In the winter of 2006, I had taken a leave of absence from my job in Boston and was living in Florida, where my mother was gravely ill. I’d started a novel a few years earlier and had hoped, that year, to finally finish a draft. Instead, my life was taken over with daily visits to the rehab hospital, vociferous advocating with disinterested doctors, and tours of assisted living facilities. I felt overwhelmed and ill-equipped for the task in front of me. And I was sad, and a little resentful, that this had become my life, rather than the writing I wanted to do.
One day in the midst of all this, I received an e-mail from a good friend, a fellow writer. Her novel had been sold to a major publishing house! For actual money! It would be published the following year. My reaction to this great news from my hard-working, generous and deserving friend? I curled in a ball on the floor and wept.
Ah, envy. As writers, we’ve all experienced it, at one time or another. The rise of social media has, if anything, exacerbated these feelings for many of us. If you’re like me, and have hundreds of writers in your Facebook newsfeed – many you’ve probably never met – or follow a thousand authors on Twitter, it’s easy to feel like you’re the least successful writer in the (virtual) room. Everyone seems to be getting great reviews, fabulous press, bigger and better book deals than anyone else.
What we lose sight of is that on social media, writers are actively promoting themselves, putting themselves – and their books – in the best possible light. Another friend stunned me recently when she confided that her book had been orphaned – twice – at her publishing house. From her social media feeds, I’d thought everything was going gangbusters.
Because of this phenomenon, I’ve seen some of my fellow writers call for more honesty on social media, more truthful public acknowledgment of book-related difficulties, when they arise. I think this is a wrong-headed approach, and a particularly bad idea for women writers.
Think about this: the VIDA count tells us that women are not being reviewed in anywhere near the numbers male writers are. And reviews translate to both sales and acclaim. A disturbing number of male authors are dismissive of the VIDA count and perceive women writers as complaining too much. We – and VIDA – are right to point out these injustices. But if we start talking openly about every tiny bump in the road along our paths to publication, it often comes across as whiny at best, ungrateful at worst.
Yet, there’s value to be had in learning from the difficulties, and mistakes, of others. As a community of women writers, how can we privately share these difficulties and help each other to succeed while still providing the brave public face necessary for book promotion? The answer to this question lies in networks of women writers like Hedgebrook, or the Women’s National Book Association (I’m a member of the Boston chapter). If you’re a woman writing in isolation, reach out to one of these groups. If you’re a Hedgebrook alumna, take advantage of all the great resources the colony has to offer. Join your local chapter of the WNBA. Get involved with VIDA. You’ll be surprised how honest many of your fellow women authors will be in private conversation, and you’ll glean valuable tips along the way.
And when the green-headed monster of envy strikes, use it as a learning experience. Ask yourself, why, exactly, you’re feeling envious. Is it that the author writes prose at a level you fear you might never reach? Does your poet friend seem to get published in every major journal, while you find yourself still faced with rejection after rejection (or not submitting out of fear of rejection)? In the root of your envy you may find that area you need to work on the most.
Or, as was the case back in 2006 when my friend sold her book, you may be envious simply because you are in a position where you cannot, at the moment, pursue your writing. After I had my good cry on the living room floor of my mother’s condo, I got up, looked at my calendar, figured out when I might be able to return to Boston, and devised a writing schedule for the rest of that year. Then I sent my friend a note of heartfelt congratulations.
Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, will be published by Engine Books in October, 2013. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award in 2002, and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa’s short stories have appeared in Kalliope, Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals, and her essay, “Enchanted Night” was published in Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes (Simon & Schuster, 2007). She has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Somerville Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and fellowships at the Millay Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. She teaches at Boston’s Grub Street. More information on Lisa and her work is available at www.lisaborders.com.
Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.