We Need To Talk About Professional Jealousy

From Electric Lit:

I never thought I’d be one of those people,” she said.

T Kira Madden and I were sitting in the private room of a fancy strip-mall restaurant in Albany, New York, and I was eating a very expensive salad. Earlier that afternoon, we had given a reading at a local bookstore with T Kira’s then-fiancé (now wife) H. The reading was part of the book tour promoting T Kira’s memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless GirlsIt had been a kindness on T Kira’s part, inviting me to read alongside her and H. The other writers who would be joining her later on the tour were far more advanced in their careers than I was at that time. But it was not an altogether surprising kindness. T Kira has always been one of the most generous literary stewards I know.

After the reading, T Kira invited me to join their families for dinner. Another kindness. I sat between T Kira and H., and we caught up in the way of friends who don’t see one another often enough. Eventually the conversation turned to the subject that had occasioned our reunion. As far as I could tell, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls was already a success. It had been reviewed widely and well, and had dominated my social media feed since its release. But when I asked T Kira how she was feeling about the book’s debut, she hesitated.

“I never thought I’d be one of those people,” she said.

“Which people?” I asked.

T Kira paused.

“I never thought I’d be one of those people tracking their book sales,” she said. “I never thought I’d be comparing my sales and reviews to other people’s. I never thought I’d be—”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but I knew where it was headed.

“Jealous,” I said.

T Kira looked down. Her long hair hung over her soup bowl.

I chuckled.

“Oh, do I have a story for you,” I said.

I first met C Pam Zhang at a writers’ conference in Vermont in 2017, six months before my reading with T Kira. I had edited a story of Pam’s for a literary journal earlier that year, and I was excited when I learned we’d both be attending the conference that summer. We even conspired to enroll in the same fiction workshop. Pam is a brilliant writer, and her sly and observant sense of humor immediately endeared me to her. What’s more, we were at similar places in our careers then, both querying agents for manuscripts, Pam for her novel How Much of These Hills is Gold, me for a collection of short stories. Querying agents is a very specific flavor of hell, and it was comforting to feel like I wasn’t alone in the process, to know that Pam and I were in the same boat. Then, a month after the conference, Pam signed with an agent and sold her novel, while the prospects of representation for my own manuscript had all but evaporated. A month later, we applied for the same fellowship. Pam got it; I did not. A month after that, a pedigreed literary journal rejected one of my stories and shortly thereafter accepted a story of Pam’s. As her friend and as an editor who had supported her work, I was happy for Pam—I genuinely was—but tangled up in that feeling was something else, something that complicated it. It felt as though Pam had made it to dry land, and now there I was, alone in our boat, trying my best to row one-oared.

What is this awful feeling? I wondered.

Oh fuck, I realized. I’m jealous.

When I told T Kira this story, she nodded.

“But here’s the thing. It wasn’t jealousy,” I told her. “It was something very different.”

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes, “Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading.” The first time I read that sentence, my immediate reaction was relief. Oh, thank God, I thought. I’m not alone in this experience. Professional jealousy does often feel like an occupational hazard for writers, but it has been my experience that as a community we don’t really talk about it. Sure, we may voice it jokingly—“I’m so jealous!”—or indirectly, by making some passive-aggressive remark about another writer’s success, but honest and vulnerable conversations about the experience of professional jealousy generally seem to be lacking. Among writers, the subject feels almost taboo. At least, that has been my experience.

.I do want to say that what we popularly refer to as “professional jealousy” might more accurately be termed “professional envy” by clinicians and emotions researchers. The distinction being that jealousy arises from the fear of losing something we have to another person, whereas envy stems from the desire for something another person has that we lack. I believe strongly in the importance of emotional literacy and granularity—the ability to accurately name and distinguish between emotions—but culturally we use the term “professional jealousy,” not “professional envy,” and in my conversation with T Kira jealousy was the word we used, so for the purposes of this essay, I’ll let it stand.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

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