Artists get jealous. We get mad, we covet, we wish something someone else made was something that we made. Another’s success is great and we’re glad but, deep down, we wish it were ours. Thus is life as an artist.
This feeling has long been a struggle for me. For most of my twenties, I spent my time mad at other people for succeeding and angry at myself for not. It was a toxic, individual push-and-pull that ultimately did nothing for me. So. I stopped being mad and jealous and just started to be. I put clear blinders on and realized that another person’s success happens because they worked for it every day, putting everything they had into getting there: my whining and complaining about their success was both a distraction and time suck from actually doing. Nothing is made overnight – and nothing is maintained without work. Thus, the lesson in envy.
But it still persists. There are still itches from reading or seeing something that someone else – friend or foreign – did that I wish were mine. That will never not be the case, the strange angry admiration that we call respect. This subject recently popped up while researching the concept of “cleansing your linguistic palate” while searching for ways to jumpstart new work within the broader context of a work, a literary rabbit hole that led to a Sarah Manguso article on “green-eyed verbs,” otherwise known as seeds of envy.
She, like many of us, goes into tailspins regarding what we have and have not done, motivated by creative envy. She likens the matter to Keats who fell into this trap too, noting that “writing out of envy will not produce a tree in bloom.” Manguso implores writers to acknowledge and love good work but to keep it at arms distance. “No one who reads is immune,” she says, imploring people to stay humble as the key to finding one’s creative voice.
The most powerful bit of the piece was a call for resetting where she breaks down what it is to write, reminding us all why we do what we do.
I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.
“Writers must labor from a vague feeling”: I love that.
That, really, is the most difficult thing of all: to create in a way that isn’t overworked or overthought, that isn’t a green diamond created from the festering mad shit inside of us but, instead, the opening of a window from which observations can fly. It’s a good lesson, one applicable to so many of us who live to create.