Dissecting Envy

In few of my posts, I refer to other writers and their work habits. I’ve been reading quite a few first novels to get a feel of where I fit in when it comes to first-time novelists. I feel like I can write better than a lot of the first-timer indie books going up on Kindle, but I can’t get a feel for where I stand among published authors. There are some award-winning books out there that I liked reading, but didn’t think the writing was anything special. Then there are books like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and King Rat by China Mielville. These are first novels, but the level of writing is nearly mind-blowing. Description is fulfilling and not oppressive. Dialog is punchy and does more than one thing. And my personal favorite, every scene moves the plot forward.

To sum up in advance, I wish I had written these books.

When I spent all my time thinking about making movies, I would see something like Moon or Brick or Being John Malkovich or Delicatessen or District 9 and end up as much depressed as I was inspired. I wish I had made these movies. I realize that none of these filmmakers (with the possible exception of Rian Jonnson of Brick) appeared out of nowhere. It’s not like Neill Blomkamp just got off his couch and made District 9. But he sure made it look easy.

It’s this creator envy that sometimes makes me want to quit. If I can’t be China Melville or Dashiell Hammett and just blast out genius on the page, why try? The thing is, it’s not like these guys are classical literary masters like Joyce or Faulkner, they started writing because they loved it and they got better over time. Like the filmmakers I mentioned, these writers banged away for years and years with no way of knowing how it would shake out. They powered past doubt. Their career paths and work habits are a source of inspiration for me. When you read their books, you feel like the world is a good place and and good work finds its way to its audience.

Now there’s self-publishing and anyone can put a book out for sale. While I love the idea of doing away with the filtering layer that publishers perform, I find myself envious all over again. But in this situation there is no silver lining. Lower quality books are selling by the millions. I don’t begrudge their authors, not one bit, but I can still be jealous. Here are people who aren’t at the upper end of writing ability, not even over the average mark, but they’re selling. The easy answer is, “Fine then. Write a book and sell it.” I have the “write it” part figured out, but I’ve never been good with the “sell it.” People who do well with any kind of sales are all about the marketing. Again, I’m not saying that cheapens their accomplishments, but it still makes me green. I’m missing some quality that makes a good self-promoter.

In thinking about all this, I remembered a bar fight I witnessed many years ago. This is going to be kind of a long story, but it has a point… When I was of the age that I spent weekends in bars, I saw a huge guy get in a fight with a bouncer. This guy started swinging at the bouncer who easily dodged the guy’s swings. The big guy was drunk, but he looked like a brawler. Instead of the crowd bursting out in jeers and cheers, it got really really quiet. Nothing but the bar music. There were about 30 people surrounding the scene, and I think we were worried for the bouncer. The bouncer, whose name I later found out was Earnest (not joking), started out by trying to calm the guy down, but after two attempts, he figured out that wasn’t going to work. Then his whole demeanor changed. Earnest’s face went completely calm. Like a Buddhist monk. He stood in a very slight crouch with his hands ready, but he was steady, not bouncing or shifting. This big drunk dude was raging and threatening to clean the floor with the bouncer (yes, he said “clean the floor”). Earnest didn’t respond at all, he just watched the guy. Suddenly, the big guy charged Earnest for a waist tackle and though drunk, he was deceptively quick. Earnest did the wrestler’s sprawl like it was second nature. Then spun and took the guy’s back and choked him out with some kind of nelson-style head lock. The whole time, his face never strained, never changed. When the big guy was unconscious, Earnest set him carefully on the floor and stood up straight. Nobody said a word. We all just kind of filed out of that part of the bar.

The party talk picked back up and people were recapping the altercation. Everyone agreed Earnest was a bad ass. Serious super hero stuff. But I wasn’t struck with his wrestling ability, it was his utter confidence in his ability that amazed me. My friends kept talking about his sprawl and choke hold, but I argued the key moment was when his face went calm. That was the moment he took control of the situation. That was the moment he decided this was over. He took charge inside his mind and at that instant, he was ready for anything. Man! Gives me chills just remembering it.

How does this relate to my writing situation? I have to apply my appreciation of the bouncer to my envy of successful amateur writers (and old pros, too). See, I actually witnessed the very second Earnest took over his situation, but when it comes to successful self-pubbed writers, I only see the results. Imagine if I walked up and saw the bouncer in the middle of his choke hold. I would say, “That was easy.” Watching a great movie or reading a great book (or looking up a terrible book’s sales numbers) is like only seeing the choke hold. What about everything that it took to get there? Earnest’s moment was a second or two, but I didn’t see all the years of practice that led up to that moment. I never saw how many times Earnest had his ass kicked in his life. How many fights do you think he went through to forge his supremacy against the big guy?

I can’t be jealous of somebody for knowing the choke hold! I have to track back to the moment of control. I have to remember that the choke hold is useless without experience and practice and self-confidence. I need to channel Earnest the bouncer. I can’t focus on the final results. I need to take over this situation, and be ready for whatever comes.

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