A Fire to Light Your Way: Writers and Professional Jealousy

We don’t like to admit it, but it happens to everyone.

With the Pitch Wars showcase fast approaching, AMM picks announced, awards season in full swing, and The Discourse piping hot, it’s time to get real about an experience that can sting worse than rejections on your own work:

Watching your fellow writers succeed.

That’s right, I said it.

If you follow me on social media, you know that I love hyping up my fellow writers. It brings me genuine joy. But that joy doesn’t mean I don’t go on my own private emotional journey now and again when I see somebody announce something that I want for myself.

Rachel of Friends says, "I'm probably 98% happy, maybe 2% jealous. I mean, what's 2%? That's nothing."
Statistically insignificant!

Professional jealousy comes for all of us. Even if you ration your social media and carefully silo yourself away from other people’s good news, I promise that at some point in this wild journey we call publishing, you will have your moment of being absolutely floored by it.

It will happen more than once. Sometimes it will happen over and over on the same day. (Those are good days to step away from social media or wherever you get other people’s good news.)

Feeling envious or jealous doesn’t mean you can’t be happy for your peers too—it can give rise to a weird mixed state. More than one emotion can exist in the same moment. You can be genuinely ecstatic for your friend’s achievement and sick to your stomach because it wasn’t you at the same time.

Pitch Wars babies, this one’s for you.

Last year around this time, I was preparing for the Pitch Wars agent showcase. I was nervous, excited, and utterly unprepared for the emotional gauntlet I was about to face. This is no knock on my mentor, who did the best they could to prepare me and made a plan with me on when I wanted to hear about agent requests. They warned me that showcase could bring some strong feelings, but I assured them that I would be fine! I wasn’t worried!

A dog in a hat sits at a table with a cup before him. The room is on fire. This is fine.
“I’m not like other girls mentees!”

Yes, I was blithely convinced that watching my peers get requests even if I didn’t wouldn’t bother me that much. I didn’t even care if I got requests myself! I was rooting for everyone! I had gotten so much out of Pitch Wars already that it didn’t mat…

[record scratch]

Oh, you sweet summer child. Spoiler alert: it mattered A LOT. I cared A LOT. And I was about to GO THROUGH IT and learn some things about myself I didn’t know before.

Comparison: it’s a trap!

Day one came, the showcase opened, and I got no requests. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Radio silence. But I was still fine! They would come, I was sure of it.

Maybe the adult SFF agents hadn’t arrived yet, I told myself. Of course, a fellow adult SFF mentee had already received a truly wild number of requests by that point, so I knew I was fooling myself.

Then Day 2 came, and still I had nothing. I died a little inside.

On Day 3, one request came in. Then a few more. I ended the showcase with four whole requests. Four! One of my peers had FIFTY. I had feelings, many feelings about that. (Comparison is bad, mmmkay? But it also happens. Sometimes you can’t help it.)

Admiral Akbar shouts "IT'S A TRAP!"
Why doesn’t anyone shout this BEFORE the trap gets sprung?

And did any of those four requests result in an agent offer, you ask? No, they did not. And one requesting agent, a big one, a dream agent, rejected my full 48 hours after I sent it.

What do they call that in the beat sheet? Ah yes, it’s the Dark Night of the Soul. In the belly of the beast. The underworld. And other dramatic low points.

By then, some of my classmates had already signed. I was ecstatic for them and sick at heart (and in my stomach) for me. I had my petty moments, but thankfully, I was able to keep them to myself and no friendships were lost.

Of course this story has a happy ending, and if you are a regular reader of this blog you already know that, but I didn’t know that then. I wouldn’t know that for ten more months.

Then again, the “ending” isn’t really an ending but a new beginning, with more opportunities to feel scorching jealousy about people’s six figure book deals as I languish on sub! New verse, same as the first, a little bit louder, etc.

It’s not you, it’s them.

If you are an author with something exciting to announce, if you are the Pitch Wars darling with a full dance card, if you are bursting with the news of your big money book deal, congratulations! And let me make one thing clear: it’s not your responsibility to manage other people’s feelings about your success.

You don’t have to humble yourself, minimize your joy, or apologize for it. Please don’t. There’s not enough joy to begin with in this world. Don’t steal it from yourself, and don’t let anyone else steal it from you.

