrated cow. We do have Sweet Sixteen parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, our Quincenaras, but largely these ritual celebrations stay within their communities and do not translate to a feeling of adulthood in the larger world.

Girls’ Hannah H. is twenty-four, unpartnered and unmarried, broke, and seemingly brimming with despair. From Dunham’s portrayal of Hannah, it’s difficult to discern if the character considers herself part of the adult world, or not. Something seems to be missing in her self-image that places her between stages of development. But how does she feel? In this age how does one know they’ve come of age?

So my pondering continues. How do we know we have come of age? But then, how do we define middle age or old age these days? Aren’t our longer lifespans and the changes in our economy changing how we think of age and aging in general? If only humans had clear stages of development, a discreet and recognizable morphology like the cycles of butterfly development, the lowly earth-bound caterpillar so vastly different in shape and function than the gracefully winged creature that emerges from it. Our human skeleton keeps us bound to one form, but within that form our minds change, our hearts hopefully grow wiser. But we have no rituals or ceremonies, no real way of letting others know this has occurred in us.

Or do we?