I should just call this the jealousy blog. I swear I’m never more pen-productive than when I’m exploring my painful feelings toward people who’ve seemingly “beat me” in this fucked up jealousy game I invented a long, long time ago and can’t quite toss into the trash once and for all.
When life is great and I’m feeling happy, energized, hopeful, content and ready to take on the world, I have nearly zero desire to write.
With that in mind,
did I ever tell you the one about Curtis Sittenfeld?
She’s about to publish her fourth novel. I read about it in Time. The premise looks intriguing—two sisters share a psychic ability, one is wild; one suburban; they have to come to terms with it all for some reason or another.
CS had a daughter in 2009, who would be, what, four now? I looked it up. And she already had two or three novels out by then that had I think been bestsellers, had her picture in Vanity Fair, wrote articles for Salon, was in the New York Times, went to Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her MFA, which is the best creative writing program in the universe from what I’ve heard, Stanford and Vassar before that, and I’m not linking shit about her. She has enough publicity. Her star be bright enough.
From what I read online in a speedy sleuthing, she was into writing and pursuing it since high school—even won one of those Seventeen magazine contests.
Me, I stumbled upon writing at the age of thirty, though I will admit that Sister Valerio loved my descriptive piece, My Moldy Avocado, when I was a junior at Sacred Heart. That was maybe my first inkling that I had literary talent.
So Why Curtis?
She wouldn’t even be on my radar if our paths hadn’t crossed at a Mediabistro event in 2004—nearly a decade ago—when Star Craving Mad had just been published. Prep was about to drop.
Soon after our journeys forked far away from each other as she went on to publish two—now three—more novels while I had a kid at the same time my novel was released—to zero publicity, crappy sales and nary a mention in the media.
The night we met, I was poised to be the next Sophie Kinsella, the “hottest project” around according to an email my agent showed me, and Hollywood couldn’t wait to get its little mits on my book.
Her bestseller begat two more, now three. American Wife was published the year she had her daughter, in 2009. I had another baby in 2006. I published one essay in an Anthology in ’08 and finally wrote a draft of a novel my agent wanted to represent in 2010. I am still working on it nineteen (well-deserved) rejections later.
I’m not supposed to mention these rejections, but I do because I believe in transparency. I believe that the more honest we are about our struggles, the calmer we can be through the shitstorm. If we’re assured that the vast majority of people are not graced with an easy life, and have their own uphill battles, we can find solace knowing that our struggles, as unique and personal as they feel, are typical.
Too often in our culture the end result—the product—is the highlighted thing. How much more validating, celebratory and joyous is it to know what hell a successful person went through to get to the top of their chosen mountain? Maybe this is why my heroes of popular culture are the ones who struggled mightily and prevailed. Louis CK. Marc Maron. Anne Lamott. Gwyneth, Curtis, Lena and Kerry? Not so much.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the top. I don’t know if writing novels is my jam anymore—certainly not a basket I’d throw all my cage-free eggs into—not at this point. I rarely even read novels. They just don’t grab me. I still love good sentences and snappy writing, and I did just finish Wild (a memoir) and enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. Mostly though, I read about fitness and health. I ogle female bodybuilders. I leaf through magazines like US Weekly and Time, where I learned about Sittenfeld’s new book.
And I felt that familiar stab of jealousy that I am primed for and prone to since for-fucking-ever. And then I gave myself a talking to.
I said, Elise, how is it that you have thing one in common with this woman anymore, this woman who’s clearly devoted her life to being a writer and to writing. You’ve embarked—organically and happily for the most part—when you’re not comparing yourself to others—on a less writerly path.
Sure you still work on it. You’ve got your novel in progress. Your agent. Your writing workshop. But it’s just a part of you. You’ve got this house in the ‘burbs. Two kids who don’t have a nanny, a maid or a housekeeper. Because those jobs are YOURS. You have a husband who you actually enjoy hanging out with, friends you love to laugh with and a passion for fitness and health that you’re pursuing—fitness blogging, pursuing your personal trainer certification. (True story!! Like how I slipped that in there?)
It’s about more than writing for you, E. There’s no need to take her successes personally, and I know you know that. But still. There never was a reason.
It all boils down to self-esteem. You know this. Of course you want the recognition for your writing talent and it hurt like a motherfucker when her book did so well and yours sank to the bottom of the ocean unnoticed. Especially since the night of that Mediabistro event you behaved like you were a superstar, to the audience and to Curtis, over martinis at Fez. Her book hadn’t come out yet. And then it did. And she was written up in Elle, your favorite magazine at the time. And oh god, the mortification! How it ACHED. The AGONY. It was humiliating.
And every time you’ve seen a pink grosgrain ribbon since then, you’ve shivered and felt like someone just tied the thing around your sternum and pulled as hard as they could.
Every time you’ve seen her name in a magazine, her book in a store… She has a wikipedia page. You have nothing. Compared. So you lose. In the game you invented.
Why would anyone do that to themselves? Why would someone inflict such pain upon themselves, especially when they know better? Why is it that you still struggle with this game? Playing it and losing and then writing about it? It’s possibly your most written about theme.
Maybe because you get to writing when you’re in pain. Because writing started out as therapy for you. Healing. And over a decade later, it’s still about healing. And that’s why you’re not drawn to novels but rather non-fiction. Because your life isn’t about Being a Writer. It’s about finding contentment with who you are. It’s about healing from a fucked up past—and we’re not talking blame here. We’re talking your own fucked up actions that undermined your sense of self again and again, all of which you’ve written about!
To be fair, I doubt you would have been so awful to yourself if you hadn’t learned the terrible craft from your parents and half-siblings, but you still have your very own history of rotten behavior—toward others, but most of all toward yourself. And every day that you make healthy choices you marvel at how normal you’re capable of being. How Normal is what you’ve been after all along, and how you got normal confused with “special.”
That’s what I said. And it helped.