Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Envy

 Several months ago at a dinner party, a writer came up to me and the party host and asked if either of us had ever felt envious. The writer had just come from her writing group, where one of the other fiction writers had begun tearing into a third writer's work in a surprisingly hostile manner. The writer whose work was up for discussion that afternoon is a very successful fiction writer: so successful that movies have been made from her novels. So successful that she was in fact the recent answer to a Jeopardy! question that the surprisingly hostile writer in the group had just happened to see that afternoon on her way out the door to her writing group. The surprisingly hostile writer, in contrast, had been working on a series of teen novels that seemed to be going nowhere, and which her agent had recently suggested she might consider either scrapping, or revising so heavily that they resembled another series of novels entirely.


So you can imagine just what might have been going through the less successful writer's mind when this other writer's work was on the table.

To her credit, the surprisingly hostile writer came clean to the writer telling me this story; she apologized for her outburst (well, apologized to the writer at the party, not the writer she'd attacked) and said that there were just some days she could barely function from all the envy she was feeling.

The writer at the party then asked me if my writing group ever had this problem (No, I told her, we're poets; we're in jeopardy, not ON Jeopardy!) and whether or not I had personally ever felt envy for another writer. 

"Sure," I said. "Envy is pretty natural. I mean, who doesn't envy someone for some astounding success achieved completely unfairly, because if it was really fair, then obviously that success would have gone to me, ha ha ha ha?"

No one laughed.

Sweating, I continued. "Well, obviously, I'm joking," I said. "But really, no, I do get envious, but my envy is sort of hard to predict now. I used to be envious all the time when I was younger, and feeling powerless, and worried that I would never get anything finished and, if finished, never published. But now that I've done these things, I find that I'm envious about harder to define things, you know, not necessarily buckets of money and fame, which of course occasionally give me twinges of despair for not having them when I see someone else getting these things, but really just writing confidently, and well and fluidly, without any of the troughs of self-doubt that make it hard to write some days."

No one said anything.

"I suppose," I continued, clearing my throat and trying again, "it's a good thing I'm a poet since--with rare exceptions--there really is no big-stakes money or fame. But mostly if I do feel envious of somebody, it's more to do with whether or not I felt that I DIDN'T have a shot at getting what they had. For instance," I said (really babbling now), "if I applied for something someone else gets, oddly I DON'T feel envious of the winner because I had the opportunity of trying for it. It's the people who get things that I can't compete for myself who make me want to gnaw my fingers off, except in two instances: 1. If I know they really really needed that money and they're generally good writers, or 2. I don't like their writing in the least."

Here I took a breath. The hostess' eyes had begun to glaze over.

The other writer widened her eyes. "Huh!" she said. "How interesting. Myself, I guess I just never feel envy. Do you?" she asked, turning to the party hostess.

"No," the party hostess said, smiling with relief to be confronted with something finally comprehensible. "Not me!"

"I'm just happy to have so many famous friends," the other writer said. "It makes me feel that, if I'm surrounded by awesome and successful people, I must be in some way awesome and successful, too. You know?"

"Exactly!" chirped the party host. "I'm just so happy for my friends who do well. It makes me feel so good for them! I don't understand how people could ever feel angry towards their friends."



I stood there, the bubbles fizzing slowly out of my Prosecco. I was beginning to understand exactly how people could feel so angry towards their friends. Because here I'd just been suckered into admitting something awful about myself, something the moral equivalent of having shit your pants while stuck in the car during heavy traffic, perhaps, while these two cheerful party brutes were cackling away about how Ghandhi-like they had collectively become. Perhaps, if I really thought about it, these two would now head my list of people most likely to be envied. But I didn't want to think about it like that, because thinking like that would require not only that I be a more generous, less cynical person, but would demand that the two women standing before me were not, in fact, humans at all but demi-gods come to earth for the sole purpose of ruining other people's party experiences.

As it was, it seemed two options were available to me.

1. These women were utterly vacuous and/or deluded about the state of their own emotional lives which they had to constantly suppress, thus suggesting that they were, in fact, really, really angry, probably the angriest people I've ever met OR

2. These women were lying.

It seemed pretty clear that these women were lying. In fact, in one instance, I know for sure that one of these women was lying because I've heard her say some not very nice things about other people, particularly other women, and if there's one thing I've learned about women, it's that they often say not nice very things about other women they envy, UNLESS that woman is so beautiful and/or personally amazing that to be catty about her would immediately reveal the true nature behind said catty comments, thus the envious woman ends up praising out of all proportion the many charms of the object of envy, but in language measured carefully to indicate to the observant listener that the same piece praise is also damning disparagement, as in, "I'm so impressed by how beautiful her hair always looks! It must take her THE WHOLE DAY getting it to look like that!"

It's exhausting, sometimes, being a woman.

I'm thinking about envy now because, weirdly, I've had a number of conversations about envy this year. One of the most notable was with a friend in Paris who asked, while on a bus to an art exhibition out near Provins, whether I'd ever envied another writer.

I tensed, waiting for the trap.

"I guess," I hedged. "Maybe? Do you?"

