Remember the hilarious scene in the movie, ‘When Harry Met Sally’, where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm and the woman in the diner says: ‘I’ll have what she’s having?’
I’ve just finished reading a brilliant book and I’m green with envy. Or maybe jealousy. I want what the author’s got.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is a story about the power of friendship, about terrible childhood abuse, about resilience and hope. It’s a story about the American Dream. It’s about every so-called ‘little’ life that each of us lives with difficulty and persistence, with joy and despair, with the inevitable aloneness of being.
Shortlisted for last year’s Booker, A Little Life is sometimes a harrowing read. At 734 pages, it’s also a long read. Don’t be put off: it’s worth every second of your reading time.
According to Wikipedia, Yanagihara is a forty year old American novelist and travel writer of Hawaiian ancestry. She writes with such insight and compassion that I keep thinking: How can she know these things? At 40 I knew nothing!
Am I jealous? You bet!
Envious? Yes, twinges of that too.
I’m in the middle of writing my second novel. I’ve left behind the excitement of shooting for the stars, of stepping onto a shaky branch and daring to dance, of daring to believe I can pull off the extraordinary task I have set myself—that every novelist takes on.
The middle of a book is where doubt sets in, where my critic shrieks at me: I’ve aimed too high. How did I ever think that I could do it? How will I pull it off? Perhaps I can’t. Perhaps I never could. Perhaps my first novel was a fluke.
It’s not too difficult to admit I’m jealous of Yanagihara and of what she’s accomplished in writing A Little Life.
Jealousy can be helpful. It told the diner woman in When Harry Met Sally exactly what she wanted. It tells me I want to write a brilliant novel like A Little Life. It inspires me to keep trying. To enrich my settings and to make them as vivid as Yanagihara’s New York is to me. To make my characters as alive as Jude and Willem, JB, Malcolm and Harold.
Jealousy tells me very clearly what I want.
But envy? Envy is one of the deadlies.
Envy tells me I will never write as well as Yanagihara. It says I’m wasting my time. It tells me I’m too old. It tells me to give up right now in the middle of my book, that it’s not worth pursuing.
Envy destroys the very thing it most desires.
But I refuse to listen to the envious part of myself. I keep on writing. Some days are good and some days are horrible. I keep on.
Twenty five years ago I ran a marathon. Writing a book is harder than running a marathon but there are a lot of similarities.
Half-way through my marathon, I hit the ‘wall’, the psychological and physical wall where every step you take seems to bring you no closer to your goal, and yet you force your legs to keep moving, you continue to run through the pain, and amazingly you get there in the end.
I tell myself: If I can run a marathon, I can write this book. I will be guided by my jealousy; I will not be led astray by envy.
Envy and jealousy are difficult feelings to talk about, especially for writers. This essay by Stephanie Convery in Overland magazine is one of the most honest and enlightening I’ve read. I hope you find it helpful too.