This essay by Erika Schickel in L.A. Observed is getting some flak in the writing world. In the essay, Schickel owns up to feeling envious of Cheryl Strayed’s recent writing fame. “…Cheryl Strayed completely deserves her success, which makes her success sting all the more. It seems to highlight some kind of personal lack—of talent, of persistence, of specialness—in my own soul. Where did I go wrong?” I didn’t see the essay as an attack on Cheryl Strayed; I saw it as an exploration of one writer’s feelings of failure or general “suckiness.”
Bloggers have banded together in defense of Strayed and have pleaded, “Can’t we all just get along?” In his post, Andrew Scott says, “I’m tired of encountering essays and articles that wish to knock down more experienced or successful authors.”
Schickel clearly hit a nerve. I think nerves are hit whenever the truth is spoken.
Writer envy exists. I guarantee that every writer, whether in his/her heart or publicly proclaimed on a website, has felt a sting of envy upon seeing another writer’s success. And envy is not limited to writing; who among us has not said “hello” to the green-eyed monster?
I admit feeling this way on occasion. I usually keep these feelings to myself, though. And I stop myself to really examine what is making me envious. Because that which makes us envious is probably a quality we can emulate to improve our own writing careers.
Are you envious of the writer who has loads of time to write? Has someone made the decision to focus solely on his/her craft? Then find a way to do that yourself.
Are you envious of the writer who makes it look “easy”? Do you know the whole story? Often only the publications are publicized, which can make them look like they came out of nowhere. But do you know the writer’s backstory and how long it took to write the book? Do you know the sacrifices he/she made to finish that book?
Are you envious of a writer’s publicity and success? Publicity and success generally come through hard work and willingness to self-promote. No one is just going to call you up to interview you. Oprah has to hear of you somehow. Are you willing to put in the effort to make that happen?
Schickel asks, “Where did I go wrong?” She uses the envy of Strayed to examine her own writing. I hope she found answers that will help her own career (which, if you look at her credentials, looks pretty well-formed to me).
Let me know what you think about envy. How does it affect your craft, whatever that may be? Is it OK to go public with your envious thoughts, like Schickel? Or is it something that is best kept quiet?
Robb Murray said:
I thought this was hilarious, and remarkably accurate. Any writer who says they’re oblivious to the success of other writers is a liar. The truth is, society doesn’t value the working writer, the writer who toils away every day to produce enough sellable product to get a paycheck. Society values “successful” writers, the ones who get books published, the ones whose names are recognizable. And who doesn’t want to be valued for the work they do? Writers, like anyone else, are human. They’re competitive.
I can totally relate to this. There have been times when I’ve felt the same way; thrilled for whoever is finding success, but livid that I haven’t managed to find it myself, for whatever reason.
This essay was really, really entertaining. Thanks for sharing Rachel. And good luck with your book! I hope it rots on the bookstore shelves– er, I mean flies off the shelves! ; )
Ha ha, Robb, very funny! When I feel the shade of green coming on, I try to step back and figure out what’s really making me envious. It might be something that I could change in my own life (i.e., trying to find more time to write).
Thanks for finding me here! I hope you stop by often!
Amy Kortuem said:
There’s harpist envy, too. And baby envy and moving-to-another-country envy and not-moust-infested-house envy and … and …
There’ll always be something. Of course I feel it. Especially when something I’ve worked so hard for, with success just out of my reach, seems to fall in the lap of someone else. It’s happened in minor ways a lot of times, and recently, in a couple of major ways that really tipped me over. And after working through it alone and punching some pillows and whining to my Mom, I told the person I was jealous of, with a sincere hug and a tear in my eye, “I’m so happy for you and I envy you your adventure!”
Honestly, I loved Erika’s post. I didn’t find it offensive or hurtful. She gave words in a really earthy and hilarious way to what a lot of us feel. Took courage.
Now I’m off to research the object of her envy – have you read that memoir?
I have yet to read WILD but it’s on my list. I have a problem reading what everyone else is reading in the moment. That’s best saved for another blog post!
Envy is natural, but I don’t think writing about it so publicly has ever brought positive results to anyone. It feels a bit like a gambit for attention, which – if it is – I suppose it has worked. Shickel did get her name out to a wide audience, so maybe she doesn’t care if the literary community’s response is positive or negative.
I suppose that’s why Andrew Scott was adamant to not mention Schickel’s name in his post. And I thought about that as I wrote the post. There’s the old saying that there’s not such a thing as bad publicity. Look at the Missouri senator–hardly anyone knew his name two days ago, now his name is all over the place. Though we will see in November whether that publicity will have served him well or not!
Tracy Lee Karner said:
Interesting questions. Envy isn’t much of a problem for me anymore, but it was when I was younger and more fearful of failure. My self-worth is no longer tied to my public success, although of course I’d like to have some. I’m also aware that there are so many factors in publication success that I can’t control and can’t predict (no one can). Plus, my lack of physical stamina means I simply cannot do the usual author’s tour of self-promotion, and I’ve accepted that it might mean that other authors who can, are likely to be more widely known than I’ll ever be.
The issue of public/private is an important one for me–I don’t feel we must confess our private lives publicly, in order to represent ourselves honestly. The poet Alice B. Fogel is one of the most authentic, honest writers I’ve ever read/met/known, but neither her writing nor her teaching is self-confession.
Before Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton and the other confessional writers, no one assumed that people ought to tell all. It was seen as vulgar. I don’t agree that it’s always vulgar, but I do think we as writers should examine our motives. On the other hand, a person ought to be free to do whatever she believes in her heart is the right/best thing to do, for herself, her work, her audience.
Agreed! Motive is an important aspect of writing. I can think of examples of writers I know who were not motivated by good writing but by revenge. Thankfully, that is usually apparent and that type of writing doesn’t get very far.
Are you familiar with Laura Hillenbrand? She has a chronic condition (I forget what it is) that makes it extremely difficult for her to write and (I think) nearly impossible for her to do a tour. Still, she’s had phenomenal success.
Tracy Lee Karner said:
I’m so out of the loop–no, I hadn’t read her. Since 1999 I’ve been living not exactly like Thoreau, but WAY out of the social loop. Recently I’ve popped back in to see what’s going on.
I don’t read heavily in contemporary authors right now, but I’m going to check out her books. It’s encouraging to know that my belief, that even recluses can find an audience if the book is good enough. I read an interview of Meg Rosoff and her advice for writers who wanted to find an audience was, “Write the best book you can write.” I keep trying to do that. Plus, I’m married to an entrepreneur, so I’m letting him handle all the publicity details.