Confessions of an Acolyte: Regarding Jealousy and Ambition

I get jealous. I know I’m not supposed to. All the time, people say, “Don’t see other writers as your competition, but as your community.” But I get jealous anyway. I’m rebellious like that.

Mine is not a static jealousy, a flat green envy. It kaleidoscopes through shades of lime, ocean, and spruce. I am jealous when I see a stranger announcing an acceptance on Twitter. I am jealous when I meet people who write without ambition. My jealousy rises at summer reading lists and reviews, at the catalogs of small presses and the Instagram feed of mammoth publishing houses. Bookstores can make me jealous. Interviews can. I hold myself in comparison with these other authors, and I go back and forth between “I am as good as this person. My writing, my art, my thoughts, are just as good,” and “I must not know what quality is. The things that occupy my thoughts must not matter. My art is not good art.”

For this reason, it can be hard to read. “Take a look at back issues of our journal,” says the publication I am submitting to, “to get a sense of what we publish.” So I do, but this is reading for the sake of establishing a standard, and I quickly grow impatient. Okay, okay, I get it. You like fragmented narratives. You like the natural world to be a character all on her own. You like nuanced intersections between identity and materiality. So, I send them something I think will fit, and when they say no, the reading that I did in preparation for my own rejection retroactively becomes a catalogue of work that is better than mine, which deserves a spot where mine does not. Yes, sometimes rejection (and the comparison it generates) can turn me back to my writing with a fresh perspective and spur me to try again. But sometimes it paralyzes me.

This is pathetic, I know. I hear it. I know all the ways in which I am being self-indulgent and childish. Truly, it’s not always like this, but some days it is. And I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t part of being a writer—at least for me.

I always loved reading (or being read to). It was a natural gateway to writing. Before I even knew how to match letters with their meaning, I would sit with a picture book open in my lap and invent text to go with the pictures, my voice catching the storytelling cadence that I knew so well from hearing books read aloud, from church, from scratchy records that piped songs and stories into the playroom. I was writing nature poetry by first grade, tragic-romantic novels by middle school—and they bore the marks of my reading, echoing their plot twists, their grandeur, and their rhyme schemes. My imitations were love letters to the books that I, infatuated, had read and reread devotedly. I did not expect anyone (outside of my family, my teachers, and my long-suffering friends) to read what I wrote. It seemed impossible that books would ever love me back. I read and wrote with worshipful deference, knowing myself to be lowly, invisible, and impotent to disrupt the magic of the page.

When I began to study literature and writing (and then teach it), the literary arts lost some of that mystique. This isn’t to say that I loved them any less. Not at all. In a rather cliché coming-of-age awakening, when the object of my love lost its sheen of perfection, my love for it deepened. Books were, I began to see, created objects. They were built, sentence by sentence; they could age and weaken; they could fall short and still be meaningful and vital. I began to wonder if I could write one, not just for my own amusement or as some paean of my piety, but as a work of art, a serious contribution to the long conversation that is literature. Writing my dissertation had proved to me that I could, indeed, sustain a cohesive writing project of substantial length. But that was still writing about the books I loved and worshipped. If books were my gods, then as an academic, I had graduated to theologian and priest, training others in the way of the devout. I wanted to set my aspirations somewhat higher.

I wanted to cross over to artist, to creator. I had been in the academic mindset, either a teacher or a student, since I was five years old, and this mindset had become the whole of me. Is this really why I left teaching? The hours as a classroom teacher were brutal and the expenditure of emotional and creative energy was enormous, but maybe part of why I quit my job (which I loved, which I miss) was that I needed to leave my place in the audience, the congregation, or what have you. If I was going to cross over, I couldn’t do it sitting in my old familiar seat.

So, heart pounding, I got up and stepped outside of the academy. And I wrote. Less than one year out of the classroom, and I had written my first novel. Less than a year after that I had written my second. And poetry. And stories. Having been backlogged, they were pouring out almost faster than I could catch them. But they began to crowd the house uncomfortably, because dissolved in that flood was a potent desire to be read. I wrote anyway, of course, without an audience of my own, because the act of writing was sustaining me. But I began to crane my neck for my own stage, however humble. I yearned for my work to be finished in the minds of readers I had never met, would never meet.

And that’s when reading changed for me, and remains so. Back in the audience again, when I am longing for the stage, it is hard to sit patiently—I am longing for the stage and want it badly. I no longer see myself as below those sublime beings, my beloved books and the people who write them. I can imagine a place for myself in their midst. This not-unreasonable desire rankles in me as I look up at those who have been invited to the podium.

But it passes—the envy. It surges and then subsides, because I am still, after all, the girl who was read to by her parents, big brothers, and big sister, absorbing every turn of phrase, storing up language for later use. I am still the girl who would do her chores with a book in one hand. I am still the woman who racked up three degrees in literature and who swooned before her students over Walt Whitman’s poetry and Annie Dillard’s prose. And in spite of myself, there are authors (I’m looking at you, N. K. Jemisin) who beguile me back into that place of love, even when I have committed myself to jealousy.

Once inside a piece of writing, loving it is as natural as gravity. I enter the language and the story with all my senses on full alert. I stop to run a sentence back and forth across my teeth and tongue to get its texture and its taste: “The question always filled her with an ecstasy of hatred.” “An ecstasy of hatred.” “The question always filled her.” “Always.” “Ecstasy.” I read and read. I find the places that reflect me and the places that teach me, and I am content.

As was true when I was a child, reading leads to writing. Listening to a book as I cook dinner, I flip off the burner and stop the book to run to my computer to make notes, because I just heard the author do something (a way of ending a conversation, a negotiation with linear time, a refusal to catastrophize) that unlocked a door for me, solving a problem in one of my own stories. Lounging on the front porch, I let the book drop to my chest and close my eyes to  watch the question raised by my reading spin out into a thread of language — a new poem.

My jealousy, thank goodness, has not stopped me from reading. That would be a deadly sin, indeed. Right now, I have five different books underway: a novel, a book of poetry, two books of criticism, and one book of philosophy. I read individual stories and poems, too, as they come across my path. What can I say? I am a jealous lover; I can think of little else but words.

It is hard to know if, should my love be requited in the way I want, I will lose my jealous streak. If you are reading this and it is bound into a book or published under some sober masthead, then maybe I have my answer. Maybe I am self-secure at last. Or has my longing found a new target? Either way, I leave this here as my confession and record—this is how it was, once. This is how it can be to be a writer—both heart-rending and heartening, both discouraging and bracing. But I will tell you this, and it will stand, I think, whatever happens: love, even unrequited, is never unrewarded. And so I sigh my jealous little sigh, turn the page, and read on.