What would you say if I told you I was jealous?

“If someone died each time I checked my inbox, there’d be no one left.”

I’ve been reading the interview between Elissa Bassist and Cheryl Strayed on Creative Nonfiction. Bassist wrote the letter that Strayed responded to in the famous essay “Write Like a Motherfucker.” In some ways the interview is too staged.  It is meandering and irritating, but also inspirational.

It’s like reading Poets and Writers. You can hate all the smug-looking writers who say canned things about writing, or you can shut the fuck up and get back to work. Said writers would probably rather be writing too.

I have a friend who just wants a Book desperately. (This is not to say the rest of us don’t want books.) But she is getting a Ph.D. and a Book would mean a Job. She is a good writer, but equating Book and Job means that she wants the Book yesterday. She wants to have arrived, and is impatient with the slog.

It’s not that I don’t want a book. Obviously I want my book to be an IndieBound bestseller and to make Oprah’s book club. I would like to win the National Book Critic’s Circle award, since I’m daydreaming. It’s not that I don’t see other writers published and wish I were in their place.

Sometimes this conversation comes up around age. Young Things are getting published and I am inching ever-closer to forty, and my book is still snugly tucked into my Mac documents folder. Like we need another way to fuck ourselves up about age.

Bassist writes “Now, you [Strayed] are in Elizabeth Gilbert’s position: an incredibly successful, rich, best-selling woman writer whom so many of us would like to loathe for the aforementioned reasons. And, of course, you are an incredibly human, real, serious, worthy-of-our-sisterhood writer who, we’d all do well to remember, worked her tail off. What would you say if I said I was jealous of you?”

That last question. It is cringeworthy, and yet she’s just saying things that other people feel and don’t say. Strayed addresses it well, saying that jealousy is not good for a writer, and that when she was in her twenties she did not envy the successful writers in their forties. There’s age again. 

The interview is also about fame, jealousy, and ambition. In some ways I think being trained (I almost wrote “raised”) as a poet protects you from certain ambitions. You are never going to be famous. Never. Who here knows Louise Gluck or Kay Ryan, recent poet laureates? But poets are just as jealous and hungry as the rest of the writers. 

Writers trade in words. I often read extremely interesting, well-written essays that are jealousy and hunger for fame, ambition, and thoughtfulness all wound together. Do you let your jealous, petty, awkward, [insert your own adjective here] self out, or do you swaddle it in pretty, considered words?


10 responses to “What would you say if I told you I was jealous?

  1. I don’t get jealous about fame or success but about talent. It kills me sometimes when I read a better writer, one whose originality and capacity for language is clearly a world above mine. I’m not sure whether I let it out or what that means, but the petty jealousy is definitely there and gnawing at my backside.

  2. I’m not sure it’s about getting published for me anymore. And I’m not sure if that’s maturity or sour grapes . . .

    It does open up other possibilities, though.

  3. I’m mostly jealous of the work ethic. You can have all the talent in the world and not to jack with it. But someone who buckles down every single day and fights through and gets the work done, one word and one headache at a time, and gets all the way to the real live end?

  4. I wanted to strangle “E-Bass” by the end of that article. Though she talks a lot about humility and just finding a way to do the work, you can still smell the hubris. I probably used to sound a lot like that. Ugh. Ugh again.

      • I thought Strayed gave her great and direct advice, but E-Bass cannot just swallow her wounded pride:

        STRAYED: I would say you shouldn’t waste your energy on jealousy. Ever, ever! But especially on people like me. I’ve been writing a lot longer than you have. When I was in my twenties, it never occurred to me to be jealous of writers who were in their forties, writers like Mary Gaitskill and Anne Lamott and Mary Karr, who are all about fifteen years older than I am—the same age difference as between us. They weren’t my competition because I wasn’t in their league. With all Sugary affection, Elissa, you haven’t yet earned the right to be jealous of me.

        BASSIST: I am, again, picturing a miniature Cheryl Strayed as a nun with a ruler in her hand.

      • BASSIST: When I moved to New York, I named the wireless network in my new apartment “Famous.” How fucked up is this?
        STRAYED: It’s incredibly fucked up. Have you talked to your therapist about this?
        BASSIST: He’s the one who recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
        STRAYED: It seems to me it would help if you refocused what it is you’re trying to be. Do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a great writer? Sometimes those two things are one and the same, but often they aren’t.

    • And all of this reminds me of the bad part of getting the MFA. This kind of constant fucking nonsense chatter and all of the 25 year olds who can’t believe how brilliant they already are. Ugh.

  5. “Do you let your jealous, petty, awkward, [insert your own adjective here] self out, or do you swaddle it in pretty, considered words?”

    I am not jealous, petty or awkward. I am genuinely happy for those who succeed and when I can, I teach, guide and advise the up and coming brilliant young writers of today. I am not awkward; I am straight forward, honest and use gentle encouragement. To be published, traditional or otherwise is quite an achievement and to those seeking fame, I wish upon them a lifetime of notoriety beyond their fifteen minutes. Have a nice day. Am leaving room to drink Drano.

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