Green Is Not Your Color: Professional Jealousy and the Professional Writer

The quiz below has been scientifically designed to determine the degree of professional envy you possess. You have five minutes to complete it. No, the person sitting next to you does not have a better pencil, nor is her test in any way superior to yours. No, she isn’t getting more time than you. No, I don’t like her better than you. Yes, life is not fair. Just take the quiz, will you?

  1. Your friend has just won an award in a contest you entered. Your first reaction is to:
    1. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and mean every word of it.
    2. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and think, “My entry was better, what happened there?”
    3. Say, “Those awards don’t mean anything anyway, especially that one, which is why I didn’t bother to enter it.”
  2. Your friend has just signed with an agent you queried. Your first reaction is to:
    1. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and mean every word of it.
    2. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and think, “My writing is better, what happened there?”
    3. Say, “Well, she’s not a top agent, but I suppose she’s a good place to start, depending on the kind of career you want.”
  3. Your friend has just sold her first book to a publisher you’d targeted. Your first reaction is to:
    1. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and mean every word of it.
    2. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and think, “They turned me down and took hers?”
    3. Say, “I heard they were desperate for writers, so it’s not a place I’d want to take my first book.”
  4. Your friend has just hit a bestseller list. Your first reaction is to:
    1. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and mean every word of it.
    2. Smile and say, “I’m so happy for you,” and think “How the hell do they pick these books, by killing a chicken in the basement?”
    3. Say, “You know, that list isn’t really a reflection of actual sales, so I’m not sure how important it really is.”
  5. Your friend has just suffered a career setback. Your first reaction is to:
    1. A. Say, “I’m so sorry, I’m sure this is just temporary,” and mean every word of it.
    2. Say, “I’m so sorry, I’m sure this is just temporary,” but feel oddly relieved.
    3. Smile and say, “Well, you had a very nice little career going there while it lasted.”

Give yourself 0 points for every A, one point for every B, and two points for every C.

  • 9-10 Points: You’re a jealous harpy.
  • 6-8 Points: It wouldn’t kill you to be nicer.
  • 3-5 Points: Welcome to RWA, you’ll fit right in.
  • 1-2 Points: You’re probably repressing some emotions.
  • 0 Points: You’re a liar.

Jealousy and You

Okay, here’s the thing about professional jealousy: it comes with the profession. Any profession. Forget that “I was just so happy for her” stuff. If you scored below a six on the quiz above, you probably were happy for her, after you got over the “damn, why didn’t I get that?” stage. But there was a “damn, why didn’t I get that?” stage, and how much it’s going to hurt you depends on how fast you admit you’re there and how long you stay there. The correct answers are “immediately” and “five minutes.” The more realistic answers are “within the hour” and “after a day.” Any longer than that, you have a problem and you should solve it because it’s going to poison you faster than all that sugar you ingested to get you over the bad part.

The place you want to get to is “I’m really happy for her, and I certainly hope I get what she has some day.” That’s healthy, that’s honest, that’s probably even good for you unless you’re jealous of Nora Roberts in which case just give up now. But wanting a specific goal like publication and feeling a twinge when somebody gets it before you do, that’s human. As long as you keep it to yourself.

It’s so tempting. You’re with your group of friends, you’re all sharing misery, somebody says something nasty, and it seems all right to join in. It’s not. First, it makes you look like a jealous bitch, and people will remember that moment and brand you with it. As somebody who has had more than her share of “Oh, hell, why did I say that?” moments, I’m telling you now: Shut up. Write your jealousy in your journal, tell your envy to your dog, whisper your seething misery to the wind (as long as the wind is in a large open space and there’s nobody within earshot), but do NOT give yourself the comfort of the company of friends. Because if they’re backbiting, they’re not your friends, and they will repeat whatever you’ve said if it can do them good in the future. It’s one thing to discuss somebody else’s career, dissect how she got where she is today, and apply that to your own career, or to analyze a book whose success has puzzled or surprised you to see what made it sell. That’s just strategizing. It’s another thing entirely to say, “She didn’t deserve that, she’s a lousy writer, she cheats, she lies, I hope she dies.” That’s the part you keep to yourself. Forever.

