Following is an essay by David Ebenbach, the poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, and all-around good guy. I met David at VCCA years ago, and he is, in all truth, one of my favorite people. He is a good friend, a stellar reader, a supporter of other people’s work, and an infinitely inventive, compassionate, generous, smart-as-hell, funny writer and guy. I really love this person, with his heart just as welcoming as I’ve ever encountered. His new book of poems, We Were the People Who Moved, is just out.
You invite me to a banquet in your honor;
I bring my own dinner: ash and vinegar.
Stephen Dobyns, “Envy”
Here’s the truth: Envy is such a consistent part of my writing life that it deserves to have a nameplate on my door and its own chair at my desk. Especially when I’m at my desk looking at Facebook. Envy peers over my shoulder and says, “Hey—check it out! Your friend just got published in a great magazine. Your other friend just won a super-prestigious award. Ooh—another friend is getting reviewed all over the place! If my math is correct, that means that you didn’t get those nice things yourself, amirite?” Envy has a supernaturally sharp eye for everyone else’s successes.
Unfortunately, what I’ve learned is that envy is not a temporary thing, limited to my first couple of years of writing; it’s here to stay. I mean, not every second—when I’m actually writing, for example, envy tends to wander off, bored. And so one thing I do to push back is just get myself writing again. Or let’s say something good happens to me—a publication or something. There’s some temporary bliss that seems to send envy scurrying away for a little while. So sometimes I push back by making sure to send my work out.
But sometimes I don’t push back—instead, I push with. Or something like that. What I’m talking about is a kind of envy jujitsu, where, instead of fighting it, I turn the energy and momentum of envy in a new direction. (I don’t really know exactly what jujitsu is—maybe you can tell—but I’m just going to go with the analogy for a while and hope it works.) So let’s say a friend gets something published and shares the news online. Well, that could be upsetting. It’s kind of like the invitation to that banquet that Stephen Dobyns talks about in his poem, quoted above. But what if, instead of bringing ash and vinegar, I go to the banquet in my dancing shoes, ready to celebrate? What if I even get on my feet during dinner and toast the banquetee?
More concretely, what I like to do, when I see a friend’s good news, is to share it as widely as I can. I re-post someone else’s success on Facebook. If I see a friend’s book at a bookstore, I make sure it’s face-out instead of spine-out. If a person is looking for something good to read, I make sure to recommend something good by a friend (like, say, the tremendous story “Omeer’s Mangoes,” by West Moss (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2014/12/29/post-fiction/contemporary-fiction-art-entertainment/omeers-mangoes.html). There are lots of good ways to help out writer friends (check out Penny Sansevieri’s helpful list for starters – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/penny-c-sansevieri/readers-how-you-can-help_b_3268018.html), but the bottom line is that, when someone’s getting lifted up, right in my face, I try to get in there and help with the lifting. And guess what? It makes me feel happy. Actually happy.
Why does the jujitsu make me feel good? I don’t exactly know. Maybe because it implicates me in my friend’s success. Maybe because I actually like my friends and this reminds me that I’m rooting for them. Or because it shines a light on relationship rather than competition. Maybe because it gives me the sense that good news for one of us is actually good news for all of us, because it means readers are being engaged, truths are being raised, the world is getting to revel in more beauty and insight. Probably all of these reasons and more. Whatever—it makes me feel good.
One of the best things I did this last year was to start a habit of Good News Fridays on Facebook. I started it when I was reeling from an overload of bad news in my own life; I realized that I needed some reassurance that at least my friends, at least some of them, were doing better than me, because maybe that meant the world was an okay place overall. So I put out the call, asking people to share any good news they had, and the response was so big that I’ve kept doing it, every Friday, ever since. People talk about publications and awards but also about having made the time to sit down to write that week; they announce academic degrees and births and feeling a little better after a stomach virus; they trumpet completed projects, Supreme Court decisions about marriage equality, recipes they’ve tried successfully, visits from good friends, a new creative idea. It is freaking wonderful. It’s hope-giving. And the best part is that everyone gets to tune in and see the cascade of good fortune and feel happy for all these deserving people. My friends tell me they love it. I know I do; I, frankly, need it.
The mistake we make is seeing the writing world as a zero-sum game. I mean, it kind of is a zero-sum game, if you measure success in terms of publications and awards—only one person can win the National Book Award in Poetry each year, for example. But maybe you can broaden your definition of success so that it includes participating helpfully in a thriving writing community, a world where happy readers (God bless readers!) do get to read some good writing by some good people. If that’s the definition, then suddenly envy’s down on the mat, wondering what hit it, while the rest of us head off to the banquet, where it turns out there’s enough food for everyone.
Links to all things David Ebenbach
David’s website is a good place to go for regular updates about his new book of poetry (readings, purchasing options) and just to stay up to date on HIM, as a writer and human being: http://davidebenbach.com/between-camelots/we-were-the-people-who-moved/
Wanna sign up for his email list? Here’s how: http://eepurl.com/bh343j
He wrote a fabulous book called the Artist’s Torah, which, by the way, has a whole chapter on envy: http://davidebenbach.com/between-camelots/the-artists-torah/