Kicking Over the Ladder in Your Mind

On writing, envy, and killing your writing envy

I promise I’m not going to talk about that article here. The kidney one. Or any articles about any organ-related literary drama. At least not in any direct way. But that spiraling discourse has been making me think about something that dominates many writers’ lives, yet we rarely want to talk about: envy.

No profession is immune to envy. But the subjective nature of art as well as the vast disparity between the large number of aspiring writers and small number of “slots”—in fellowships, MFA cohorts, big publisher catalogs, etc.—make it especially prone to an acidic envy. The kind that pools in your gut and erodes you, melting away the parts that let you love writing in the first place.

One of the most dangerous ways this writing envy manifests is what I think of as the ladder mindset. You (unconsciously) imagine the literary world as a tall, thin ladder stretching up to the clouds. You’re climbing on this ladder, trying to get higher and higher but there’s always someone on the rungs above you. You tell yourself your goals are modest, eminently reasonable. Just a debut book deal. An award. An faculty position. Whatever it might be. Yet there are other people, ones no more talented than you, who have those things. You keep looking up at them and thinking, Why isn’t that me? That’s my rung! They’re in the way!

Most of us, I think, tend to look only a few rungs above. If you’re publishing your debut book, the writers at the top of ladder—your perennial bestsellers and Pulitzer winners and what not—seem so out of reach you can’t really be jealous of them. You might as well be jealous of Kim Kardashian or William Shakespeare. You might want what they have in an abstract sense, but not in the bitter, acid way we can be jealous of the writers who feel close to us. The MFA peer who got ten times your advance for their debut. The friend with a similar lit mag track record who suddenly gets published in The New Yorker or Paris Review. The acquaintance your age who has published five books when you’re only on your second. You look at those writers and think, goddamn it that should be me.

The hard part is this belief isn’t really irrational, at least if you change the should to could. Writing, like any art field, really is filled with so much luck. Three friends can have three novels of similar quality (if we can pretend that’s measurable) and one might never sell, the other gets 5k, and the third gets 500k. Of each book picked as a finalist for a major prize, there are hundreds of others that could have been picked if the winds of fate had blown in a slightly different direction. There are many successes that could have been yours if the ball had bounced a little to the left or right.

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And that jealousy is easily compounded by unfair factors that multiply luck. The authors whose family or spouses’ money allows them not to work. The Ivy League connections. The mentor who hooks them up with agents or selects them for a major award. It doesn’t help that we tend to surround ourselves with other writers, so we see their success up close. Kathryn Chetkovich has a rather remarkable work of autofiction about her envy toward her partner, Jonathan Franzen, in which the character confesses that her envy had eaten away at her so much that after 9/11 what she felt was relief that her partner’s novel had been bumped out of the news. (The Corrections was published the week prior to the attacks.)

Of course, all this is a psychological trick we play on ourselves. Because the truth is this works the other way too. The success we have had was subject to the same luck. Our brain likes to tell us our successes are always hard-won and deserving, while our failures are always unfair. And just as we’re looking at the people a few rungs “above” us, people a few rungs “below” are looking up and thinking, Why is that asshole where I’m supposed to be?

This mindset really can ferment an envy that destroys a writer. It happens far too often. You have to do whatever you can to kill this envy in you. To learn to cheer on other’s accomplishments, and to keep plugging away at your own work.

One thing that helps, for me at least, is to remember that writing isn’t a ladder. There’s not one path that we’re all on. Not one route. I don’t mean that (only) in some hippie inspirational way. It’s simply true. For one thing, careers are often random. You might have a bestselling book after a dozen obscure ones. You might win a major award after having never been a finalist. Your book that barely got any coverage might get adapted into a hit show. Careers aren’t linear. They really truly aren’t.

And you yourself might find that you flourish on a path you weren’t expecting. Maybe you thought you’d be a novelist, but you end up being an essayist. Maybe you thought you’d make a living teaching but end up ghostwriting. Maybe you’ll write for TV or video games or edit or go on speaking tours. Now that I’m over a decade out of my MFA program, I’ve seen my peers flourish all at different points and in all sorts of unexpected ways. I’ve learned how important it is to be open to what opportunities come your way, and to chase your interests as they change.

But mostly you just have to learn to be happy for other people. To drain that jealousy out of yourself as much as you can. To support your friends and feel supported by them. If you’re good and you keep at it, success—in whatever form you measure it in—will likely come to you at different points and also disappear for long stretches. So you need to temper you expectations at the peaks and gird yourself during the troughs. And that probably means community. Friends who understand the same struggle. And that will only be healthy if you feel genuinely happy for each other.

I guess I’m not saying anything terribly new here. Just what we all know, but sometimes need to remind ourselves: be kind, be happy for others, focus on your work, and keep at it and at it and at it.

If you see that ladder appearing in your mind, kick it over.

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