ATTENTION! Because I am a mad woman, I have started a new blog. Yes, you heard me correctly — I now have a second (or third, if you count my silly Tumblr) blog to suck up even more of my already-precious spare time. It’s called Girlpoems, and you can read a bit about the rather nutty thinking behind it here. But in the meantime, have a read of this post, which is cross-posted over there, too. It’s about living with another writer and feeling envious, or not, of their successes. Enjoy…!
A week or so ago, I came across Kathryn Chetkovich’s 2003 essay on Envy, featured at the Guardian books blog and excerpted from Granta’s Life’s Like That issue. It was mentioned in a not-very-interesting blog entry I was reading somewhere I now forget, and although I know it’s now nearly a decade old, I couldn’t help but have a reaction to it once I’d clicked through.
Chetkovich writes about a long-term romantic relationship with a fellow writer who, during the course of their time together, capitalised on his already noteworthy literary successes with the publication of a highly popular novel. At the time, Chetkovich says, she was struggling with her own work and desperate for even a fraction of the sort of recognition her partner received. She writes about the deep and devious envy that steadily engulfed her; she candidly describes the way she resented his successes and secretly willed him to experience major setbacks. Although she repeatedly describes him as “the man I loved,” she writes as if she is describing her most hated enemy.
I was initially stunned by this piece. My first reaction was to see Chetkovich as bratty and selfish, too consumed with jealousy over her partner’s work to a) identify and work on the supposed flaws in her own and b) realise that her relationship was obviously spiralling into oblivion as a result of her feelings. I saw her suggestions about the role of gender in the situation — that he was a man, and therefore the wheels were so much more greased for him to be successful; that her mother had disingenuously brought her up to believe she could excel in whatever field she wanted, etc — as desperate kvetching. Perhaps he’s just a damn good writer and you’re just not, I thought. It seemed that this was a possibility too horrifying for Chetkovich to ponder, at least for long.
These initial reactions arose, I think, based on my own current romantic relationship, which happens to be with another poet, and over which I could so easily drift into Chetkovich-type territory. On my very first meeting with S, I was blown away by the passion and dedication, but also the damn good sense with which he spoke about writing. It had been a long time since I met someone whose ideas on the topic were so in sync with my own — so I was shocked when S revealed that, “actually, I’m not really a writer at all.”
Turns out, of course, that he is. I have been writing seriously for nearly eight years; in that time I’ve edited a grassroots literary magazine, read for and judged literary prizes, led workshops and taught creative writing as a formal subject, both one-to-one and in a lecture/seminar format. I know a writer when I see one. And as my relationship with S grew, he started allowing me access to some of his “random scribbles” — brief synopses for plays, short stories, and the odd poem. We also began talking more and more about the numerous ideas he’d had for creative projects, most of which he’d been too self-conscious to note down, let alone start. And the more I got access to S’s creative thoughts, the more excited I got about his obvious potential — the potential to be a really great writer.
At this point, I could have got scared, or allowed myself to become envious. I feel that my own modest successes have been hard-won — when I started out I wasn’t a very good writer, but I made the mistake of thinking that I was. That meant that I spent a long time wallowing around in a mire of rage at editors who “didn’t get me,” at other poets who I hated for being better, or (I thought at the time) luckier than I was. It took me a while to realise that I needed to read, write and edit a hell of a lot more before I was going to be any good. I’m still in that process — I still need smacking down every so often, and I feel like my work could still be a damn sight better.
S, on the other hand, has a natural ability to craft a good sentence, a cracking poem. He has bloody brilliant ideas for creative projects — daring, original ideas, the like of which get arts council grants and column-inches in trendy lit magazines. He’s a natural performer (not so long ago I persuaded him to enter his first poetry slam — he came second out of sixteen contenders, many of them very established in the local and indeed national performance scene). He’s also truly, endearingly modest, refusing to believe that what he’s doing is even vaguely noteworthy, having to be coerced into referring to himself as a poet. What’s more, in spite of the fact that he’s only been writing seriously for a handful of months, he’s already been approached by a publisher who wants to produce not one, but a series of three, pamphlets of his poetry.