"All the time!" she admitted cheerfully, and we proceeded to talk (with relief) about the writers that we envied, and why, and then moved on to the many oddly productive side effects of a certain kind of envy; namely, the envy we feel for a really good piece of writing which in fact inspired us to write a more ambitious piece ourselves. This kind of envy is generally about the quality about the work and has to be distinguished from the less useful type of envy, which is only about professional status. That kind of envy, we both agreed, gets you nowhere, and has to be mapped and avoided, like flaming sinkholes on the edges of your subconsciousness.

But the other envy, we agreed, might have something to it.


It made me almost feel sorry then for those women at the party who said they felt no envy at all. Wouldn't they get bored, I thought, being so happy all the time with other people's achievements?

Who knows. I never got to ask. I was too busy imagining putting their heads in a blender.

The other notable conversation about envy I had was with a fellow poet from the States traveling to Paris to get some writing done. I don't really know this writer outside of his work, but we got together for dinner and a lot of drinks with some other folks after a reading and somewhere during the dinner, the topic of frustration and despair worked its way into the conversation, as it always seems to do when at least two writers are put  together. Soon the visiting writer was talking very openly about some difficulties he'd experienced with a book project. I was impressed that he would talk about this, as most successful artistic types (and, stereotypically, most successful male artistic types) tend to avoid stories that put them in any kind of professionally vulnerable light. It was a generous thing to do and express to the other younger writers at the table, but what became most interesting to me was how deeply familiar his envy-triggers were to the rest of us.

Because he--like me--most envied the people who exude the confidence that whatever they produce, it will be worthwhile. Perhaps these people don't really exist in the world; however, I'm persuaded to believe that certain writers do have more sense of self-possession and confidence, something that allows them to be more ambitious in their own work. Something that Kathryn Chetkovich, famous both for being Jonathan Franzen's partner and for penning the essay "Envy" about the problems of this particular relationship, totally nails.

This permission doesn't have to come from outside validation, either; in fact, the greatest envy I feel is for people who appear to gain that sense of validation entirely on their own. That, if it is in fact the case for them and I'll never really know since I tend never to ask people these kinds of questions about their personal lives, prefering instead to talk about what kind of cars they drive or their latest venereal disease, seems to me the greatest professional talent, and the hardest one to attain.


Perhaps--as Chetkovich points out in her essay--there is something gendered to this gift as well, though I have seen a number of women who possess it and--if I'm going to be brutally honest with myself here-- I've envied them far more bitterly than I ever have any of the self-possessed men. That is the worst part and kind of envy, I think, and it reveals exactly how much I've let sexism shape my own attitudes about success and literary entitlement.

As a list-maker by nature, I find it useful to jot down the things that may or may not be worth spending time on. The list of writers and qualities that may be worth envying is too long to quote from here, so I'll just leave you with the list of things I know are total wastes of caloric energy but which continue to send me into frothy tailspins of self-hatred.

1. Anyone who is 5'8" or taller and has the arms of Linda Hamilton circa The Terminator

2. Frederick Seidel's stock portfolio

3. Airstream owners

4. The Facebook lives of two distant acquaintances who will go unnamed here but whose online photo albums are filled with happy family escapades on semi-rural tracts of land on which children snack on organic carrot cakes and the freshly laid, hardboiled eggs of French spotted chickens which have been raised in newly refurbished barns carefully painted by the attractive spouses and/or partners of said friends, now photographed lounging--bucolically--on quirky, hand-made quilts. These photos flood me both with the teary, cyber-stalkish longing for a grain silo of my own and the sad sad knowledge that I can never and will never grow anything I actually want to eat, because until Swanson's Hungry Man Salisbury Steak dinner comes in shrub form, I'm going to fucking starve here, and finally

5. People who can ice skate.




Lastly, I should admit the oddest thing I've discovered about envy this year, which is that intense love can not only make one can envy the person one loves most in the world but also, in an odd twist of the heart, inspire soul-wrenching jealousy for the former or future version of one's own life. Watching a severely sunburned Sean pack up his things after our disastrous honeymoon, I am filled with a dark, resounding envy: envy both for him (for getting to go home), and for the previous iteration of me (Me 1.1, circa August 2011 perhaps) that once (how thoughtlessly this version of me took it for granted!)--got to curl up next to him in bed every night. On top of that is the odder, slightly surreal sensation I have even now of envying my present self from some distant point in the future. In a few months, I'll be going home too, ecstatic to return to Sean and my dogs and my home, but also knowing that this year is over, and that this amazing freedom I've been given--disorienting and aggravating as it has occasionally been--is finished. I'll be glad for it to end, but part of me will be sad as well, sad that--for all the places I've visited--I know that I could have visited yet more. Or visited these places more consciously. So many of the things I've seen have been, for lack of a better term, mitigated by the effects of not quite believing my luck.  Sometimes I'm so startled by the fact that I'm here, living like this, that I have a hard time concentrating on the present. Which robs me, just a little, of the joy. 

Whatever, I can hear you muttering. You'll get over it.

In the meantime, you can see--via these totally gratuitous photos of Phu Quoc, Vietnam,  that I've been sprinkling throughout this post (yes, where Sean and I have been residing in An! Actual! Bungalow! On! The! Beach! before he returns home)--just where I am having problems with that particular out-of-body envy experience.


I know, dear reader. But take heart:

You can feel about this any way that you want.

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