You also don’t have to share every failure and struggle along the way, not unless you feel moved to. Just know that your turn in the envy barrel will come, probably when you least expect it.

There’s always someone a step ahead, tempting you into comparisons. If not the agent then the book deal, if not the book deal then the five star trade review, if not the trades then the bestseller lists, if not the lists then the prestige TV adaptation. There’s always something!

So try to be compassionate if someone doesn’t show up to celebrate with you. They don’t owe you that anymore than you owe it to them to mute your celebration.

However, if someone repeatedly shows up to drag you down right after you announce something cool, or supports you with backhanded compliments that leave you feeling worse about yourself, that’s probably not a coincidence. People deal with their jealousy differently and some deal with it very badly indeed.

You are not required to stay friends with people who act out their insecurities and jealousies on you, or who feel obliged to take you down a peg. Those aren’t friends—they’re frenemies.

A brunette white girl shakes her head and says "we were never friends" as two other white girls look shocked.
Friends don’t do that shit.

Pro tip: if you find yourself Googling “Is my friend toxic” a lot, then the answer is probably yes.

On the other hand, if you are one of those people who takes notes on who isn’t showing up to cheer for you, stop it right now. You don’t know what other people are going through and whatever it is, it’s not about you (even if they think it is).

It’s not them, it’s you.

Jealousy and envy isn’t about the person who has what you want. It’s about you, what you want, how you feel about yourself. It’s a big flashing sign that tells you what your desire is, what your ambition is, and what you fear most. It says you want more than you have.

It’s not about the other person because you don’t know what they went through to get where they are. You don’t know the advantages they had, the price they paid, or the failures they endured up to this moment. You can’t know and they don’t owe it to you to tell you, either.

When you look at it like that, their success doesn’t say anything more about them than it does about you. It’s your feelings that have something to say, and even though it may not be what you want to hear, even though it may sound ugly and raw, it can be worth it to listen.

Sometimes, jealousy takes us by surprise. You may have not known you wanted that shiny award until someone else has it and is waving it around, giving their big acceptance speech. But that’s not on them. You just learned something about yourself.

Ariel sings, When's it my turn, wouldn't I love? and swims upward.
You want to be part of that world, and that’s ok. (Just don’t give up your voice for it.)

Jealousy tells us how much we care, even if we tell ourselves that we don’t. It’s smoke and heat from the fire that burns inside us, the flame of our passion. It’s not a pyre to throw yourself onto, but combustion to propel you forward. Let it show you the direction and strength of your ambition.

Ambition gets a bad rap, but it’s not bad in itself—only when it causes us to hurt other people or ourselves. Keep that fire in your furnace, in your forge, in your engine, and handle it with care.

Don’t use it to burn your bridges. You’ll need it to light your way.

Publishing isn’t a race.

Even if it were, the person who makes it to the next goalpost first is not necessarily going to make it to the one after that in record time.

But this isn’t a competition. There’s no deadline. Sure, the inevitable heat death of the universe is coming someday but until then, it’s anybody’s game.

And it’s not a zero-sum game. Yes, there is competition in publishing—I don’t want to sugar-coat that—but your friend getting a book deal or agent doesn’t meaningfully reduce your chances of the same, unless you are writing something extremely similar and submitting to the same editor/agent. Even then, it’s just as likely that their success will cause your work to be more in demand. A rising tide often does lift all boats.

Moira of Schitt's Creek says, "When one of us shines, all of us shine"
It’s truer than you think!

For the Pitch Wars class especially, I want to emphasize this point: IT IS NOT A RACE. It can feel like you are all starting from the same gate, but you’re not even on the same track. You are all on an individual, unique journey, and the agent showcase is just the beginning.

Feeling waves of jealousy or envy is normal, but don’t let it ruin the friendships you made. The showcase lasts a few days and most of your cohort will likely be your colleagues forever. Give your feelings time, but this too will pass. There’s nothing quite like being able to preorder a Pitch Wars book from your classmate. You’ll be friends forged in fire then, no matter how you felt with the fire under your feet.

Showcase is a jump into the deep end, and the water might be cold at first. It may feel like a shock, like the end of the PW experience, but it’s actually the start of the next leg—the real journey.