As you’ve probably already guessed, my feelings on the subject are about as far from Chetkovich’s as you can possibly get. I am over the moon for the man I love. My eight years of cack-handedly networking my way around the Scottish literary scene has given me a handy list of contacts, and I have been more than happy to pass on these, along with every hint and tip I have managed to pick up. Having never been in a relationship with another writer, I am loving the fact that we can sit and look over each other’s stuff; that he accepts my crit on his new pieces and offers me good suggestions for mine; that we can geek out about poetry and discuss our literary pipe dreams over pints in bars where the walls are lined with books. Whenever one of the magazine editors or CW teachers whose interest I sweated to earn remarks offhand “hey, I really enjoyed your man’s set the other night,” I glow with pride. After reading Chetkovich’s piece I examined every nook and cranny of my feelings for S for any shred of creative envy, but found nothing. I genuinely could not understand her position. How could she claim to love this man when she so obviously despised his success?
And yet, her essay has stuck with me. I’ve carried it around in my head, thinking it over and over like a tune I can hear, but can’t name. And the more I think about it, the more I realise: I was unfair on her. Of course, we are not in the same position. Of course it’s possible to love a man, but also resent him. Of course it is — I’ve done it myself. What girl doesn’t both love and, to an extent, resent her father, at least occasionally? And many of us, myself included, go further than that in our wider relationships with men. I have simultaneously loved and resented previous boyfriends, as well as good male friends. Of course, she’s right. What was wrong with me?
I started thinking about how I’d feel if the roles were reversed in my relationship. When I met S, he was a writer, but he was too self-conscious about his work to acknowledge it, and that crippled him — he couldn’t write. He had no real access to a creative community — his friends are all well read, and one or two of them might have scribbled the odd poem or article at some point in their lives, but none of them are active as writers. The few attempts he’d made to put his work “out there” (he had attended creative writing workshops for a spell during his undergrad degree) had been largely unsuccessful — he’d been rather unfortunately dismissed by workshop leaders who for the most part didn’t really get what he was trying to do. He was, essentially, the me of seven years ago — the me who was raging at editors and other poets and as a result, not engaged in the community; the me who was wilfully not working on improving my stuff the way I should have been and as a result, not really writing. I found myself wondering how I would have felt if I’d got together with a far more confident writer who thought they could tell me everything I needed to know about How To Do It, who was obviously more established and successful than I was and who seemingly took a shine to me. I know exactly how I’d have felt: I would have resented the hell out of them, love or no love.
So I realise I owe Chetkovich a pretty huge break. There I was assuming that I was in her position — because I’m the woman, because I’m the one who feels like I have to work hard while my talented partner makes it look easy. But in fact, it’s S who ought to be — and may well be — feeling envious, or at least resentful. I’ve come swanning into his life and demanded that he assert himself as a writer, without really checking whether or not he felt ready to do that. I’ve prodded and nagged him to make a start on creative projects that have lain dormant for years, entirely under the illusion that I was encouraging him to “follow his star”. I’ve shoved him into the path of other poets, of editors and promoters without really stopping to think about how intimidating that could potentially be for him. And I’ve been able to do all this entirely because of my own past efforts and achievements — my attempts to promote and encourage him have all been ever so slightly about me.
Fortunately, I don’t think S bears me any ill will. As you may have gathered from the descriptions above, he’s a fairly cool customer. He’s at pains to point out to me how grateful he is for my help with and support of his creative endeavours, and I’m at pains to point out that I just provided the butt-kicking he needed… his talent is doing the rest. But I’m pretty sure that, even just occasionally, he wants me to get lost and leave him to it thanks very much. And thanks to Chetkovich, from now on I am going to try.
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