It’s The Company You Keep

I used to hang around a bunch of poets. Not because I liked them—they were snobbish in their elegiac greatness—but because as poets, they were guaranteed to get rejected more often than I. My novel was dead in the water while writing workshop fellows were tossing off stories to lit magazines like short order cooks handing out scrambled eggs. This new thing, Facebook, only seemed to be used for book launch announcements. An agent who’d once bought me breakfast pretended not to see me at a conference and actually stepped behind a fern. A fern! But those poets, well, nothing was ever happening with them. Then one day, I arrived at the coffee shop to a celebration: the bushy-haired guy got a poem in the New Yorker. I smiled and raised my chai latte while kicking myself under the table for ever depending on poets in the first place.

Writing is a competitive sport. Oh, we say it isn’t. We laud one another and pat each other’s backs when our query letters disappear into the abyss, when we get back a rejection on photocopied stationery as the submission wasn’t even worth the fifteen cents for the real thing. We burn photos of agents in effigy. When one of us succeeds, though, it gets a hell of a lot trickier. After all, writing is subjective and personal. Often, we can look at a writer and say yes, I know exactly why that dream agent is taking her on. But it isn’t always clear why someone’s work has found its place while our pages yellow in unread angst.

Jealousy is much more straightforward in other professions. Wall Street is all about the money. A great game we used to play was to walk into a cocktail party and determine in an instant who was worth the most. It was the man (and of course it was a man) at the center of the orbiting sycophants. The ridiculousness of it all, however, was also much clearer in that industry. That satellite out there that nobody wants to talk to? Probably worth ten million bucks. Not so shabby in any other context, but in that room, a loser.

Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, in trying to understand the other. Practicing this art form requires tapping into a connection to our version of the truth we are desperate to relate to the world. Nothing is more devastating to that connection than the despair wrought by rejection and jealousy.

Keeping jealousy at bay sometimes seems impossible. There’s lots of advice out there. Every time someone gets published it’s a victory for literary arts! Each new book contributes to our overall humanity! Victories for humanity, however, are little solace when you have to grimace convincingly while you listen to someone bemoan the fact that her favorite editor failed to bid at her book’s auction.

A solution is to avoid other writers by, say, moving into the wilderness or simply socializing with lawyers. While I can’t comment on the former, my experience with the latter doesn’t offer much hope. After all, few non-writers can understand the orgasmic bliss of finally determining an imaginary person’s wounding event, the one missing detail that will render all her further imaginary actions perfectly understandable. The best non-writing friends will avert their gazes and pour you more wine. And remember, the only thing worse than having to listen to writers complain is to have no writers to whom to complain. Writing is a lonely odyssey and publishing is a bizarre, alien planet. Having a fellow space explorer alongside might just prevent death by oxygen deprivation.

Perhaps context is a better path. Remembering how far the road has been and looking at where we’ve come, not as a publishing star, but as a writer can be valuable. Isn’t it fantastic to be invited to a party where everyone seems to be represented? Aren’t we then in the company of some skilled writers? Double that for writing groups. If someone who is reading our work is going on to great success (and even if his book is way too commercial for our literary tastes) there is probably a lot to learn both from reading his work and from listening to his comments on ours. Recognizing that while we might be the losers in one room, like that ten million guy, we’re rock stars somewhere. Perhaps we need to find that somewhere once in a while and volunteer to teach the basics of craft to people who’ve never heard of them before. Maybe by offering to read and comment on someone’s work who hasn’t yet had our vast amount of experience we can tame the green-eyed monster.

The alternative is simply too destructive because it never ends. The range of writing envy is so great, from that twinge when an acquaintance gets into a selective program to stomach cramps at a friend’s book moving up the best-selling list on Amazon to full-on rage at the old roommate now short-listed for a big prize. If the opportunities to get rejected in fiction are countless, the opportunities for despair are an ever-expanding, infinite universe.

And so even on our weakest days we must force ourselves to toast our friend for selling her film rights and foreign rights and for having the first book selected by NASA for its Mars Mission book group, remembering all the while that somewhere, there’s a coffee shop full of hairy poets reading the opening lines of their emails… I regret to inform you….


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