Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this installment of our Publishing U series, we’ve turned to Camille DeAngelis, author of four novels—Mary Modern, Petty Magic, Bones & All, and Immaculate Heart—well-loved by Booklist. Her most recent book, Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People (St. Martin’s, 2016), is a work of nonfiction designed to help its audience curb notoriously counterproductive—and, well, unbecoming—feelings of jealousy. We’ve asked her to explain just how she manages.
Picture yourself at a cookout or cocktail party, whichever’s more your style. You’re chatting with a new friend, who casually mentions they’ve recently published a novel with Simon & Schuster. Perhaps your new friend’s book has been met with a great deal of critical applause, foreign translations—nibbles from Hollywood producers, even.
You, on the other hand, have been longing to write a novel for years, or have queried more than two hundred agents hoping to secure representation for your first, or second, or fifth manuscript. Or you’ve closed the door on traditional publishing after one too many dispiriting rounds of reject-o-rama, issuing your book using Lulu or CreateSpace.
This new friend of yours seems like a nice, down-to-earth person, and you find yourself asking all the customary questions about their route to publication. Perhaps it took decades of hard work to get to this year of triumph—or perhaps it didn’t.
Be honest: Are you feeling awesome about yourself right now?
Envy can be motivating, sure—or it can arouse the most lamentable aspects of one’s character. When I found myself angry and frustrated after my second novel went out of print, I began to explore those dark corners of my psyche, and Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People was the result. The message of the book is this: if we can acknowledge our envy and other uncomfortable emotions, responding to our egos with compassion instead of judgment, we can be happy regardless of what is (or isn’t) happening in our careers. And our entire creative community benefits from that shift in us.
It is possible to say “I wish you continued success!” with pure sincerity. The mental adjustments you’ll require to get to that place can be surprisingly enjoyable, too.
Stop believing your inner monologue. We all have the tendency to listen to the voice inside that tells us we’re inadequate or unworthy, or that our seemingly more successful comrades had it easy or aren’t as talented as we are. But you can train yourself to notice this angry, whiny commentary for what it is, and once you’ve noticed it, you can begin to disengage. Ultimately, it’s rather like turning off your television to silence the political pundits, because none of that talk adds value to your life.
Show yourself the same love and acceptance you give your family and friends. When I was a kid, I always figured I had good self esteem—I was proud of my good grades, my artwork, my time on the 400-meter relay—and I carried that pride into adulthood, when I began publishing my novels. But knowing your capability is not the same as loving and respecting yourself. Toxic thought loops and self-defeating behavior have a detrimental effect on your work as well as your personal life, so that even a relatively benign self criticism like “why can’t I write faster?” keeps you mired in a mindset of inadequacy and disapproval. If you wouldn’t tell your brother, partner, or daughter that their progress is too slow—if you wouldn’t say such a thing even to someone you don’t particularly like—then why is it okay to say it to yourself?
Disconnect your effort from the recognition you receive for it. It’s simply not rational to judge the worthiness of our work by its reception, since we have very little control over how our work is received. We do, however, have complete control over our reaction to the world’s reaction.
Let me tell you about the children’s novel I wrote back in 2012. I love this story and the characters I’ve created, but I’ve revised and revised and my agent is still racking up the rejections. I do, however, feel this novel is as fully formed as I can make it, and I feel profoundly satisfied every time I reread the manuscript. I don’t feel that I’ve failed, because I’ve been able to make that shift from seeking extrinsic success to internal satisfaction. (And I feel fortunate to be writing in an age when self publishing is an option.) This leads me to my next point:
Meet fate halfway. It makes me sad to encounter people resentful of others’ success who aren’t actually following through on their own creative impulses. You’ve got to act in accordance with your ambition, and do your very best work. If you are writing the sort of stories you’re most hungry to read, revelling each day in your own imaginative power, and being as proactive as you can be in getting your work out there, you can have nothing to regret.
Plot your own path. It can be very tempting to look at someone else’s career and fixate on how you might emulate them, step by step—or despair of ever being able to reach their level of achievement. We wish we had an M.F.A. from that school, could command an advance that high, could work with that editor. But why think in terms of what’s worked for others, when you could be creating something that breaks the mold?
Quit your scarcity mentality. Someone else’s success is not your failure. Keep in mind that thousands of people buying somebody else’s book is excellent news for this industry. People are buying books! They are buying lots and lots of books, and even if they’re not yet buying your book, there’s always a chance that they will.
Remember how much you have to offer. No matter where you are on your path, someone else is looking up to you. It could be a colleague aspiring for your level of reach on social media, or it might be your five-year-old son who delights in your ability to tell an original bedtime story off the cuff. In this culture we have a supremely shallow tendency to divide everyone into somebodies and nobodies, as if you aren’t worth paying attention to until you get that six-figure book deal. This is baloney, and you know it. You have your own unique experience and insight to share, so don’t sell yourself short.
It’s totally normal to feel envious of other people’s success. We’ve all been there, even those of us whose writing careers seem to be going quite swimmingly. But struggle and dissatisfaction are not inevitable. We can grow to live without envy, and we owe it to ourselves and to each other to do the inner work necessary to live with contentment as our new baseline.