Well, hell. If this didn't poke at a nerve that I've been sitting with recently.
I'm new to the popular 'Dear Sugar' column over at The Rumpus, but its author has me sold with her provocative, compassionate, and smarty-pants response to someone who writes in to confess her struggle with writerly jealousy. Of both strangers and friends, she is pained at their literary successes and relieved at their disappointments. Sugar might have taken the more comfortable path of responding as if this is merely a case of common insecurity. She might've offered a heaping helping of lyrical palliatives intended to boost esteem: 'trust in your stories,' 'creative work is always worth it,' 'everyone feels envy, so nothing's wrong with it,' 'your hard work will pay off.' And so on.
Instead, Sugar hones in on two discomfiting realities: the difference between a book and a book deal, and jealousy that is rooted in entitlement (not insecurity). I'll quote her on the latter here, but, really, just go read the whole darn column, and then come back here. I have more to say.
A large part of your jealousy probably rises out of your outsized sense of entitlement. Privilege has a way of fucking with our heads the same way a lack of it does. There are a lot of people who’d never dream they could be a writer, let alone land, at the age of 31, a six figure book deal. You are not one of them. And you are not one of them because you’ve been given a tremendous amount of things that you did not earn or deserve, but rather that you received for the sole reason that you happen to be born into a family who had the money and wherewithal to fund your education at two colleges to which you feel compelled to attach the word “prestigious.”
What is a prestigious college? What did attending such a school allow you to believe about yourself? What assumptions do you have about the colleges that you would not describe as prestigious? What sorts of people go to prestigious colleges and not prestigious colleges? Do you believe that you had a right to a free “first-rate” education? What do you make of the people who received educations that you would not characterize as first-rate? These are not rhetorical questions. I really do want you to take out a piece of paper and write those questions down and then answer them. I believe your answers will deeply inform your current struggle with jealousy. I am not asking you these questions in order to condemn or judge you. I would ask a similar series of questions to anyone from any sort of background because I believe our early experiences and beliefs about our place in the world inform who we think we are and what we deserve and by what means it should be given to us.
So. About that nerve of mine.
It's not a daily reality, but I have certainly tasted that "spoonful of battery acid" when I witness others -- strangers, colleagues, friends -- get bylines or fellowships or awards that I strive for myself. "That should've been mine" is a conscious thought when I see someone publish an article that is about something that I know I could do a great job with. The prickly buoyancy of desperation blows through me sometimes when I witness another's excellent writing success; what, then, will be left for my dreams, my ambitions, my skills?
Other times, the better times, I feel heartened at the success of others: grateful and glad that there's an opportunity for a talented person to put meaningful writing into the world. It matters. We are all the better for it. I get inspired to double-down in my own work. After all, the world never lacks for stories to tell. Their successes, too, urge me to carve out greater openness for all the multiple ways I might participate in this world of stories: to be attentive not only to my role as a writer, but also as a reader, a mentor, a mentee, a listener, an editor, a critic, a student, a fan, a supporter. To be agile among these identities, to be flexible about moving in and out of the spotlight: that's the writerly self I want to be. When instead I'm haunted by the "why not me" feeling, I try to remember this.
Fair enough. But as Sugar didn't let the letter-writer off the hook so easily, I don't want to coast here.
So here's a story.
I grew up in a household that had very little money. I experienced this as a kid through food: there wasn't enough, certainly not of food that I liked. My siblings and I laugh about it now, but we didn't find it amusing at the time to break up saltine crackers in our cereal bowls at breakfast, to cover the crushed, pale crumbs with milk, and to eat it as a cereal. Quickly, so the crackers didn't liquefy. Graham crackers as cereal were much tastier than the saltines.
I remember lying on the floor of the kitchen with a hungry belly for hours, hungry and probably loud about it, lying there, not knowing what else to do with my body. Before I ever heard of Scarlett O'Hara, I was announcing that when I grew up, the number one thing I'd prioritize was my very own full refrigerator. Brimming -- it would be brimming with food. Once in awhile, when our family got pizza delivered to the house, I ate as fast as I could to be sure I could get a second slice, and a third. If I was full up, I'd wrap a slice of pizza in aluminum foil and hide it in the bookcase of my bedroom, so nobody would eat it before I could have it for breakfast in the morning. While getting dressed for school, I'd quietly munch on the cold pizza and brush away the bits that'd crumbled onto my books. Another time: feeling desperate to inspire my parents go grocery shopping, I orchestrated my brother and sister and myself into a performance of the self-written "The 'There's No Food' Blues." We shuffled and snapped our way into the living room, wearing sunglasses and hats. We made an attempt at keeping a beat and melodiously crooning about empty pantries, and then we took a bow. It was funny, our family all laughed, but us kids were also kind of serious.
I feel guilty telling the story like this ... among other reasons, I feel guilty about how I complained so loudly as a kid when, I see now, my parents did their damnedest to make sure we were cared for, that we had full bellies, that we even had snacks to eat. (And we were: another reason I feel guilty is that I'm afraid of over-dramatizing a situation that is nowhere near the real hunger fears that others face.) My parents didn't like the saltine cereal either, no matter what they pretended. Once, I accidentally took my dad's paper bag lunch to school instead of mine. The lunch I usually expected each day was a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a pre-wrapped pastry. In my dad's lunch, there was a baggie of radishes and a baggie of raw potato slices. That's it. That was what he was eating for lunch while at work, leaving the Little Debbie's and even the sandwich bread for us kids to eat. In the middle of the Lincoln Elementary cafeteria, I wept -- not for my father's sake, but because I was hungry and I didn't want to eat raw potatoes. The cafeteria lady pitied me and I got a free hot meal that day.
