Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life

I went to the bookstore yesterday to find a new family appointment calendar. They didn't have anything left but really fancy, expensive ones. Every year I always spend a lot of effort finding a calendar with photos we really like and then we flip the pages over and never look at the photos. So I decided to be practical this year. After not finding anything with enough space to write the schedules of three people in, I went to Walmart and bought a cheap one with no photos for four dollars.

But, not to waste a trip to the bookstore, I browsed through the store, digging in sections I don't normally frequent, and found a few new/used books, including the one above - Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman. It's a little book. Although it's about writing, the words could apply equally to any artistic endeavors.

I've read the first chapter already and it's about Envy. I kept reading it thinking "Well, I don't get envious. This chapter doesn't apply to me." And to a certain degree, that's true. I've learned through the years that I don't tend to get as jealous or envious of other people's success as I notice other people can be. I don't think this is because I'm a better person in some way except perhaps in getting to the age where I have a larger perspective on things.

If someone else has artistic success than I have to be honest and realize that usually it's because they did the work and I didn't. By that I mean the hard work behind the success. The hours. The sacrifices. The selling themselves. The drudgery and focus that comes before the published book or gallery showing. I have a number of very successful (in different ways) friends, almost all of them are very Type A. I know I will NEVER be that driven. I can't envy the success if I don't also desire the intensity at which they choose to live their lives.

I also know that no life is perfect. I don't envy someone success in one aspect of their lives because I have seen too many times that it doesn't translate into success in other aspects of life. You can be a successful artist and feel like a failure in your relationship with your children. Or your marriage. You can have a book published and still be drowning in debt. Or have health issues that aren't fixable. You can be a recognizable name and still feel all alone and without friends in the world.

Too, success is subjective. There's always someone thinking they wish they were as successful as you while you desire to be as successful as the person you perceive as being ahead of you while that person is thinking they need to catch up to the person in front of them!

But upon more reflection, I realized that even though envy doesn't manifest in a jealous form for me, I do struggle with it. I just turn it inward instead of outward. I go into a big bookstore, look at the thousands of shelves, the millions of books, and think "Why should I write a book!? Every possible way to say something has already been said. There's no possible story left to write!" Or I think of a great new idea I want to try out in the studio until I pick up the latest paper art magazine and see a feature article showing another artist who's beat me to it. And they did a better job. I didn't think of adding texture. Sigh. Or I browse through a fabric catalog and realize that unless someone invents a brand new color, there's nothing new under the sun left to combine.

I turn envy into depression. An far less amusing version of Eeyore's self effacing "Why bother..." and "No one will notice me." Age has brought me a more positive perspective when relating to other people, but it's also broadened my perspective in a negative way. When I was younger I knew far less about.... everything. I knew less about art, about how business worked, about psychology, about publishing. Looking back, knowing less was a wonderful shield against feeling overwhelmed. If I had a good idea, I jumped on it with enthusiasm. If I wanted to do something, I started in with the assumption that I would be successful. And more often than not, perhaps not oddly, I was!

I can remember when the innocence that protected my optimism first started to wear thin, when it started to dawn on me that maybe things shouldn't be as easy as all that. That not everyone was successful. That maybe I wouldn't always be successful! And that was when I started to stumble, when I began to second guess myself, when I wondered if my confidence was misplaced. I began to question whether I truly was skilled enough, experienced enough, to do the things that only moments earlier had seemed as easy as play.

Now, life is more complicated than anything I can say right now to wrap things up with a miraculous, amazing affirmation. Life takes detours for a number of reasons. People succeed or don't succeed for reasons both inside and outside of themselves. But, it's still interesting to pause and remember that sometimes our own thoughts and reactions are our worst saboteurs. What could we do, what could we create, if we'd just get out of our own way for awhile? What can I do, what can anyone do, to reclaim the perspective that the world is full, not of risks, but of opportunities?


Shell said...

I always try to think of envy and jealously like this, if someone else has something I desire then it's possible that I can have that too. Perhaps, my heart's desire is just waiting around the corner.
I think the best way to capture the optimism from before is to really be aware and awake to your thoughts. When those negative thoughts come in, do your best to switch your mind to something else. Hopefully something more engaging and positive.
This is what I do. It does help.

Sarah said...

Hi Laume,
That is an interesting post you have written there. I like to think that I am not envious but I know I am to an extent. I think I acknowledge it but try not to let it ovepower me. I know it is an old cliche but I try to count my blessings if I feel negative and my inner critic is getting at me. And I know exactly what you mean about the why bother syndrome-but again I think I recognise that in myself now and try to fight against it by just doing something anyway. I suppose it depends on the purpose you are doing something for as well. That book sounds interesting. Let us know about the rest of it.
Take care.

Chris said...

It's SO difficult to combat envy or one of its sisters, depression or regret or any of those, when you are trying to create things, and when you are an artistic being and so many others seem further along, or more talented, or freer.

We are all in this together. Limited human beings...