If you are seeking a writing career, that journey only ends when you stop writing. There’s no finish line, no lifetime wish achievement that means you won like a good little Sim. There’s just the next book.

Step away if you have to.

Take care of yourself – the feelings can be intense. Set aside extra time and resources for self care. Keep a list of nice things people have said about your work and look at it when you feel low. Drink wine and cry. Eat cake and watch bad TV. Whatever self care looks like for you, you deserve it!

If you are feeling really petty about other people getting what you wanted, DEFINITELY step away. Do not engage. The last thing you want is to let your feelings about your own perceived level of success ruin your relationships and support system. The bon mot “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” applies here in spades.

Annie of Community says "I'm so jealous I could murder you"
Honesty is NOT always the best policy.

Don’t get mad, get offline. Or rather, do get mad if you have to, but don’t do it in public. Have your feelings in private with a VERY select number of your most trusted friends (NOT the ones you are jealous of, for the love of Pete). Non-writer friends are great for this because they will not get what the big deal is and will grant you important perspective you have probably lost.

Wallow your heart out, give yourself all the time you need, make space for it, and then figure out what YOU need to do to get that thing you want. Make a six month plan, a one year plan, a five year plan. Strategize.

If you can, congratulate the person who sparked your jealousy in the first place. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it helps, as long as it’s genuine. Joy is a renewable resource and celebration is shareable joy.

There’s a term for this, popular in non-monogamous communities, that applies well here: compersion, a “wholehearted participation in the happiness of others.” In Buddhism, there is a similar concept called “mudita,” the “quality of showing up with presence and tenderness for joy around you.” Yes, this is a form of showing up and also a mindfulness practice!

In developing mudita, we come to appreciate other people as complete and complex beings, not as characters in our personal play.

O’Brien, Barbara. “Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy.

Your time to celebrate will come. But sharing joy multiplies it.

Be kind to yourself first.

I truly believe that when we feel the most negatively toward other people, often those feelings come from a wellspring of unhappiness with ourselves. If we aren’t kind to ourselves, in our self-talk and self-compassion, it makes it that much harder to be kind to others.

Kindness starts within. Most creative hearts are tender deep down, because creativity puts our deepest selves on the line. It makes rejection extremely difficult and comparisons harsh.

Your heart works hard and deserves gentleness and care. So if nothing else, when you’re feeling tender about someone else’s success, address that tenderness where it lives: inside you. It’s not always easy, but try and notice the harsh ways that you’re using that person’s success to beat yourself up.

“I’ll never make it.” “I’m not good enough.” “I’ll never be like them.” “No one wants my book.”

Leslie Knope says, "We say things to ourselves that we'll never say to our friends."
Don’t be your own frenemy.

That big announcement from someone else that you can’t avoid doesn’t mean any of those things are true. But they could become true if you believe them hard enough, because treating yourself cruelly will stifle your growth just as surely as someone else’s cruelty (if not more so).

Acknowledge those fears for what they are: the shadow of your desires. We fear we won’t get something because we want it. The more we want it, the more we fear not getting it.

This is deep self-work, but it’s worth it. Because no matter what your cruelest inner critics say or what the publishing industry buys and sells this year, your story matters. Your voice matters. Your creative work matters. Don’t lose sight of that because you’re looking at somebody else’s highlight reel.

If you’re grappling with jealousy in your creative work, I hope reading this helped, or at least made you feel less alone. Truly, we have all been there, and will be again.

Holding up Simba: It's the circle of life!
Through despair and hope!

I love reading your comments, so let me know your thoughts!

6 thoughts on “A Fire to Light Your Way: Writers and Professional Jealousy

  1. What a lovely post, Erin. And on a super relevant subject too. I just felt pretty crappy watching a fellow Malaysian win a novel competition while my manuscript didn’t make the cut. Was pondering why I felt that way too, and your post helped a little. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks a lot Erin for giving us this reminder…… I remember when we had this national essay writing comp. for which I had been preparing a lot…. But to my dismay, my friend got selected for it even when she wasn’t that eager about it ( at least I think she wasn’t) . All in all, I will remember all this positive talk from now on:)

    Liked by 1 person

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