Writer Envy

Books by John McPhee, Stephen King, and E.B. White

I sometimes wonder if professional baseball players envy their teammates. Does a career average player look to a superstar and wonder: Why can’t I be that good? What’s holding me back? Envy isn’t an emotion that I am proud of, but sometimes that painful awareness of a talent I don’t possess and someone else does creeps in.

The truth is, I envy all sorts of writers, not for their success as much as their pure natural ability and talent. Stephen King is among my favorite writers, and I envy his ability to tell a good story, which for me is the single most important part of writing fiction. I envy Ray Bradbury’s lyricism. When I have tried to write like Bradbury, it always feels forced and phony.

I envy the nonfiction writer’s ability to research their material. E.B. White is among my favorite essayists and I envy the easy of his voice. Another of my favorites is John McPhee. I envy his abilities as well, but I envy something about him even more: I envy his travels, his ability to embed himself with whatever subject he was writing about and make it a part of his life. John McPhee has the rarest of talents: he can take any subject and make it interesting.

I know I shouldn’t be envious. I should be thankful for what abilities I possess as a writer. Those abilities, such as they are, were nurtured by parents who encouraged reading. They are almost entirely developed of brute force, and stubbornness. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I submitted and submitted and submitted, until finally, editors started to buy my stories. No shortcuts for me!

As a writer, I am rarely satisfied with what I write. At best, my writing seems “good enough” to send out, and on occasion, it is published, but I often look at what I write, and mentally compare it to those writers that I look up to as role models, and it seems always that we are in different leagues. They are major league superstars, bound for the Hall of Fame. I, on the other hand, bounce around the minor leagues, never quite getting to the level of the majors.

I desperately want to make that leap. I can imagine it, and perhaps that is half the battle. When I was much younger, and just starting to write, I used to daydream that one day, in my wildest imagination, I might actually sell a story to Analog. It seemed impossible, like winning the lottery. Eventually, I did sell to Analog. I could imagine it, and as impossible as it seemed, I made that leap.

The next leap seems much more difficult to make, and it has stymied my writing since late 2015 when I sold my last piece of fiction. I’ve been unsure of my writing ever since. I find myself writing the same pieces of story over and over again, to claim to myself that I am writing, when all I am really doing is going in circles. Part of my problem is that I am not sure where to go from here. Part of my problem is envy and fear. I want to tell stories like Stephen King. I want to write like E.B. White. I want to embed myself in my research like John McPhee.

I suppose there is a danger in comparing yourself to someone at the top of their profession, especially when I am close to the bottom. I try to look at it optimistically: I have a lot of room to grow. But it is a hard hill to climb when you don’t have much time in the day to practice your craft.

This year I have set a modest goal for myself: to get back to writing every day. Even if it is only for five or ten minutes, try to write something every day. I considered a tougher goal of writing a story a month–12 stories in the year, far more than I have ever written before. But that seemed self-defeating. The first step is to get back into the habit, to start flexing those muscles again.

I have a smaller, more subtle goal as well: to try to be less envious of other writers and instead, to appreciate their talents for the beauty they create instead.