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Envy, Perfection, and the Work of Writing

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Picture by Flickr user Cate Storymoon

When we were children, our every activity was guided by the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. We felt fulfilled after a day spent colouring outside the lines, jumping over carpet-lava, and spinning in circles until we were dizzy and giggling. When we were forced to do something we didn’t like, we’d cry and scream as though putting on clean clothes was an internationally-condemned form of torture, then we’d go back to following our bliss—maybe by building elaborate space-ninja-pirate-castle-ships, or maybe by emptying the contents of the cutlery drawer all over the floor.

Then we grew up.

The first time we sat at a desk and complained that we didn’t want to do our homework, we were told that work isn’t supposed to be fun, but we have to do it anyway. The pursuit of happiness was relegated to weekends and vacations.

We heard it over and over. Work isn’t supposed to be fun. Fun is for children and hobbies.

But that was okay, because we had a hobby we loved: writing.

We slaved away at our unsatisfying jobs, content in the knowledge that when we’d finished, we could relax into the effervescent enjoyment of making up imaginary worlds. Writing was an escape and a pleasure—more akin to those early days of spinning in circles until we were dizzy than actual work.

Then everything changed.

At some point we realised that writing with the intention of publication was nothing short of W-O-R-K work. That old training reared its ugly head. Work isn’t supposed to be fun. Suddenly, it was much harder to approach writing with the same joie de vivre that we once had, because, as we all know, work is supposed to be brain-numbingly dull.

But we worked hard. We learned about voice and tension and the “evil” of adverbs. We joined writing groups, and reading groups, and devoted ourselves to reading books and blogs. We studied great works of literature, and modern breakthrough novels. Then we returned to our own writing and realised the unalienable truth:

Compared to our heroes, our writing is mediocre at best.

Perhaps we considered quitting. Perhaps we even did quit for a while. But eventually, we came back to writing. We couldn’t help it. We massaged our prose, trying to make it as perfect as it could possibly be. We reminded ourselves that work is supposed to be hard. Work isn’t supposed to be fun.

And then a celebrity got a six-figure book deal. Or someone in our writing group got published. Or that other writer—you know, the one who started writing after us, who we always measured ourselves against—signed with an agent. And we found ourselves thinking: It’s not fair. Why does everyone else get the good stuff? I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I’ve worked hard. I want what they’re having.

Befriending the Green-Eyed Monster

But no matter how much fun we’re having as we slave away over a hot keyboard, it’s hard not to feel envious about the success of our friends, colleagues, and random strangers on the internet. Time and time again we come across the advice that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others.

Let’s be honest here: We all do it. It’s part of being human.

But we have a choice. We can spend our energy trying not to make those comparisons, or we can spend our energy pretending (even to ourselves) that we don’t. Or, we can do something radically different.

We can embrace our envy.

When the green-eyed monster shows up in the back of your head, listen to what it has to say:

I wish I was as successful as J.K. Rowling. It’s not fair, I’ll never be able to write like Donna Tartt. I wish I had the effortless cool of Neil Gaiman.

Instead of trying to force those feelings away, realise that your envy isn’t trying to make you feel bad—it’s trying to give you a roadmap. It’s reminding you’re working for: Publishing success, a distinctive writing style, and a battered leather jacket.

The Perfectionist Trap

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t stop us feeling like we’re not good enough—that our writing is mediocre. But here’s the thing:

We know our failures and our inconsistencies and our struggles intimately. But we only see the successes of others. It’s hard for us to forgive ourselves for our bad writing, because we haven’t seen the bad writing of the authors we admire. We’re comparing our draft to their polished novel; the freshly-poured foundation of our story-mansion to their professionally landscaped and decorated castle.

When was the last time you read an article about a new author who’s been struggling with her first novel for ten years, and is pretty sure she sucks and should just give up, but she’s not going to because maybe one day in the future she’ll get her book published?

We only ever hear the stories of authors who have already succeeded. We hear about their trials and tribulations in the past tense, while we’re experiencing our own in painfully present tense. Of course we feel like we can’t measure up! When that amazing author we’re so in awe of was in our place, she felt exactly the same way about her hero.

In fact, if we keep working, one day we will be the author that other writers look up to, and consider us an overnight success.

The Work of Writing

In the meantime, it’s easy to think that if we learn all the rules and work really hard, we’ll publish a masterpiece. And maybe we will. But the main thing standing between our reality and our dream is ourselves.

The biggest difference, in any industry, between someone who does a great job and someone who achieves greatness through their work is not their understanding of the rules, or their work ethic, or their imagination. It’s their joy. Their excitement for their work. The fun they’re having.

You know, fun: that thing that work is not supposed to be.

I’ve read many articles and books, and listened to many inspirational talks, that say we need to find the fun in our writing. “Stop thinking about it as hard work, and go back to loving it!” they scream to the heavens.

But the thing is, writing is work. It is hard. I like to describe the process of writing a novel as follows:

The story in your head is perfect. It’s the most perfect thing that’s ever existed. Your job, as a writer, is to take that perfect story and translate it into imperfect words in such a way that when someone else reads them, your perfect story comes to life in their mind.

There is absolutely nothing about that process that sounds easy.

So, no, I don’t think we need to stop thinking about writing as being work. I think the most important mental change we can make involves going deeper than that. Right back to those early days, being forced to sit at a desk and do mind-numbingly boring activities when what we wanted to do was explore unknown lands and capture fairies.

We need to stop believing that work can’t be fun. We need to take those joy-killing voices in our heads and lock them in the deepest, darkest dungeons we can find.

Yes, writing is work. But our job is to build castles in the air, and invite all our friends to play in them; to scatter words in circles and encourage people to spin through them until they’re dizzy and giggling; to colour outside the lines of societal expectations and lead our readers over rivers of shark-infested carpet-lava.

Our work is all kinds of fun.

Share with us how much fun you have when you’re writing. What makes you feel dizzy and giggly? When do you feel like you’re colouring outside the lines?

About Jo Eberhardt [2]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.