I’m at that stage in my writing career where people have started to ask me when I’m going to have a book come out. I’ve earned an MFA, published several poems, found a community of writers, and completed a manuscript. It would seem the next logical step would be to get that manuscript published, which is why I’ve been sending it to contests and publishers. However, as I wait for an editor to recognize my genius, my friends have started to get their books published (like fellow Dirt City writer Carrie Murphy, who will be celebrating the release of her second book of poetry August 29th at The Tannex), and I can’t help but feel that horrible slimy thought “Why not me?” burrow into my brain. I don’t want to be jealous, but not wanting to be jealous is like trying not to think about pink elephants. I try not to think about it and pink pachyderms dance through my brain. I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling jealousy, though most people won’t admit it.
The absolute worst jealousy comes when a friend wins a contest that you also entered. What makes this jealousy particularly potent is that a lot of contests inform people that their manuscript has been rejected by submitting the announcement of who has won. When the winner is a stranger, you can just honestly be sad that your manuscript wasn’t selected. But when the winner is a friend, there’s conflict. Suddenly you realize you were competing with that friend all along (which is not true, as the initial reader who rejected your manuscript is probably different from the initial reader who loved your friend’s). Your friend celebrates, as you are told once again you’re not good enough.
The important thing to remember is to be gracious—even if you’re feeling petty and awful. Congratulate the friend, and, this is important, say nothing about also being in the contest. Tell yourself, over and over if necessary, that you’d rather lose to someone you know than to some stranger. Remind yourself that even if you never get your book published and secure your place in the canon, it is kind of cool to be able to point to books on your own shelf and say, “I knew that author before she was famous.”
One of the best ways to deal with jealousy, whether it’s the acute “I can’t believe I lost to you” kind or the more general “I want to publish a book too” kind, is to go to the friend’s book release or reading, buy a copy of the book and have them sign it. First of all, if you’re like me, buying a book always improves one’s mood. Second, you get to feel like a literary insider. You were there from the beginning before so-and-so became famous, and if your friend doesn’t become famous, you know some of the great underrated authors of your time. Third, your friend will probably write something gracious, kind, encouraging, or funny when they sign your book. Your friend knows you and knows that you’re struggling to achieve the same thing. They appreciate your support and want you to succeed too. Later when you’re reading your friend’s book, if you feel the jealousy reappear you can flip to the front and read what they wrote. It’s always good to have a reminder why you were friends in the first place. Fourth, you’re earning karma points for when you do eventually get a book published and want to have people show up to your own book release.
Once I have acquired my friend’s book, I still wait until that nasty jealousy has passed to read it. Usually you’ll have received other rejections that you’re now focused on, or maybe you have looked at your manuscript and realized, “Crap, I need to revise this.” If it’s the latter, realize that it is a good thing that the manuscript you are now unhappy with got rejected. Time, I find, usually softens jealousy—though in fairness I haven’t had a friend make it on to the New York Times bestseller list yet so in that case time may actually increase it—so when you sit down and read your friend’s book you can enjoy it. Jealousy will make good writing bad. It will discover faults that are not there. Even if the writing is flawed, there is a certain pleasure in feeling “I know this person” as you read. There is the excitement of realizing that you read an earlier draft of this poem or story—that you have insight no other reader will. Those are pleasures worth having.
If you mention that you’re feeling down about being bookless, people may mention other authors who didn’t publish a book until age 29, 40, 55, or 80. Do not seek solace in an author who didn’t publish until they were older than your current age. If you do, that age will become a deadline. At 25 it might be comforting so say big-shot-author didn’t publish their first book until they were 33, but at 34 you’ll feel like a failure. Just avoid comparing your career to famous authors in general—it’ll always be an exercise in masochism.
Finally, don’t forget your own achievements. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I have published several poems and completed a manuscript. Years ago I was jealous when I heard of people publishing a single poem or of people compiling a manuscript. I was once jealous of people being able to sit down and write something that they would be willing to show another living soul. I’m sure that if I ever publish a book I will be jealous of those who published a second one or whose first one received a lot of attention. The thing about writing is that there is always something more. There is always the next novel, essay, poem, or story that you’ll have to sit down and write. You’ll never be able to say, “Yes, I won at writing,” because for each mountain you climb there will always be a taller one.