The second reason is that sounding like a jealous bitch can easily turn you into a jealous bitch; the power of what you say often makes you into the kind of person who would say that. And jealous bitches are miserable people. Just to make sure I knew what I was talking about for this essay, I looked up “jealousy” and “envy” in the dictionary, and what surprised me was that both definitions had the same word in them: “unhappy.” Jealousy is a “bitter and unhappy feeling because of another’s advantages, possessions, or luck.” Envy is “the resentful or unhappy feeling of wanting somebody else’s success or good fortune.” Bitterness, resentfulness, and unhappiness are not qualities that make people flock to your side, trust you, and want to help you. More than that, they are not qualities that make for a good life. It’s in your own best interests to deal with the jealousy quietly and swiftly and then move on. What somebody else got is irrelevant; you want your focus on your writing, your career, and your life.

So how do you do that?

First of all, recognize the jealousy. The people I know who are the most suffused with professional jealousy can tell me piously that they’re never jealous because they really don’t see it. They’re so poisoned with the stuff that they think it’s normal. So here’s how you know if you’ve got it: Somebody else succeeds and you feel bad. Not puzzled, not surprised, not dumbfounded, but bad . Angry, depressed, bitchy, bitter, mean… if somebody else’s success makes you unhappy, forget any explanations or rationalizations; you’re jealous.

So your best friend gets published and you eat a quart of Dove ice cream without her. Somebody who started writing after you did gets a big advance and you pick a fight with your significant other. Somebody in your chapter gets a great agent, and you lock your kids out in the snow. No, you are not just having a bad day, you are jealous. Step away from the ice cream, apologize to your sig other, and let the kids in. Then sit down and face the fact: You’re human. You wanted something, somebody else got it, and that’s not a good feeling. It’s normal to feel disappointed.

Then wallow in it. Quietly, to yourself, the bathroom is always good for this, but just let it rip. For five minutes. That’s all you get, five minutes to be seethingly, teeth-achingly bitter. It’s your five minutes, so make the most of it.

Then, since you’re in the bathroom anyway, say everything you’ve been thinking out loud while looking at yourself in the mirror. This always puts it in perspective for me. I’m looking at my face, such a nice person that Jenny Crusie, and she’s saying these horrible things, must be somebody else, couldn’t be me, and eventually I start to laugh. Well, you probably have to be there, but really, I look so dumb saying, “I’m better than she is,” especially given the way my hair usually looks. The thing about the bathroom mirror trick is that jealousy really does change the way you look. You look smaller saying those things, meaner, your eyebrows meet, your lips get thinner, you do not look like the kind of person you’d want to spend time with, let alone be.

Then think about what the person did to get what she got. This helps relieve the jealousy because if she worked really hard, studied, stayed up nights, finished her book, whatever, you can see that she deserves it. I know a lot of people who are more successful than I am, but I don’t know of one of them who didn’t work her butt off to get where she is today. The fact is, most of the time when somebody gets something, she does deserve it. Maybe you deserved it more, but she does deserve it. Give her some credit. (Yes, I know some people don’t deserve it. Don’t worry about them, the wheel of fortune will turn again and they’ll be ground beneath its weight. Let it go, I’m telling you.)

Then take that analysis of what she did and see if you can apply it to your career. Whatever it was that she did, it obviously worked. How can you make it work for you? Jealousy isn’t productive, but somebody else’s success can be very valuable to you. Use it. Then you can think of her achievement as something she did for you. She showed you the way. Which means that when you see her again, you can be sincerely pleased for her.

Which is the next step: Congratulate her. Bette Midler said, “The hardest thing about being successful is finding somebody to be happy for you.” The one thing that I have noticed about all the successful people I know is that their circle of friends gets smaller and smaller as they become more and more successful because the number of people they can trust to be truly happy for them dwindles with each triumph. I am fortunate to have a lot of friends who write, and my goal is to be somebody they can tell their good news to, somebody who can (after I have that session in front of the mirror) be truly happy for them. It’s not because I’m a good person–that ship sailed awhile ago, I’m just trying for “fairly decent” at this point–it’s that I love these people and I want them to stay in my life.

So congratulate her by phone, by e-mail, by snail mail, if she’s a close friend take her to lunch, but celebrate her success with her. Remember, the power of what you say often makes you into the kind of person who would say that. If you say gracious and supportive things and try your best to mean them–no gritting your teeth, talk yourself into meaning them before you write or meet her–the odds are that you are indeed gracious and supportive. Practice that. It’s a good career move, but more than that, it’s a good life move. Being nice to people, smiling at them without grinding your teeth, tends to make you happy. As God is my witness, this works.

