When I was starting out as a writer, my friends and I noticed the tail-sniffing right away. We were fresh and shiny-enthusiastic, delighted with ourselves, our work and thrilled that other people read what we wrote and talked about it. What had been a hidden desire became public identification. It was a giddy time, full of possibilities.
It soon became apparent, however, that some writers worry more about their position in the pack.
What do you write? is how they evaluate you. Really they want to know how prestigiously you’ve published. It’s not about the money; it’s about the attention. Unfortunately, this kind of professional jealousy just never quite goes away. Someone gets a great publishing contract, then worries that someone else is getting a better deal. You start out as shiny-enthusiastic friends and, after a few years go by, that bonding built on possibilities wears down under the weight of reality. After, we can’t all be the queen-diva. So the friendships fall away.
Some do, anyway.
What’s funny is, I don’t see seminars on dealing with professional jealousy in, say, environmental consulting. Or banking. Or software development. I think this is because those aren’t attention-based fields. The currency is money, not acquiring fans.
The thing is: I don’t think writing should be attention-based either.
So, how do you avoid professional jealousy? Start at home. Here are some rules I’m making for myself.
1) People who read my books are readers, not fans. Fan is from fanatic, which is “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.” That doesn’t say reading to me.
2) I wanted to become a writer because I thought that would be an ideal way to make a living. I can tell stories and be paid for it. If I wanted to be a celebrity, I could have chosen another career.
3) The writing isn’t about me. It’s about the story. If it becomes about me, I’m doing something wrong.
4) Jealousy is a sign of insecurity. If I feel jealous about someone else’s deal, editor, agent, etc., I need to look at myself and at why I’m feeling insecure.
5) Focus on controlling the things I can. I can control what and how much I write. I can make it the best I can. Pretty much everything else is up to the winds and how they blow. There’s a freedom in that, if I let it be.
I’m working on more rules, but what about you all? Any more to offer?
I noticed this at the RWA convention, too: genre writers are way more fun than the literary ones.
As a general rule.
Sure, there’s some competitiveness and there are the divas. There’s a bit of division between the published authors and the “aspiring” ones. (Yes, it says so on our nametags.) But the published writers are so interested to talk to the lowly aspiring ones. I just spend 2.5 hours at the author book fair, talking to everyone on god’s green earth. At least it felt like it. There were purportedly about 300 authors signing, in long rows, each with their displays and stacks of books. And nearly everyone I talked to spotted the “aspiring” on my tag and asked me what I write. In a genuinely interested way; no tail-sniffing involved.
My writer-friend, Chavawn Kelley, invented that term back in 1996 when she and I first started attending readings. We met in a class, Essays on Self and Place, taught by a visiting writer to the University of Wyoming, Don Snow, then editor of Northern Lights Magazine. And we attended a few university-sponsored events. Readings by various writers passing through, that kind of thing. At those, every other person would ask the same pair of questions: are you a writer? what have you published? Chavawn compared it to a pack of dogs, sniffing each others’ tails to determine who was alpha.
Granted the first question was necessary in that setting, since our tags didn’t say. But the second was said as a kind of challenge. A kind of are-you-anyone-I-should-pay-attention-to question.
I’ve since become better able to answer those questions. I’ve been publishing as an essayist for 12 years now. I have a certain amount of cred that keeps me from being at the bottom of the pack, anyway.
But while it’s kind of lowering to be back to “aspiring,” (RWA doesn’t consider you published unless you’re published in the genre, which I find an annoying double-standard) I love that the genre writers manage to ditch the condescension. They are enthusiastic and encouraging.
It makes me wonder about the literary clenched-sphincter.
It makes me think it’s all about money. The old saw that the fights in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low. In genre, there’s a convivial quality, an idea that the more people who are writing it, the more there is for a growing audience. The market share for romantic fiction is huge. And getting huger.
Or it could all just be that all of these people are pretty much writing about sex all the time. That’s got to make anyone happy.