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The Little Green Monster

Only a few years ago when someone I knew announced a bit of good news, a new book deal, a movie option, or a short story sale just to name a few examples, my immediate reaction would invariably be happiness for them.  That kind of news always inspired me, affirmed my heartfelt belief that hard work does pay off in the end.  It gave me reason to believe that if I kept it up the same would happen for me.  These days, the good fortune of others (by which I mean the culmination of their hard work, constant diligence, and shear stick-to-it-ness, in the form of the kind of deal I still only dream about) brings about a stew of reactions that I don’t like to spend much time acknowledging, let alone talking about.   

These days it seems the success of people who I consider (or had once considered) my contemporaries stirs up the worst in me.  When I read a message board post by someone I have met/chatted with/drank with/given a cigarette to and or bummed one from/shared an elevator ride with/etc, that they have just made a multi-book deal with an editor I can’t get the time of day from, the happiness I do feel for them is dwarfed by jealously and a sense of failure.  More often than not I find myself steering away from those communications, pretending those message board threads don’t exist, not reading the happy press release sent out by someone who damn well deserves every success they can get, and wishing they would just shut the hell up about it. Sometimes I’m able to squash the little green monster inside and offer my sincere congratulations, but mostly I can’t.   

Sometimes I experience an actual physical reaction.  I feel cold inside and all over, the same feeling I get when I realize I have screwed up some thing very simple, but very important at work or at home.  The feeling that I have once again proven my incompetence through failure, and that even though I might not receive a good solid ass-chewing, I deserve one.  You might know the feeling, the ice in the belly, oh-shit-I-just-fucked-up feeling.  It’s funny that another’s earned success should make me feel that way, but we can’t always help the way we feel, or why we feel that way.  People are strange and irrational, creative people doubly so. 

Or maybe I’m just extra screwed up.  I haven’t completely rule out that possibility.  I don’t think that’s the case though.   

I am going to make an assumption now.  If it turns out to be an incorrect assumption I’m going to come out feeling very stupid.  I don’t think I’m wrong though. 

What I think is that this is common, and that most who experience this irrational jealously   just don’t want to talk about it.  It’s embarrassing, and it makes us feel like the assholes we’re afraid we might be. 

Worse than that, this kind of stupid, groundless jealously is destructive to the creative process.  It is anti-productive.   

That little green monster will happily gobble all of your hope if you let it.  Trying to ignore it won’t help you.  The little green bugger doesn’t give a shit if you pay attention to him or not, as long as you keep him well fed. 

I’m not fishing for sympathy or encouragement.  All I want to do is drag my little green monster out into the light for a while.  I have a feeling he may be familiar to some of you now reading this.  I think recognizing the little devil for what he is could be the first step in dealing with him. 

I do know he’s not fond of being in the spotlight.  He prefers a nice dark place in which to lurk and feed.  I know my little green monster doesn’t like being called out, and I have to add that dragging him out like this was not a pleasurable job.  I’m glad I did though.  I’m feeling better already.

 Brian Knight

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  1. March 23rd, 2008 at 10:01 | #1

    I know exactly what you mean by that little green monster, but I think maybe this is the wrong approach to what you’re doing…
    I mean, in some way, when you love doing your work, then it finally pays off, no matter if your texts get published or not. The feeling of producing something through a creative, artistic process can sometimes be worth the work all by itself. (for me, at least)

    Physical success is, of course, very motivating and a very nice way of encouragement, but it is not the most important goal one should try to achieve.

  2. March 23rd, 2008 at 13:01 | #2

    I think you’ll find that even people judged “successful” in the arts have holes in their confidence, or perceive aspects of their career as failures, or have jealous reactions to the success of others.

    I heard Gore Vidal say in an interview once that (paraphrasing) he dies a little inside every time someone he knows has a success.

    I’ve heard writers who work primarily with media tie-ins lament they have very little of their own work out there and never get awards, while “regular” writers resent the (slightly) greater financial stability of media writers.

    There’s always “another level” of success to aspire to, to envy — sure you can be a best-selling author, but will you belong to the 20th/21st century canon of literary giants? And if you do, will you be known for one, two, three or more great works? How will you compare to Shakespeare?

    What are your expectations? One thing to remember is you are successful — you’ve been published. For most people writing, that’s a success.

    making a living writing fiction? Who does that? Horror fiction? Who does that? Six writers? Twelve? How many “successful” writers also do technical writing, or editing, or non-fiction, or teach, or run a dojo on the side, or have a day job, etc.

    I think the success of other writers points to opportunities for success for you, in terms of markets, style, subject matter, etc. Through talent and luck and perseverance, some writers are enjoying a good streak (and, as everybody knows, good streaks turn bad eventually and people move on to another avenue to success to survive). That doesn’t mean you can’t/won’t have some measure of greater success in the future.

    But if you’re jealous of someone else’s success, and you want to be like those people, then the question becomes — do you want to do the kind of work those other people are doing? Can you? or can you create your own niche, your own market?

