[Photo by Yanyi: You look across a bay as a cloud passes over a mossed fjord in Ísafjörður, Iceland, dappling golden light as it rests on the slopes. White houses with red, blue, and grey roofs stand neatly close to the other shore. Their reflections are reflected in the inlet before them.]
I recently discovered The Reading and I’ve read all your advice, and I’ve screenshotted a lot of “I Can’t Build a Daily Habit”, which is what I needed so much to hear, especially the part about trusting that your own work is enough. I’ve struggled with it since I’ve started writing (and in activities other than writing). I don’t know if it’s how I naturally am, or the way I’ve been taught, but I have a fierce, poisonous urge to compare and to compete, which worries me.
Recently, a friend of mine, younger than me, has just published in a magazine. I worked with her for weeks on that piece, and it is very good, and I respect and like her, as a friend and as a writer, but even when I’m writing these complimentary words I feel so unbearably angry. You can say it’s a mix between jealousy and resentment, with an aftershock of guilt. I can feel happy for people if they are achieving less than me, or if they are on a totally different path (for example, I’m never angry at my poet friends for their achievements, because in my mind, we’re not competing for the same prizes), but if someone is on the same career track and in approximately the same social position as I am and gets “ahead” of me, I’m furious.
I think this is partly because of the way I was raised and educated, as well as the way that literary success is set up to promote a scarcity mindset, but also because I do have a bit of an inferiority complex when I’m with my fellow writers. They talk about going to creative writing programs in the summers and applying to MFAs as if it’s nothing. I never heard of an MFA before I went to college, and I never wrote a single story before my sophomore year. Which I realize is still pretty young, but it doesn’t feel like it when I’m surrounded by confident, wealthy U.S. citizens who have spoken English since birth and have always been told they can do anything they want to. When I’m with them, I feel small and insignificant and fearful, as if I’ve started the race ten years too late and with my feet hobbled. I feel so desperate when I think about my future and so scared when I’m in a so-called writing “community”, that I lash out internally when I perceive that somebody has passed me by, because that means I’m losing again. It’s not so much that I think somebody less deserving or less needful has gotten a piece of the limited pie (though there is some element of that), but moreso that feeling one gets when you’re running with all your might and you can’t manage more than limp, and someone passes you easily and naturally, and you’re left shuffling after them as they move further and further away.
That’s how I comfort myself, too, when someone “passes” me on the race. They started earlier, I tell myself, or they’ve had advantages that I didn’t. And I don’t like thinking like that, and I feel this resentment inside me is a time bomb, which will eventually hurt my friendships and myself, even though I keep these feelings very well concealed.
I don’t know how to deal with this. It’s gotten worse and worse and I’m afraid of it. It’s not the right mentality to take at all, but I don’t know how to even start getting out of it. I feel ashamed writing this down at all, but I hope you can help me, and maybe other people like me. I’ve never seen any writer addressing this problem before, so I don’t really know where to turn.
Thank you so much for your time and thoughtfulness! Even if you don’t respond to this, it did help a little to write it all down. So thank you, too, for giving me the space to articulate the problem and ask for help.
Last Place Runner
Thank you for writing to me about something so vulnerable and difficult to talk about. No one wants to be the one with “poisonous” feelings, especially when you’re judged so viciously in society for being anything but virtuous. You’ve not only voiced your struggles with “ugly” feelings, but I can tell you’ve also thought a lot about them.
You write so extensively on your own guilty pattern, but there’s little in your letter that actually describes what went down with your friend. You mention that you “worked with her for weeks on that piece,” and I’m wondering what the nature of your collaboration was. It could be that you gave her some feedback on how the piece was going, your reflections on it, and some revision suggestions, or did you go further than that? The part that makes me pause is “weeks.” How many weeks was it, exactly, and how many hours in those weeks? Did you go as far as to rewriting sentences and passages for her? If you did, there’s a fine line between helping, collaborating, and even ghostwriting a piece for someone. If your friend won a prize for what you wrote without crediting you, your resentment might be justified.
Perhaps you love to help others to the point that you would drop your own goals in order to help someone else succeed. This over-generosity is a residual habit of gendered labor for me—having been told that my worth is my service to others, I prioritized pleasing others over giving my energy to myself. Cultural hegemony told me that I was a woman before I was an individual. My worth was judged as such.
The other angle of looking at your situation is to assume that your friend won this prize and there wasn’t intense collaboration between you two. This is the angle from which you wrote to me and that I’ll mainly respond to here. In a way, there’s not much different between the two situations, because both of them involve your possibly feeling unacknowledged and misunderstood.
You’re not sure where your resentment comes from, whether it’s “natural” or “taught,” but you know that you feel shame when this anger and resentment flow through you. You know to mention a “scarcity mindset” when reflecting how these feelings may have been taught but also blame yourself for having an “inferiority complex,” which perhaps makes it difficult to comfort yourself despite what you know about structural inequality and the challenges, especially, of immigrating to a place where generational wealth, connections, race, and primary language all work in concert to privilege white settlers in the States.
It’s curious that you’ve handed me an analysis of yourself with ease, but the conclusions you’ve made seem neat when the feelings you describe are far from that. In your letter, you call them “jealousy and resentment, with an aftershock of guilt.” I wonder, after all that analysis of how good or bad of a person you are, if you’ve been able to face your jealousy and resentment and listen to what they’re trying to tell you?