Then put it behind you. Take comfort in the fact that people like you are getting published, getting agents, making the list, it can be done, Susie did it and so can you. And then let it go. It’s done, it’s out of your life, move on.

You have twenty-four hours to reach this stage. One day. That’s it. No more. Look at the clock when you feel the first punch to the stomach of bitter envy and swear that when it’s that time tomorrow, you will be done with it. You get the entire twenty-four to deal, but if you still can’t be happy for her after that, get professional help. No, I’m not kidding. If somebody else’s success can poison you longer than that, you’re dealing with bigger issues than “she got what I want.” You need to look at what all of this really means to you, and you need professional help to do it. Listen, writing makes people crazy. No, really, look at how many drunks, druggies, and suicides fill the Norton Anthologies. Arguably, most of us started out a little off plumb, but writing and publishing pushes us all farther out on the ledge. And jealousy can push us over; it is absolutely toxic to writing, to careers, to health and happiness. Get help now.

So okay, you’re dealing with it. But you have this friend…

Jealousy and Others

Having a jealous friend can be almost as detrimental as feeling the jealousy yourself. It’s the flip side: instead of being poisoned with envy, you’re poisoned with guilt. And she’s the one with the mental hypodermic, injecting you whenever you start to feel good about your accomplishments. You know her: she’s the one you can’t tell your good news to because it will make her feel bad. And somehow, after you talk to her about any accomplishment, you feel smaller. You know who I mean. Got her in your mind now? Good.

Delete her.

Get her not only out of your mind, but out of your life. Because I have news for you: She’s not your friend. Some people are simply toxic; they go through life like human mildew, leaving a spotty stain wherever they’ve been. They are the ones who will say all the C answers in the quiz above (which I know because people have said 1, 3, 4, and 5 to me) and then if you protest, they’ll tell you they’re just being honest. They’re only trying to help you. You’re so touchy. Really, if they can’t tell you the truth, then how can they be your friends?

If there were no consequences, what you really should do at that point is slap them silly, just to get their attention, and then tell them that they’re jealous harpies and to read this essay. But as we know, the power of what you say and do often makes you into the kind of person who would say and do that. So no slapping. Instead, you tell her that her honestly and helpfulness are damaging to your work, that they destroy the joy you take in your accomplishments, and that therefore, you’re going to have to let her go.

And then you tag her e-mail address as junk mail, screen your calls, and smile gently and turn away when you see her in public. Because if you give her even the slightest crack to get back in, she’ll seep the acid of her own misery into your life.

And that’s really where that kind of soul-sucking professional jealousy comes from: These people are truly unhappy and want you to join them. An ancient philosopher whose name I have, of course, forgotten said, “Do not die of another’s misery.” You cannot help these people, and if you try, they will pull you under with them. Their jealousy and their spleen are how they’ve chosen to define themselves, they wouldn’t know who they were if they weren’t leaking poison into other people’s happiness, and you cannot save them. It is not your duty to save them. It is not being a good person to keep them in your life. It’s being a victim and a patsy. Let them go so that you can celebrate your accomplishments as they deserve to be celebrated, without guilt or apology. You worked hard, you deserve what you got, now get rid of anybody who’s going to try to take that away from you. Do not let other people spoil your joy.

Then double check to make sure you’re not doing the same thing to somebody yourself.

The biggest drawback to professional jealousy–besides the fact that it alienates your friends, ruins your looks, makes you miserable, wastes your time, and poisons your life–is that it screws up your writing. If your head is full of green bile, there’s not much room for great stories, and those that are in there already will get cramped and stained and damp and smelly. And if that happens, you have no one to blame but yourself. I told you to go look in the mirror and say those things you were thinking so you could see them crawl out of your mouth like toads and newts. Did you do it? Well, go do it now. Yes, right now. It’s never too late to realize you’ve been horrible and fix it. Trust me, I have vast experience with this.

So here’s the plan: Face your jealousy, get over it, congratulate your fortunate friend, and then go write your own good book, and when it’s published, we’ll all celebrate with you.

Just give us five minutes in the bathroom first.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. PRO Column, Feb. 2005