    What is more important, creating the kind of work only you can do, or following in what you think is successful in the marketplace at this moment?

    Ultimately, the issue of jealousy I think becomes a matter of personal standards and boundaries — the life you lead is yours, what you create is also yours. How an audience reacts to what you create can be part of the equation that determines “success,” but certainly how you feel and think about what you’ve written should also be a part of the evaulation process.

    Broader horizons and greater perspective also help.

  3. March 23rd, 2008 at 14:58 | #3

    My take on what you’re saying is a different one. I hear you telling us that, despite your patently good inner core, you sometimes feel jealousy which causes you shame and embarrassment. I don’t think you were asking for a cure, but rather asking whether or not we ever feel that way.

    Of course we do.

    Example: I was told that I was going to receive an honorary PhD from my Alma Mater. Instead, it was given to the not particularly gifted daughter of a long-term about-to-retire Dean. Pissed me off a lot and turned me green. Another example: When I see the names of the National Book Award Winners and Pulitzer Prize Winners, I’m happy for them and jealous as hell.

    Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. All it does is make me human, just as what you feel makes you human.

    –Janet

  4. Brian Knight
    March 23rd, 2008 at 16:23 | #4

    I think just knowing that other people feel the same negative little pangs helps. That’s half of the reason for this essay. The other half is because I think getting things like this off your chest is cathartic.

    I know I’ve reached a decent level of success, but that doesn’t stop a person from wanting more. It’s human.

    And to answer LaCréole, I write because I like telling stories, and because I think I’m pretty good at it. But since I am trying to make a career out of it, publication does make a difference to me. Just like any other personal or professional aspiration, there are all kinds of hopes and frustrations tied up in it.

  5. March 23rd, 2008 at 17:22 | #5

    I wrote a while back about the theory of “monkeyspheres”. It’s harder to feel the real happiness for others because you are focused on your writing, your work, and your career…there are goals you have set yourself, apparently, and you are reaching them by another path, or at another speed, than some contemporaries. Heck, every day I look at the accomplishments of much younger authors who are (professionally) kicking my butt…and yeah, that lil’ green guy is there…you just have to find a way to channel it back into the work.

    Heck, man, *I* am jealous of that gorgeous lettered edition of yours being chatted up just now…

    D

  6. Brian Knight
    March 23rd, 2008 at 23:06 | #6

    That lettered is pretty sweet :)

  7. March 24th, 2008 at 00:53 | #7

    I’ve had visits from that little green monster. They have nothing to do with the other writer or editor–usually!–and everything to do with my own desire to do what I love and make a living at it. Yes, I get gratification from being published, but I also want to pay for my daughters’ braces and to take my wife on a date without choosing the restaurant based solely on a coupon. Is that so wrong? No, I don’t think so. When art and income become entwined, it always gets messy for me, but I still wouldn’t trade it. I’d rather fight off the green monster on occasion, than live with him chained to my back as I went back to construction work or pizza delivery. (And who knows, those may become viable recourses in the years to come!)

  8. Elizabeth Massie
    March 24th, 2008 at 08:33 | #8

    Oh, Brian, I am such a kindred soul with you on this. I know the feeling well, and even though I work through it and continue to write…clearly you do, too…it can be a powerful, hopeless sensation that, like you say, hangs in your gut like ice.

    This is one reason I have a love-hate relationship with bookstores. (Did I actually admit that?? Am I the only one?) I love that they have books and I love books. But then again, when I walk through and look at all the stuff that’s been published, all those rows and rows of fresh new titles and rows and rows of books that will remain in print for eternity, and I see the names of writers who seem to be constantly and consistently published, I cringe inside. I feel I’m swimming upstream, I feel the competition is so enormous that what hope do I have to sell another book? I slink away to the cafe section of the shop and console myself with a cup of hot chai.

    But, inevitably, I end up back home, more pissed than jealous, and that’s when I get back to work. My horse is in the race. It may not be leading the pack, it may even be trailing at times, but it’s in there and it’s time to spur her on. Then the pissed changes to determination, the determination to enthusiasm.

    Well, most of the time. Other times I just stay jealous.

    Thanks for sharing this, Brian.

    Beth

  9. March 24th, 2008 at 08:42 | #9

    I think it’s normal and human to feel this way. And I suspect it never goes away no matter the amount of success a person does achieve. We always more.

  10. March 24th, 2008 at 10:05 | #10

    Ballsy post, Brian – thank you! – obviously you’re far from alone.

    I had a great teacher who said that jealousy is a useful tool, because it’s the heart saying what it wants for YOU. With that in mind it’s easier to take that negative emotion and turn it into a positive one – a wish, instead of a curse.

  11. March 25th, 2008 at 08:40 | #11

    I made my peace with the little green guy a while ago. He points out the folks whose work I should be using as a benchmark, and then gets the hell out of the way to let me take my best shot at matching them. Beyond that, there’s nothing he – or I – can control.

  12. Robert Jones
    March 26th, 2008 at 11:01 | #12

    A

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