There has been an interesting discussion going on at Writing Magazine in the past few months, but as usual I was a bit late to the party and therefore didn’t feel able to contribute. (Having a blog is a great way to say what you wish you’d said at the time, right? I can come up with all manner of witty retorts and genius musings months after the event and they still count because it’s a blog post. LOVE IT.)
As a little aside, my procrastination device of choice recently has been collecting inspirational quotes on Pinterest. You will therefore note that this blog post is liberally sprinkled with them. Not all, strictly speaking, relevant. Enjoy.
It started with a very interesting article by Helen Yendall in June’s edition of the magazine, which, among other very valid points, described how writerly jealousy has been going on for centuries – Ben Jonson allegedly suggesting that Shakespeare could make improvements by ‘writing less’ made me laugh – and it’s still an issue today, with recent Twitter arguments and accusations. I won’t go into details, but you know what I mean. We writers can be a catty, insecure bunch.
The article, and the corresponding ‘Star Letter’ by Leah Osborne in the July issue, really hit home.
I thought it was just me…
For years after Into the Darkest Corner was published, I suffered from a bit of an obsession about another book which shall remain nameless. Despite my book doing incredibly well, the other book always seemed to be one step ahead – both were nominated for awards, the other book won. Everywhere my book was, the other book was there first, on a higher shelf, selling more. I’d get to the stage where I’d hear this book mentioned (frequently) and I’d shudder, and then I’d find myself explaining to whoever would listen all about how it wasn’t fair, my book was actually serious and noble and had a message, and the other book had lots of plot holes and was actually a bit unlikely and blah blah blah.
I am flushing with shame, right now, dear reader. It’s costing me a lot to admit to being such a nasty person. To hammer the point home still further:
All my dreams were coming true.
You’d think I’d be a little bit happier about it, right?
The embarrassment I feel now will give you some indication of how, with the benefit of hindsight, completely and utterly ridiculous my obsession was. For a start, the book didn’t win everything at the expense of Into the Darkest Corner – it won several things I wasn’t even nominated for, and my book won things too, including several massive things like, oh, I don’t know, Amazon UK’s BOOK OF THE YEAR. How ridiculously easy it is to gloss over one’s own success when you’re busy being pointlessly cross about someone else’s.
Added to which, the fact that our books followed a similar trajectory did me no harm at all, quite the reverse in fact: I’m fairly sure Into the Darkest Corner got a substantial amount of sales from the ‘if you liked this, try…’ recommendations. Whatever glory the other book had, some of it reflected on Into the Darkest Corner, and so me wishing it away was beyond idiotic.
This obsession took me over. I would Google the other book, the other author, for the sole purpose of torturing myself with its success and celebrating over any perceived failure. At the time I knew it was foolish, but that, folks, is the nature of obsession. There are thousands of new books published in the UK each week. I wasn’t bothered about any of them. Literary prizes, festivals came and went, but as long as this particular book had no involvement, I paid no heed. Friends and acquaintances and indeed complete strangers had success with their books, I was ecstatic for them. I happily offered anyone any advice when they asked for it (and, sadly, quite often when they didn’t.) Never once crossed my mind to suggest that being obsessed over someone else’s success was something to look out for and avoid!
So how did I get over the obsession, I hear you ask? Well it took THERAPY. Not even joking. I had counselling and hypnotherapy. Turns out, actually, that this bizarre competition between the two books was going on entirely in my own head! Nobody else had the faintest clue! (Apart from those whose ears had been endlessly chewed off in pursuit of my obsession, that is.)
That’s the nature of writing, and to paraphrase Helen’s article – wait for it, this is genius – writing isn’t a competitive sport. It’s art, and as a result the ‘best’ is entirely subjective. The best piece of writing won’t always (or maybe even ever) win, because if you think about it there is no such thing. My best book isn’t any ‘better’ than your best book. Comfortingly, it isn’t any worse either. It’s just different.
The world of publication fuels our obsessions and our neuroses endlessly by putting books into charts, bestseller lists and literary prizes, and by categorising us writers into genres, thereby unintentionally restricting our creativity. We are compared to each other, by critics and reviewers and book clubs and Goodreads and Amazon’s ‘if you liked that, you’ll love this’ recommendations, so really it’s no wonder we do it ourselves too.
But the results of my writerly obsession were horrible. What’s the point in writing, when someone’s always going to be better than you? Someone’s always going to sell more books, have more public exposure, get more TV and film deals, earn more money, have more followers on Twitter, be thinner and more gorgeous, and whatever else you personally use to define what success looks like. Comparing yourself to anyone else in an artistic field is completely and utterly futile. You can’t win, because there aren’t any real, qualified, time-checked and verified winners in this particular challenge. You just end up hating yourself and feeling inadequate.
But I think there are answers, you’ll be pleased to hear. If you’re suffering from writer’s jealousy, you may well have to have therapy to get rid of it, but let’s hope not. Instead, consider the following:
1. You have to allow yourself to be successful, and you have to recognise, acknowledge, own it when it comes. You earned it. You wrote the book. But what you’re celebrating is key: you triumphed over yourself. You showed up, did the work, submitted it, it’s good, people liked it, YAY.
2. The person you’re searingly jealous of is quite possibly riddled with insecurities and doubts, just as you are. And someone is quite possibly burning up with envy because they believe you’re better than they are, right at this very minute. It’s not a good thing, though. Feel sad for them, because their feelings are holding them back in the same way yours are!
3. I’m assuming this is true for you too, but in order for my writing to be any good at all, I have to enjoy it. I have to have fun doing it. And writing with one eye on what everyone else is doing just isn’t fun.
4. Jealousy is a very negative emotion and it is exhausting. How are you supposed to write with that particular monkey on your back?
I’ve saved the best to last, and this is the Pinterest quote which has given me the guts to be honest about my own obsessions and how pathetic they are. I’m sorry for them, now, but I’ve learned valuable lessons and so even with hindsight I wouldn’t change things, ashamed as I am.
This is the kicker, people. If you remember nothing else, then take heart from this one:
Be brave, friends. We have books to write.