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Comparison Isn’t Your Biggest Problem (and Other Ways Envy Makes Writing Miserable)

January 2, 2023

The most helpful writing advice I learned this year came from the letters of a demon.

 

C. S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters serially in a newspaper called The Guardian. Eight decades later, I listened to the rumbling voice of Joss Ackland on the audiobook version. Playing the role of Uncle Screwtape, he explained how junior tempter Wormwood could afflict his victim with unhappiness: “Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.”

 

Lewis realized that the human race harbors an oversized sense of entitlement. Because others have more than we do, we think we deserve the same amount. In idle moments, we wake our phones and thumb through twenty social media posts per second. We read glowing reviews for a debut novel that the author pounded out in two months. We see friends gushing about their book deals, finished drafts, and beta-readers-turned-fans. They’ve achieved their goals while we haven’t. We try to celebrate with them. We extend perfunctory congratulations, but inwardly we can’t resist asking, Why not me?

 

Screwtape would be delighted to watch the writing community tripping over the tenth commandment: thou shall not covet. 

 

We can’t experience joy when we dwell on how “unfairly” far ahead our peers are. We can only pour out the attitudes we soak in, so when we nurse resentment, we throw acid onto our creativity. To craft compelling narratives that reflect God’s grace, we must replace the poison with gratefulness. 

 

How to Recognize Discontent

We identify a bad habit by its fruits, and in this case the first is envy.

 

The definition of envy is wanting something that belongs to someone else and, by extension, is not readily attainable. When God told Moses what to engrave on the two stone tablets, He didn’t say the Israelites should never desire marriage or houses or donkeys. But He did say that they shouldn’t lust after someone else’s possessions. He knew that unmet longing would breed the darker emotions, thoughts, and actions forbidden in the other nine commandments. 

 

I’ve spent more hours sulking than I care to admit because I’m not attracting as much attention as another author on Instagram. Envy is a hop, skip, and jump away from petty hatred, and soon I’ve slipped into criticism: I bet the editor fixed all of the author’s mistakes and saved her book from the dumpster. Inventing excuses for why others have broken into the market raises my self-esteem. If I believe that all published authors are secretly incapable and their popularity is circumstantial, my own skills seem stronger. I worry less about my progress. The loop of envy, hatred, and false security reinforces my distrust of fellow creators, which isolates me from giving and receiving support within the writing community

 

When envy festers, it morphs into the second sign of discontent: wish fulfillment. We become spectators to other writers’ accomplishments and disappointment confronts us. To heal these little wounds, we promise ourselves that our books will be bestsellers someday. We’ll have to travel all over the country to sign autographs and speak at conferences. But instead of fixing our problem, the present loses its color, and we waste time fantasizing about an idealized future. 

 

God didn’t stop at “thou shall not covet.” He urged us to pray for our enemies, ask for our daily bread, and praise His name. When we’re discouraged, we don’t need to look ahead: we need to look up and count our blessings.  

 

How to Overcome Discontent

Once we’re conscious of our envy, we tend to attack it with the wrong weapons. I usually panic and yell at myself. How did I become such an awful person? I refuse to let this behavior continue. When my efforts inevitably fail, I imagine all the disadvantages of fame. Sure, that author has thousands of followers, but they put so much pressure on him! At least I don’t have to face that.

 

This rationale does not help me, and I guarantee it won’t help anyone else either. Downplaying our dreams and guilt-tripping ourselves might motivate us to be charitable in the short term, but our willpower will weaken the instant we’re tired, hungry, or inconvenienced

 

God didn’t design us to walk parallel to someone else’s life, because His plans for every individual are unique. We’re all different parts of one body, and we each have different spiritual gifts. The writing speeds, agents, and social media likes we hope for may not align with God’s will for us. When we trust that He’s wiser than we are, our focus will shift toward our growth instead of others’ success, bringing the peace and satisfaction we need to keep creating.

 

As a young Padawan of a writer, I feared the world would end if I didn’t get published as a teenager like the prodigies I’d heard about. So I brainstormed and obsessed and dedicated chunks of time to drafting. But guess what? God decided that my first short story to appear in an anthology would release on my twentieth birthday.

 

The irony.

 

I’ve never published anything else in book form, and I couldn’t be more relieved, both for my sake and future readers’. I’m a recovering people pleaser who often bows to the opinions of others—an area that the publication process would have tested to the limit. If I struggle with those traits now, I definitely lacked maturity a handful of years ago. Publishing as a teenager would have been a disaster.

 

When we embrace our own paths, we regain our ability to be thankful. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy and Edmund are thrilled with the adventure, whereas Eustace continually gripes about being mistreated. So he hoards the treasure he stumbles across, convinced that it will solve his predicament. But it carries a curse. Only while trapped in a dragon’s skin does he start to view his companions as friends and Narnia as his second home.

 

Like Eustace, we can be blind to the magic around us. As sinners, we deserve nothing except death, and everything we’ve ever gained is outside our control. The fact that we’re living at the dawn of each day is a miracle—yet God has granted us mercy upon mercy beyond that first ray of light. 

 

We have a star, suspended thousands of miles above the Earth, that expends unimaginable energy to deliver nutrients to our skin. We have an invisible force called gravity that aids in the formation of drinkable liquid in the air, then pulls it down in tiny drops so we can access it. And we have hundreds of workers who laid down flat, wide stretches of petroleum-like material so we could propel hunks of metal on four wheels and travel vast distances to visit loved ones. 

 

Letting go of our hunger for more and remembering the manna in front of us takes practice, however. Every time envy sneaks in, we have to counter it with praise. A critique partner signed a book contract; we have the time, enthusiasm, and inspiration to continue shaping our projects. A mentor quits her office job to become a full-time writer; we have steady income that keeps food on the table and those gravity-powered water droplets off our backs.

 

Not only will a mental reset bring us contentment, but also healthier relationships. We’ll squeal with friends who win contests and leave uplifting comments on the Instagram accounts of authors with pretty photos. When we bask in the grace God has already lavished on us, we soothe the ache in our souls and reinvigorate our careers.

 

The Victory

Before we heft our shields against the discontent in our hearts, we must be wary of its resilience. As sinful human beings, we have a Dr. Jekyll inside that thinks complaining eases our troubles somehow. Silencing this alter ego is difficult because he’s part of who we are. 

 

One week, I’ll be thanking God for every word I slap onto the page. The next, I’ll be ready to crush my phone because I’ve scrolled through too many posts about an author’s latest release. The ups and downs are inevitable. 

 

As children of God, we’re called to fight such thoughts. That’s why Jesus offers us an incredible gift: the strength to keep pushing back. Because He was satisfied with His place as God’s Son, He sacrificed His life so we could pick up His sword. We can run to Him every time we’re tempted to strangle other writers or quit. And someday we’ll escape from our sin-laden bodies and meet Him in paradise. The battle is hard, but it’s already won. 

3 Comments

  1. RuthAnna

    Such a good reminder. Thank you Gabrielle, I needed to hear that. <3

    Reply
  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile)

    Well, it’s easier to complain about other writers “having too easy” than it is to get busy writing & learning the writing trade.

    Reply
  3. Brian H. Gill

    A good reminder. And I appreciated references to “The Screwtape Letters” and “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. Very good reminder. Thank you!

    Reply

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