Several years back I wrote a novel about a witch who, though 150 years of age, can make herself young and foxy for Friday-night manhunting over whiskey cocktails in Manhattan bars. I’ve written three novels since, and Petty Magic is still my favorite. But when my publisher told me the book wouldn’t be issued in paperback, and it subsequently went out of print, I couldn’t have felt any less like my brash and clever heroine. I was broke, past 30, and back living at home with my mother. I kept writing, but in my darker moments I felt like a total failure.
I am aware, of course, that many writers would love the opportunity to complain about how their Big Five publishers have let them down. At the time, going out of print felt like the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to me, and yet it was, in a very real sense, a privilege. I began to face my sense of entitlement: the idea that because I’d put in the work I deserved to be rewarded for it. So had many other writers over the past few hundred years, not to mention untold numbers who could have grown into full creative lives had they enjoyed my comfortable middle-class upbringing. That what-I-deserve line of thinking could lead only to emotionally reactive ping-ponging between wild hope and self-inflicted misery. If I wanted to feel satisfied with my work and life again, I was going to have to change my attitude.
I filled journal after journal. I meditated. I got fresh air and quality time in nature and took art classes when I could afford them. I unabashedly tore through New Age and self-help books and trained myself to notice when my ego was chewing me out and making me feel small. I took note of my tendency to “otherize” anyone I perceived as being more successful than I was, as if these writers were somehow charmed, whereas I was destined to labor in obscurity. I recognized this narrative for the steaming pile it is, and when I stopped believing it—what do you know?—my circumstances magically rearranged themselves. A friend helped me move to Boston in exchange for the price of gas, and a week and a half later I got a two-book deal with a new publisher.
It’s only natural to feel a tainted sort of pleasure—or no pleasure at all—when our colleagues garner accolades we haven’t received (and may never receive). But for the sake of our emotional well-being, we continually have to ask ourselves, what is the need underneath this feeling of envy? We all need to feel seen and valued. We all want to surround ourselves with kind and loving friends who champion our creative efforts.
As Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “Sometimes this human stuff is slimy and pathetic—jealousy especially so—but better to feel it and talk about it and walk through it than to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned.” When we speak candidly about our feelings of envy and inadequacy—perhaps even with neurotic good humor, as Lamott does—we give everyone around us permission to relax. That’s why, with a couple years’ hindsight, I wrote a little book called Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People. I want to start that conversation, for all our sakes.
When we define success on our own terms—using markers we actually have control over, such as “finish NaNoWriMo” or “illustrate my own children’s book”—we find creative fulfillment regardless of what is (or isn’t) happening in our careers. As the famously cantankerous playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote when he declined England’s Order of Merit in 1946, “It would be superfluous, as I have already conferred this order on myself.”
Disconnecting your self-worth from external recognition isn’t an overnight process, but as you evolve you’ll free up that energy to funnel back into your imagination. You have no idea what you’re capable of, and there’s a world of delight in that.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People, to be published by St. Martin’s Griffin on September 27.