The Monster in the Laundry Basket: Professional Jealousy in the Open

By Caren Gussoff

Categories: Alum Experiences,

Part I

I knew I’d found a keeper when my boyfriend-at-the-time barely flinched the first time he saw one of our fights, word-for-word, in print. “You writers,” he said. “You air your dirty laundry. That’s how it is.”

We not only air our dirty laundry, we turn each piece inside out, study the seams, stinks and stains, so we can proudly, faithfully reproduce it onto garments of our own design.

And it was this same man — now husband — who pointed out the quixotic duplicity of my reaction to hearing award nominees (I wasn’t one, but I knew many of them) made public one February afternoon. He pounded me on my back (as I choked on my own dirty laundry), and asked, “Family, friends, lovers, illnesses and personal catastrophes — big or small — are all fair game — why not this?”

“What?” I asked in response, hoping the answer wasn’t obvious.

It was. “Jealousy,” he said. “Professional jealousy.”

So, I poked a little at it. I turned it inside out and reverse engineered its construction. I reveled in it and then tried to make it disappear. It didn’t.

I talked to my husband a lot about it. Then, I pulled on big girl pants and talked to some trusted associates about it, in person and online.  And what I discovered can be culled down into 10 major issues and points. Today, behold my first five, flapping in the wind for all to see:

–We all suffer from professional jealousy. All of us. There isn’t a writer among us, no matter how venerated or weighed down by awards that does not occasionally covet thy colleagues’ victories. It’s freaking normal.

–We don’t discuss it because we are supposed to be “above it.” Artists and writers are selflessly suffering in pursuit of creation and edification. We write for reasons both moral and aesthetic; worldly concerns are, at best, beside the point, or at least, the icing on the cake (that is art).  I call bullpucky. While I write because I think it is important, the worldly nods are the validation I need to make all the time (missed events, for example), the sacrifices (such as grown-up furniture and a 401K) and uncertainty (am I any good? Does anyone care what I make?) worthwhile. And I am not alone, am I?

–We don’t discuss it because it can be seen as weakness. If I am jealous of your award nomination or first prize or new publication or book deal or whatever, then I am calling attention to the fact that I did not get nominated or win or am still, after two years, querying agent after agent for my unsold opus.

–We don’t discuss it because we can be seen as ungenerous, bad people who do not have our colleagues’ best interests at heart. This is not true. It is possible to envy others while celebrating their wins. What helps is not letting the jealousy consume you by acknowledging it (see: it’s freaking normal)

–Life isn’t fair. “Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re having fun.” (Niven’s Law #3). Sometimes deserved victories don’t happen and there is nothing you can do about it except deal.

OK. Take a breath. Still with me? Feeling familiar? Good.

I’d like to list out my last five of ten truths about professional jealousy (as I see it), which concern how you can deal with the green-eyed monster when it will not simply be slayed.

–There is, actually, plenty of “doing well.” There is not a single saucepan of success from which each ladle to someone else means less in your bowl. It simply isn’t true. We are a community of storytellers hoping to seduce readers into delving into our worlds of future, past and never-was. Anytime one of us gets through, we get another reader…who, one day, may be our reader too. Spend ten minutes at a fannish event if you don’t believe.

–You can’t win it unless you’re in it. You need to produce work, and send it out, enter contest, give readings, and so forth, in order to even be considered for anything, anyway. This isn’t rocket science. Each time you send out into the world, it is a risk. A risk you will win. And a risk you may lose. Forget the saucepan: the doing-well fairy will not ring your doorbell because they heard you may have a cool story. Show up.

–Their path is not yours’. It’s not going to happen on your schedule. This was the hardest, personally, for me to come to terms with. I’m entering my 40s, and have been writing seriously, professionally, even, for nearing-on twenty years. There are writers whose works have reached levels of recognition and acclaim on a faster track or who are much younger than I. This can make me feel quite discouraged when I compare myself to them or when I try and ape the routes they have taken to get their work out there. I have to sit myself down, sometimes daily, and remind myself that my path is my path, and, as long as I am producing and sending out work I am proud of, my feet are, indeed, planted on the right one.

–Shut it down and motivate. The way I deal, as I said, is to produce and send out work I am proud of. If I want to get to that next level, and the fairy doesn’t know my address, then I have to take my envy and use it to get my butt in the chair and work. I will allow myself five straight minutes of wild jealousy. Then, I shut it down and use that energy to draft, or revise, or find five new markets. I am not perfect at this and nor would I expect you to be, but it’s the hard truth. To be a writer, you have to write. To be successful, you have to keep writing.

–Someone is jealous of you. Right now. It may be me. You are reading this because you are a professional, or seriously aspiring to be a professional science fiction or fantasy writer. That means you take your work seriously. You sit down and do it. You’ve had success — of not publication, then by writing a great scene or giving useful feedback. And one of us, pinky swear, has thought: “I wish that were me.”

How do you deal with jealousy? Did I miss a solid coping tip? Please share.

 

Science fiction writer Caren Gussoff lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and an artist. She’s trying to sell her third novel, a post-pandemic apocalyptic little story that actually has a car chase. Publications, awards and mutterings are available at www.spitkitten.com

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

4 Comments

  • Persephone
    7:25 PM - 10 January, 2013

    Well said Caren. Airing truths, along with the dirty laundry, opens the floor for discussion and inclusion. No longer is it the black hole in the middle of the floor!

  • Erika Schickel
    8:10 PM - 10 January, 2013

    I feel every word of your piece, Caren. Oh, that green-eyed bitch has been staring me down my whole writing life. Jealousy is particularly difficult for women to deal with, because we’re not supposed to be competitive and culturally we’re not allowed to be anything but supportive of each other.

    I think the best advice you give is that others’ paths are not ours. Nobody else can write our books or articles, and when I am writing well I am in a state of transcendent joy—because I am doing the thing nobody else on earth can do: speaking my own truth in my own voice.

    Which, admittedly, is not a tactic that works 100% of the time. In fact, I became so consumed by jealousy last summer when Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild” became a runaway hit, I wrote a piece about my wretched state it in my column for LA Observed. It created a huge internet stink, even finding a place on the front page of the Living section of your local paper (The Oregonian). People were shocked! shocked! that I admitted this human flaw in myself, while others were relieved to find out that they weren’t alone. I link it here, in case it gives anyone else some relief, or a quick yuk.

    http://www.laobserved.com/schickel/2012/08/dear-sugar-you-make-me-suck.php

    Write on, Sisters!

    • Lisa Kahaleole Hall
      1:23 AM - 11 January, 2013

      I just went and read your piece, Erika. I loved it. 🙂

  • DC Spell
    3:05 AM - 13 January, 2013

    My husband is also pretty awesome. My family is definitely not cool with being in my work (MANY fights have been thanks to that), but my husband gets it. Ah-mazing man, that one.

    Anyway, my best jealousy advice? Every time you feel jealous, go out of you way to encourage and compliment other writers. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself – and them! It’s absolutely foolproof, trust me!

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