And then I am 19, and I move into East Quad at the University of Michigan. While everyone else complained about dorm food, I was floored by the reality that spread before me: I could eat as much as I want! All these choices! Salad or soup or waffles or sandwiches or stir fry or all of it together! What's more, for the first time I was living in a town that didn't go to bed at 9pm. If it was 4 am and I was hungry -- as was wont to happen -- I could walk a hundred feet to Backroom for a large slice of cheese pizza for a dollar.
Whenever I felt hungry, I could eat. And I could pretty much pick out whatever food I wanted to eat.
So I ate. A lot. I gained at least 25 pounds my first year-and-a-half in college without even noticing. (I kept being weirded out by my clothes not fitting, but didn't make the connection to the changes in my own body.) I didn't realize how much weight I'd gained until a chance experience during a spring break trip to San Francisco. My friends and I were at a science museum (yeah, we party hard) and someone nudged me onto a scale that compared your weight on Earth with your weight on Mars. I've never been in the habit of weighing myself, but the sight that day of my Earth weight certainly broke through my disembodied illusions about myself.
Stay with me: I'm getting back to the writing and envy thing.
It took a little time -- and a summer working outdoors at a Pennsylvania summer camp -- before I got back in tune with my own body. Before I could feel what I was feeling, and to think about how radically my eating habits had changed since I moved out my family's house. And it became plain to see how scarcity mentality embedded itself in me. The sense of deprivation. It hooked me so hard that when I went out on my own and had much more agency in my relationship with eating, I didn't merely, or even especially, eat because I was hungry. Rather, I ate because I could. I ate because I used to be hungry. I ate because somebody else might eat the last bagel. I ate because I was paying myself back. Because I deserved it. Because it was free ('free'), and it was in front of me. Because I might never eat again.
Still today, I see the residue of scarcity mentality with food in my life. Even when I cut back on all my expenses, I prioritize buying good, healthful, delicious food. I eat out at restaurants by myself a lot. I read a lot about food. I think a lot about food. I have a lot of fears tied up with the practice of fasting. I have never found it easy to adjust to packing a lunch.
Deep in me, at a cellular level, is the fear that there won't be enough. And while this is particularly tied up in food, I think, too, that it is tied up in my feelings of writer envy. That "prickly buoyancy of desperation" that blows through me when I jealously witness the success of others? I know that feeling. That's the same feeling I've had all my life when it comes to food, and now it has a different target. In this sphere, it is the terror that if writerly attention goes to others, then there won't be enough leftover for me, and then I won't get to write. (Or rather, that I won't "be a writer.")
And here's the provoking realization I had when I read this Dear Sugar column and decided to launch into this 2000-word essay: scarcity mentality, as I experience it with writing sometimes, is almost the same thing as the entitlement that Sugar calls out in the letter writer.
You'd think these are opposites, but no: they feed off each other. They are the same wheel. That should've been mine. Because I deserved it. As if there is only enough for me or you, but not us both.
"There is plenty for all of us." This is the truth.
One other food neurosis? Pickiness. For most of my life, I didn't like a lot of foods. If I want to continue with the psycho-speculation, I'd say I was trying to force the experience of scarcity into the experience of entitlement, to protect myself from fear about what I couldn't control.
I didn't like any pasta -- too slippery and strange. I didn't like almost all fruits. Didn't like mushrooms, tomatoes, mayonnaise, pickles, olives, eggs, meatloaf, cooked spinach, pink foods, tea, and a hell of a lot of other things. So what happened when I became vegetarian my first year of college (which, it seems, was quite the milestone year of eating for me)? I had to suck it up. I had to learn to like pasta -- the usual vegetarian option -- if I wasn't going to go hungry. And an amazing thing happened: I learned to like pasta! I started eating it when it was my only choice, just to feel full, and I came to enjoy it. To choose it. To look forward to it. My god, the noodle-y wealth and joy that has been brought to my life ever since ... Suddenly, my food-pickiness was revealed for the intangible tic that is: all in my head. I saw how it would only make my life happier if I got over myself. So, I consciously embarked on a journey to teach myself to like foods that I previously didn't like, that even incited revulsion in my belly. Over time, I welcomed mushrooms, eggs, and tomatoes to my daily life, among other things, and, yes, I am happier for it. (Bananas, olives: still struggling with these.)
Here, then, through my food experience, is a path revealed for those days when I struggle with the scarcity and entitlement of writer envy. The days when -- like a dish of pasta set before me that once would've found me wrinkling my nose and making excuses -- news about another's success is served, and I am in a distasteful mood.
- Accept 'the only option' that is available. Suck it up.
- Taste it. Try it. Get familiar with it. Perhaps, on your tongue, it is bitter, acidic, slippery, revolting.
- Eat it anyway. Patiently, gently, lovingly, consistently, eat it anyway. Let yourself feel full.
- Allow yourself to relax ... give yourself time to adjust, but keep choosing it. Keep filling yourself with it.
- Come to a place of welcome. Allow it to to shine joy and light in your life.