On Success (Not Yours, Silly)

In writing on rejection, I forgot to mention something that can end up feeling quite a bit worse, especially if you are surrounded by other writers.  Success.  But not your own.  The success of people close to you.  The success of people you admire, or the ones you workshop with.  The success of friends of friends, the success of frenemies, the success of the person you took a class with once in college who was rude to everyone and wrote mostly incoherent language work that you didn’t get and didn’t want to get.  The success of somone you met once in passing who seemed perfectly nice, but who you villainize in retrospect when you find they’ve gotten an advance from a publisher who will not answer your query letters.  Even the success of complete strangers who have done nothing wrong but be from the same age bracket and general socio-economic status as you while happening to catch a break where their art is concerned.  How do we rise above professional jealousy when it all feels so personal?


I’ll be candid: the moment I most feared repeating in my own life when I first saw Girls was not my parents cutting me off (I’ve paid my own way for a good chunk of time), nor my best friend and I having a blow out and disbanding our post-collegiate treehouse of mutual angst (been there, sort of), but the moment when Hannah’s college classmate has her book release and Hannah obsesses over the inexplicable point that her rival’s book means  Hannah’s own writing is somehow unpublishable.  Except that it wasn’t inexplicable to me.  I have felt exactly that way about people I’ve not spoken to for longer than three sentences.  If they’ve been rewarded, what reward could possibly be left for me?  Hell, I’ve had full on personal crises over other people going on tour to cooler places than I have, and I can assure you, there is no glory in being a touring poet other than the glory you invent for yourself after the fact to justify your empty bank account.

I watched that episode alternately peering through parted fingers and chewing on my hand, because I too have been wildly green-eyed with jealousy over something so intensely arbitrary as the publishing success of others.  My moans of self-hatred while watching this particular bit of HBO are common to many artists my age hoping for recognition and finding the road to the brass ring not only impossible to gain access to, but also clogged with dopplegangers whom we wish to kill and rob of their success (if only figuratively) so that we may be the ones elliciting such jealousy.  Greener grass and all that, even when we know nothing of how hard or long a person worked to get to where they are.

I think this particular brand of un-researched jealousy is a probable explanation for why everyone was all a-Twitter about Girls‘ success in the first place.  Lena Dunham and I are essentially the same age.  The two of us are also the same age as, or at least from same generation as,  many of the women (and men) who wrote essays eviscerating the show.  I’m not saying that some of the criticism wasn’t warranted–the lack of diversity on the show was an issue for me too, but lack of diversity is an issue for me on all of television, so there’s that–but what I am saying is that Dunham caught a lot of that flack because, well, girls will be girls, and it’s difficult in the current social culture for young women (and young people in general) to see other young women (people) succeed without feeling like they need to cut them down.  Our moment in history is one of scarcity, right?  We hear every day that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, at least not ones that will afford us the lives we’ve dreamed of.  Mine and Lena’s generation is one of an over-educated, over-qualified workforce where everybody has a creative project they’re trying to get off the ground to offset the frustrating/mind-numbing ways they spend their day (brewing coffee, toiling at an unpaid internship, or, if we’re lucky, pulling down an actual salary from the isolating hell of data entry).  In light of this, anyone who is visibly living out our dream seems like an enemy.  How dare Lena Dunham have an opportunity to show her creative work to the world?!  How dare she make imperfect, highly effective art with the backing of a major TV network known for it’s tradition of thought-provoking series?!  How dare she have what we all so desperately clamor for: a platform from which to provide commentary on her own experience and the experience of others, a platform that pays and opens doors for further successes?!!!

When it’s put like that, who seems entitled?  All of us who do the complaining, that’s who.  Like I said, there was plenty of legitimate criticism glommed onto all the Dunham-hating.  But that takes a backseat to the fact that we have created a social climate where we’d rather see others fail than work harder to increase our own success.  By constantly repeating that the economy is bad and the publishing industry is failing and there is little room left for ascendant figures in the arts, we perpetuate a reductive and defeatist outlook that only soothes to serve our injured egos.  I’ll admit, I read the press on Girls before I watched the show, and I was scared that when I finally sat down to watch it, it really would be as offensive as everybody claimed it was.  What a delight to see, instead, that someone my age has been given an opportunity and done well with it.  Dunham’s show, though narrow, has routinely excellent moments.  And it is narrow because the world of the characters is narrow.  I have friends who moved to Brooklyn after college.  This is what their lives are like–insulated from the community they work, rent, and party in–and without setting up a baseline for comparison, Dunham couldn’t hope to ever tackle issue of gentrification or “privilege” without treating her series as a soapbox.  Also, did nobody watch HBO’s other (now-defunct) New York twenty-somethings dramedy How To Make It In America?  Why no complaints about diversity or narcissism there?  Kid Cudi, one of the only persons of color I saw onscreen for more than a moment during the show’s entire run, was playing a dog-walking drug dealer.  Seriously?!  Anyway, I digress.

Jealousy over success is a natural inclination when we see somebody with something we want, but it’s important to remember that the feeling will not fuel your own success.   It may seem like an emotion that you can harness and use as a kick in the ass towards your own goals, but it is poisonous if you actually want to get anywhere.  If you spend enough time worrying about what other people have achieved ahead of you and finding flaws that evidence they should not have done so well, what time is left to make your own work the best it can possibly be? Cheryl Strayed, in her Dear Sugar advice column on the Rumpus, has this advice to us green-eyed monsters about keeping our lesser instincts at bay:

When you feel like crap because someone has gotten something you want you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. …someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own.

And even better, she acknowledges that the real imbalance does not live in someone else’s success existing over our own, but in the way the world treats the production of art.

A lot of artists give up because it’s just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists. But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity.

Again, the issue of scarcity comes up.  I think that the idea that there is a limited audience for many artistic mediums is founded in fact, but also blown way out of proportion.  As far as writing is concerning, there are literally thousands of literary journals publishing on a regular basis, and at least hundreds of small presses beyondthe big New York houses.  Want to celebrate success?  Become a better reader.  The more broadly you read, the more you learn.  You see what you respond to in the writing of others and hone your sense of what a good piece of writing is.  You also see what kind of work journals and presses are looking for, and what they are missing.  This allows you to better place your own work.

Making art is intrinsically tied to entertainment and commerce.  Sure, we all hope our writing or painting or film or whatever it is we spend time toiling to create is entertaining.  But ultimately, we don’t get to decide who buys it, nor can we control whether or not our stories get seen at all if we are too busy cutting down someone else’s talent, perseverance, and sure, dumb luck of the draw.  You’ll be better off spending the energy you use on hating Lena Dunham or your ex-best friend from graduate school or the poem you’re sure replaced yours in the latest issue ofThe New Yorker on something like making more of your own art, and making it better than you thought yourself capable of.