Friday, October 16, 2009


© 2009 Noelle Sterne

"Wish other writers well?" you're thinking. "Are you crazy? There's only one writer I want to wish well: knuckle-biting, discipline-fighting, draft-grinding me!"

I understand. But I'm prompted to share this "cure" because I've had too many seasons of terrible jealousies. The most wrenching occurred when I was in college, craving to get through and get on with my writing career. I watched a classmate, still in her twenties, achieve my dream. She published a novel, dazzled the literary world, and had constant rave reviews. Every bookstore displayed towering mountains of her bestseller.

The greater her praise, the deeper my self-deprecation.

Chronically depressed, I stopped reading reviews and crossed the street when a bookstore loomed.

But finally I realized something crucial, which led to the antidote I'm suggesting. This hard-to-swallow act is not proposed from magnanimity or naiveté. Rather, it's plain old self-interest: As I proved for way too long, jealousy of other writers just doesn't work.

Why? They don't plunge into depression at the news of their advance/article/ assignment/ agent/bestseller/contract/book tour/miniseries/Oprah selection, etc., etc. They don't lose all interest and hope, condemn everything they've ever written as drivel, or swear there will never be enough to go around. They don't snap at everyone in sight, eat way too much, and write way too little.

Who does? You guessed it.

And I, for one, am tired of all that unproductive pain. It's finally pushed me to another, more fruitful perspective.

Our envied colleagues, despite their intimidating accomplishments, remain only people. They too get cavities, have to shave, run out of coffee, and accumulate roomfuls of rejections.

And no matter how stellar their past credits, like every one of us, they must daily face the blinding blankness of the empty page or screen.

The only difference is that they know something we've forgotten: an overnight success never is. In fact, our colleagues exemplify the truth of all those easily scoffed-at clichés:

· Persistence and patience pay off.
· There's always room for someone good.
· Each of us is uniquely and irreplaceably creative.

My conviction in these truisms was first put to the test with my college classmate. When her third well-received novel had just come out, I wrote her a letter. I told her of my long jealousy and how it had stopped me from writing. I said I admired her work nevertheless and wished her well with her in-progress fourth novel. She never replied, but that letter freed me tremendously. I still avoided bookstores, but I gradually wrote more and began to publish.

Recently, an equally ominous test emerged. In a single week, I learned of the successes of several writing friends. One received a prestigious award for her children's book, another signed a contract for her first historical novel, and the third published his latest short story in a top national literary magazine.

At first, this news pierced me like multiple wounds and almost sent me straight to bed with a fifty-pound bag of chocolate chip cookies. But then, although admittedly less than joyous, I resisted crawling under the quilt and instead strode over to my computer. Remembering my earlier letter, and defying the green gods of rejected writers, I brazenly fired off notes of congratulation to all three.

And I wasn't fibbing. For one thing, as with my college classmate, I can't help praising a good piece of writing, whoever's written it. For another, I recalled the words of a very wise preacher: "If you curse the successful, you'll never be one of them. Bless them instead."

My congratulatory notes were certainly forms of "blessings," and self-interest again impelled me to reinforce them. Sitting at my desk, I addressed each of my accomplishing friends aloud (and a little self-consciously). "______, I wish you all the success, fame, and wealth you want, and more!"

The results were astonishing. My jealousy evaporated, depression disappeared, and spirit returned. I leapt into a manuscript I'd been avoiding for weeks and did splendid battle for several too-short hours, finishing an entire third draft.

More rewards came. The children's author sent a beautifully inscribed copy of her book. The historical novel writer called, thanked me profusely, and offered a personal referral to her agent. And a letter came from the short story writer. My words, he said, had pulled him out of a slump so severe he was sure he'd never write anything again. With my note propped in front of him, he'd just started another story.

Seeing their responses, I almost cried. My well-wishing had evoked these immediate blessings! All envy, like a wayward winged insect, flew right out the window.

My survival-driven stumbling into well-wishing was confirmed and extended by agent Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates (quoted by editor and writing teacher Deborah Brodie, “More Is More,”

Talking about the children’s book market she said:

It's easy to get caught up in scarcity mentality and think that if someone else gets published, your slot has been filled. But someone else's successful children's book can open up the market for other children's books, including yours. . . . There's always a new editor coming on board, always a new publishing imprint starting up, always a new format developing. . . . It may seem like a paradox, but you can help yourself get published by helping someone else get published.

This advice, of course, applies to any writing market, even yours. So, when you feel particularly jealous of other writers, remember Olswanger’s enlightened words and my transformative experiences. Compliment the writers you’re gnashing your teeth about, even if you have to force it a bit. You may be surprised to find that in the process you're freeing yourself of habitual, self-defeating feelings and beliefs.

And remember, each time you wish other writers well, you're making room for your own greater success and wishing yourself nothing less than the best.

© 2009 Noelle Sterne


Writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant, Noelle Sterne holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and publishes in writers’ and mainstream magazines. Recent articles have appeared in Archetype, Children’s Book Insider, Long Ridge Writer’s eNews, Pure Inspiration, The Write Place At the Write Time, Writer’s Digest special issues, Writers’ Journal, and The Writer, with additional pieces scheduled.

A craft article on the short story was published in the 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). A short story about a middle-school boy who discovers healing powers is part of the Star Stepping anthology (Wild Child Publishing, June 2008). Her monthly column, “The Starbucks Chronicles,” on the struggles of writing and joys of latté-sipping, appeared for over a year in the Absolute Write Newsletter.

Based on her extensive time academic consulting practice, she is completing a psychological-spiritual handbook to help doctoral candidates finish their dissertations (finally). Other book-length projects include a collection of essays for writers, First You Find Your Desk: Start Writing and Keep Writing with Less Agony and More Joy.

See two of Noelle's pieces in the new Fall issue of The Write Place at the Write Time:

“Birthday Wish”

“A Saga of Writerly Persistence”


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Noelle, welcome to MB4 today! It's a pleasure to have you here, and thanks for your on-target advice!

Kim Smith said...

I admit it. I have been here too. Sigh. But the thing is, you let this feeling of being left behind motivate you to going on ahead to greater things. Right! Right? Um... Noelle? AHHHH!!! She's left me behind!

Sheila Deeth said...

I guess I'd better wish you all well then. Nice article Noelle.

BookingAlong said...

I was so glad to see this today, really needed the inspiration. I definitely believe that the blessings we give to others in their creative endeavors, including writing, return to us in some way and also bless our lives. Even if I am wrong, I feel better for giving to others.

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, how wonderful that your congratulations helped others feel good! That's a great reward, isn't it? :-)

LOL I'll write some congrats here. Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling: congratulations, and may your next buckets of money make your bed very soft. :-)

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Love this generous approach.