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Feel the Thrill of Someone Else’s Success by Erin Healy
A few weeks ago I was reading a novel that I had to set aside for a while. I just couldn’t keep reading it. Maybe this has happened to you. You turn your back on a book because the subject matter is dark, or you don’t want to spend time with the characters, or it’s poorly written, or you just can’t get into it.
I wish I could say that was why I couldn’t keep going this time. But no. My excuse falls into a far more primitive category. I was jealous.
I envied the writer’s impressive talent, the epic concept, the richness and depth of the story, which—wouldn’t you know—kept reducing me to a tear-soaked, snotty mess of spiritual yearning. I admired the artistry, this lovely turn of phrase and that surprising way of seeing. I felt a bit green when I saw the well-deserved accolades and endorsements and media attention.
How could such a spectacular book bring out such an ugly side of me?
I correspond regularly with a friend who is a musician and a children’s book illustrator. She lives thousands of miles away, but she has known me since I was a child, which means she knows me so well that she might as well live in my house. In recommending this book to her (even before I had finished reading it), I told her how envious I felt. The author had accomplished more than I could dream to with my own work. My friend wrote back:
“Me thinks all artists self-examine too closely, compare too often, and resultantly, are sad. Mistake! Enjoy your gift! Enjoy that author’s! Enjoy mine! As we all enjoy each other's gifts, well, would it be silly to say that—dare I say it?—pleasure happens.”
Of course it does! And with that thought in mind, I was able to finish a magnificent book, tell the author how much I sincerely loved it, and purchase an extra copy to give away. (Why am I not naming the title here? Because I don’t want the point of this post to be about whether the book is really a great novel, but whether you’ve ever let jealousy get in the way of the sheer pleasure of someone else’s art. Please tell me I’m not the only one!)
Whether you’re a writer or an artist of another color, fear and insecurity come with the territory. I’ve seen it in my years as a writer; I’ve seen it in my decades as an editor. “If making art gives substance to your sense of self,” write Bayles and Orlund in their (also excellent) book Art and Fear, “the corresponding fear is that you’re not up to the task—that you can’t do it, or can’t do it well, or can’t do it again; or that you’re not a real artist, or not a good artist, or have no talent, or have nothing to say.”
We artists crave affirmation for our work. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we don’t. But when fear is our prevailing emotion we are at our most vulnerable. I believe this is true to the point that when someone else receives what we want, we might (as I did) perceive their success as our failure. Why else would we begrudge them their success?
This experience returned me to Philippians 2, which I hadn’t read for a while. While in search of a familiar verse (#3), I came to one I’d forgotten but now read with new eyes (#4):
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
We artists are in a unique position to encourage other artists. Who else knows better about the fear, the hope, the vulnerability of making art? The moment I stopped reading the aforementioned novel as a rival that shamed my own work, something wonderful happened: I was able to become a colleague instead of a selfish dork. It became very important to me to tell the author exactly how the book had moved me. I wanted to give the author the very thing I hoped for—praise, encouragement, and gratitude. I wanted to give the author courage to go out and do it again and again and again. Because wow, the world will be a better place with more books like that one in it.
And as if the benefit were all mine, my own artistic fears faded with my envy, and I had a thoroughly fantastic time reading a fabulous book. For a moment I was granted a reborn thrill of reading and writing that’s so hard to come by when it’s a profession rather than a pastime.
If you can, tell your fears to hush up for a bit so you can listen to what other artists are telling you through their work. And may you take great pleasure in the sharing.
Three Questions for Erin:
You write "supernatural suspense novels from a Christian worldview." What should a reader picking up one of your novels for the first time expect to find?
All of my stories use high-stakes supernatural elements to explore the ways God works in us and through us. Every once in a while I have to explain that my stories are metaphors rather than literal interpretations of life. For example, Afloat is a supernatural-disaster story that challenges the notion of what it means to survive catastrophe not just physically, but spiritually as well. So a reader can expect some out-of-the-box weirdness that might not appear to be Christian on the surface—some of the tales are more covert than others—but if one engages in reading between the lines, the messages should stand up to sound biblical doctrine.
As an editor, are you your own best friend or worst enemy when it comes to writing your first draft?
The editor’s side of my brain is my best friend when it comes to writing all the drafts after my first. That particular skill set has taken all the fear out of revisions. To be sure, I prefer revising to filling a blank page. It’s easier to tinker or slash-and-burn than to create something out of nothing. But when it comes to the first draft, Editor Erin is pretty easy to relegate to the corner. “Just be quiet,” I tell her. “I haven’t written anything you’re allowed to comment on yet.”
Do you have any amusing stories to share on your path to publication that may encourage writers?
My path to my editorial career (and subsequently, to publication) began at a writers conference that a friend sent me to while I was in college. I attended after an invasive surgery that left my face extremely swollen. I was still in braces. Between the two things, drooling and spitting was an occasional problem. I scheduled one appointment with an editor thinking I would have him read this cathartic journal entry I had written (I thought of it as a “short story”) about a recent breakup with my boyfriend. It is possibly the worst thing I have ever written. And did I mention this editor was acquiring nonfiction material about parenting? I think I picked him because he was the only one with an available slot.
By the grace of God the editor was running late and didn’t have time to read my dreck. So instead of talking about that I decided I would ask him about careers in the field. I managed not to spit when I spoke. He gave me some leads that I followed up on, we stayed in touch, and a year later he invited me to apply to an entry-level position in his company.
To this day I believe that if he had read that disastrous piece I would be in a different, far less fulfilling career. So, by way of encouragement: Sometimes missed opportunities are, in fact, quite the opposite.
Erin's Ah-hahs To Tweet:
“Whether you’re a writer or an artist of another color, fear and insecurity come with the territory.” (Click To Tweet)
“We artists are in a unique position to encourage other artists.” (Click To Tweet)
“…tell your fears to hush up for a bit so you can listen to what other artists are telling you…” (Click To Tweet)
Erin Healy is an award-winning fiction editor who has worked with talented novelists. With began working with author Ted Dekker in 2002 and edited twelve of his heart-pounding stories before their collaboration on Kiss, the first novel to seat her on “the other side of the desk.” Erin is the owner of WordWright Editorial Services, a consulting firm specializing in fiction book development. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and the Academy of Christian Editors. She lives with her family in Colorado.
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