The feelings you’re experiencing are normal and not just because it’s common to be jealous or resentful. “Ugly” feelings appear when they are needed. Consider the fact that the first communication we receive from a newborn is a cry. Crying is how babies, without an ability to speak complexly, get the things they need. We humans are wired to take care of crying babies. Most of us have an instinct to figure out what’s going on. In those moments, these cries are judged as neither good nor bad. Although we can’t hear directly what the baby needs, we try out different ways to soothe them until their need get met. In other words, when the baby cries, we listen until we understand.
In our world, there’s no caretaker who can always understand a baby’s cries. We humans also get exhausted and irritable, and even more so when the pressure of survival rests on our shoulders from unforgiving jobs and expected and gendered invisible labor. Perhaps your caretakers tried, but they couldn’t understand you in the way you needed. You may have been punished as a child for acting out when you cried. While you were trying to communicate, you may have been punished or even ignored, locked into a closet to muffle your screams. Whatever you were trying to say to make things better for yourself or to be understood, it wasn’t listened to. Every time you tried to inch toward what you needed, you were judged and shamed. Now you shame yourself.
As an adult, you’ve learned to put away all your ugliness into closets too. One closet is named “inferiority complex.” Another is “scarcity mindset.” Perhaps you feel guilt after you slam the door in the face of jealousy and resentment not because you’re a bad person for feeling them, but because you were only given the tools and inertia to trap yourself in the closet you so desperately wanted—and want to—escape.
Although I don’t know the numbers, my parents were one of the few in the generation before mine who were not only able to go to college, but also managed to immigrate to another country for graduate school. My mother often didn’t have money for shoes; my father used to live in poverty on a farm and left home when he was twelve. For them, their ability to escape these circumstances hinged on what they were able to achieve from tests. There was no room for anything else after the generation before them had had their entire ways of life decimated and transformed by civil war and uprising. And they were a generation after conflict; whole swathes of the world immigrated to the States as refugees from it. When it came time for them to teach me my own skills of survival, they couldn’t teach me what they had never learned to do.
My extended family lives not far from where you wrote me some weeks ago. Over summers in Sichuan, I watched my cousins study night after night to compete for spots in the “right” primary school to the get the “right” middle school, and so on. Their competition is real. The competition you’re feeling in the literary industry is real too. As I mentioned in my answer last in The Writing on MFA vs NYC, the main asset of going to an MFA program is access to professors who can write you references that are used in the idiosyncratic fellowship and grant system that much of the arts are based on. This system prioritizes generational wealth and social hierarchy while marketing itself as a meritocracy. All those factors that you mentioned of your peers: being US citizens, wealthy, knowing early on about MFA programs—these give a head-start in that game. So no, you don’t have a black heart. Your anger, at least some of it, is justified.
During times when I’m stressed out, I have a recurring dream where I feel unbearably angry and open my mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. My voice tries to burst my chest, but to no avail. This same dream can turn, too, into that image that ends your letter, where my feet are being dragged down when I’m trying desperately to run as fast as I can.
Even writing about these memories, my heart is starting to pound and my throat starts to close up a little. The overwhelming feeling of these dreams was the overwhelming reality of my life at the time: the decisions I was making didn’t truly feel like my own. I felt out of control. And I suspect you might be experiencing something of the same.
Like the crying child in the closet, you’re waiting for someone else to hear you so your true self can emerge from the shadows. The more you fear and push away your feelings, the more misunderstood you will continue to feel. Remember: you’re no longer the child. You’re the adult who can open the door.
You’re afraid of these feelings because you don’t know what to do with them and you don’t know what harm they’d possibly cause. You’re afraid because you don’t know if you’d lash out at your friends directly, disparage them behind their backs, or passive-aggressively work to sabotage them. You can work these out, safely, with a therapist who you trust. I often use the metaphor of a well to describe those overwhelming feelings: looking down at them, they can seem endless. But if you keep pulling them up, bucket by bucket, you’ll eventually dry the well. The feelings will ebb and flow less and less until one day they’ll appear more proportionately to your experiences.
You’re in last place in this race, and all the energy you’ve put into running is depleting the energy you have for yourself. You’re in last place in this race, and keeping your eyes on the finish line is keeping your attention away from your tired knees, your screaming shins, and the burn that’s threatening to engulf your lungs. You’re in last place in this race, but have you ever noticed that around the race, there are other things going on too? People cheering from the stands, some even hidden away behind the bleachers, completely oblivious to who’s first, second, or last?
So much of what we’re told, as children, is that the story ends as we grit our teeth and shut our eyes to the dark. As we keep going in the race. As adults, we write the chapter after that. Will you open the door? Will the crowd part and lift the barricades; will your weights be undone and your feet restored? And when you run, will there be no path you need to follow? And will you feel lost before you feel free? Let it. Let in the world of your life on your terms. Let it be anywhere.
Author’s note: I decided to keep The Writing to 12:00 EST because of my own schedule and because it seemed as though it was a better time for most readers, so that’s when it’s happening this coming week and for the weeks thereafter. My moving update: the kitchen is back. I started some “coconoat” chocolate ice cream and a sourdough loaf last night. The partner and I are binging America’s Next Top Model and reliving the glory of early 2000s newsboy caps.