Meanwhile, I already have a wonderful treat to offer: a guest post by author Jeff Salyards about writer’s jealousy, entitled Green-Eyed Gremlin.
“Green-Eyed Gremlin” by Jeff Salyards
There’s a scene in Blood Meridian where a veritable horde of Comanche are galloping down on the terror-stricken main characters (who, I should note, really have it coming to them), and the description goes on for days in Faulknerian fashion with nary a punctuation mark to be seen, and yet it’s as exact and precise a piece of prose as you can hope to find, brimming with exquisite details that are equal parts beautiful and horrifying. It’s full of juxtapositions and jagged edges and yet still builds this fascinating rhythm, powerful and almost hypnotic. End even though I’ve reread the dang scene 100 times if I’ve read it once, I still marvel at it.
I’m repeatedly struck by similar thoughts in a lot of my reading adventures. I’m amazed by the despair and pain Samuel Beckett can capture in minute changes to repetition, how he can take the most stripped down language and still imbue it with such stricken feeling and portent.
I have to remind myself not to drink anything anytime I read the irreverent, profane, goofy, and fantastic tangents Tom Robbins allows himself, because laughing milk out your nose hurts like hell. Especially if you’re eating a Pop Tart at the same time.
From the very first lines in Lolita, you know you’re in for a great ride: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Le. Ta.” Read that out loud. Go on. See what I mean?
People sometimes complain about how lousy some of the published prose out there is, and maybe it’s not all top notch, sure, but over and over, I find myself awed by what fantastic writing I do encounter, old and new. And whenever I read mind-blowing writing, I inexplicably find myself not just appreciating it a as a reader, but trying to reverse engineer the stuff, pick it apart and diagnose exactly how the writer was able to create something so hilarious, painful, brilliant, sublime, whatever. And almost without fail, my little green-eyed gremlin sidles up to me, hops up on my shoulder, and starts his vulgar whispering. “Pretty good stuff that Vladamir guy had, wasn’t it? And that’s no translation—he wrote that in English, even though Russian was his mother tongue. Amazing, huh? Hard to imagine writing that well in a second language, isn’t it? Say, do you even speak a second language. . . ?”
This is usually when I backhand the little bastard across the room. (Don’t feel bad—he is a monster, after all). A lot of the time, the gremlin knows better than to even show up, because it’s obvious I won’t fall for his transparent baiting. But on the days when I’m tired or a little distracted, and I allow him to bounce up and down on my shoulder, chattering away like a demonic monkey, sometimes his Iago routine actually works a little. I find jealousy slowly creeping in, envy over what those writers are capable of. . . Tom Stoppard’s dialogue is a high wire act, precise, exhilarating; my dialogue is as lively as a dead fish. Don DeLillo’s description does double-duty, not only capturing vivid detail and incident, but establishing wonderful mood; my descriptions are cluttered with debris that obliterates what I’m trying to really show. Patrick Rothfuss has priceless prose; my prose is so cheap a pawn broker would laugh in my face if I tried to sell it. Etc., etc.
But if the gremlin wheedles and work his smarmy charms, you can usually take this jealousy and use it as fuel, refocusing on refining craft, working harder to make things better. Maybe jealousy isn’t a good thing, but I’d contend that so long as it prompts you to work harder, it’s at least productive. Some days, I think I even lower my guard and give the gremlin his due, because I need a little extra motivation. Dysfunctional? You betcha! But whatever works, right?
Then there are. . . other days. Darker days. When the little bastard starts his jabbering little rants and catches me feeling vulnerable, already in a funk. Only this time he isn’t prattling about how my writing suffers in comparison to something else out there, but more dangerous observations: “Did you read about the advance that debut writer got? How fast do you think she quit the day job? Woo-wee! Do you think she bought a Jacuzzi? Man, we could use one of those. You’re really hunching these days. Do you want me to switch shoulders?” Or “That reviewer just gave your buddy five stars. Good for him, right, kudos and what not. But I thought you said the reviewer never gave five, and hardly even four, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you were fine with your three-star review?”
And that’s when the unctuous demon spawn dances a little jig, because that kind of jealousy is pure poison, destructive as all get out. Instead of fueling a fire to get better, it usually just causes you to bemoan what treatment you didn’t receive, recognition that didn’t land in your lap, rewards that didn’t materialize. It leads to bitterness, frustration, caustic doubts, and on the worst days, writer paralysis.
You would think getting an agent, landing a publisher, and having your book release would be enough to banish the gremlin for good. And maybe it will someday. But I still hear the little bugger scampering about, and he’s craftier than I give him credit for.
For me, the only thing that forces the gremlin to really shut his creepy little mouth is to remember that work ethic you control, your reactions to things, you control, but there is simply a hard cap on what you can impact, regardless of whether you go the traditional route or self-publish. Sure, you can solicit blurbs and reviewers like a maniac, build a kickass website and keep it fresh, try to establish relationships with your local booksellers with handshakes and donuts, be on your best behavior with readers (they REALLY don’t want to hear you bitch and moan about how tough you have it!), try to put yourself out there and promote wide and far without turning into a snake oil salesman, but at the end of the day, you can’t control what those reviewers or readers think, or ultimately what your sales figures look like. You can work your tail off to try to make each book better, to give each book the best chance of success possible when it comes out, and that’s really all you can do.
That, and don’t be afraid to get rough with the green-eyed imp. He is a monster after all, no matter the stature.