A friend from a former kid-lit writing group published her first book this week. That means a draft I’d read way back when has become a real, in-the-flesh book.
And she’s not the only one from that group finding success. Of the five of us that were in it, the other four now have agents, and most have at least sold a first book, putting them on track for publication.
Along the way, I realized I was doing the bare minimum to stay a member of the group, knowing full well I had the potential to do more… and I just wasn’t. Even after a writing retreat to Palm Springs to polish a half-dozen manuscripts, it became clear that not even a binge effort could coax back to flame a spark that was spent.
So I stepped back and left the group.
The “what-ifs” of scenarios where I’d stayed in the group, committed to reading and writing more regularly to end up following a similar trajectory are pretty easily shot down when I remember how uneager I was to put the time into my own work, how hesitant I was to engage with second drafts and problem lines while they all kept at it, polishing, writing, reading, and working away.
The difference was clear to me and that made my decision easy.
Back when I was fresh out of college, my roommate, also fresh out of college, had already sold a screenplay. Then he got hired to write on a TV show.
I found out the news about the time that I was in full “do everything” mode – wake up at 5a to longboard to the pool to swim, drive across LA to be a PA on a daytime talk show, stay after work for two hours at a local bookstore to nurse coffee and revise my Simpsons spec script, then come home to run for an hour – and I couldn’t handle it.
All I thought I saw was a peer lucking into things. Every night I came home he was playing board games, laughing, and having fun, while I was so much more visibly working. Then, somewhere in between me commuting two hours and eating lots of packages of pretzels on stage and collapsing at home into a shared bedroom, he got hired to write.
The difference between us was not clear, and that made me jealous.
I couldn’t believe it. I want to say it pushed me even harder, but instead, I fell asleep mad, slept through a swim workout, and got to work late the next day (where my days were spent in a chair in a room just off the back hallway with low lighting reading celebrity gossip magazines looking for factoids that could be gabbed about between two stars pretending to be friends on national television so I don’t know that I was even missed, necessarily).
Soon, though, I started to see the work he was putting in. I heard stories of the time he’d already dedicated. It started to make sense.
If I was jealous then (which I was) it was not just because it was him succeeding in a realm I wanted to succeed in, it was because I didn’t have any idea what he’d done to get there.
Not in the same way that I do now with my kid-lit friends who are publishing books that still exist as drafts in the dark corners of my inbox.
And it doesn’t have to be that way, of course. I could just not be jealous.
But can we really reason away a feeling?
Better, it seems, is looking at the source of those feelings. From what I knew about the people who’d put in the work, they’d found success.
So are there really overnight successes, then? I doubt it.
Most of the time, those people are living in the unfun, boring, tedious world of creating and revising, trying and failing, deleting and creating.
Then something hits. A movie comes out. A book is published. A play has its debut.
A moment of joy, a moment to exhale, and a moment in the spotlight, then it’s back to the work.
(Which, really, is its own joy.)
If there is jealousy now, it is only admiration of those who have found a calling worth sticking to, and have put in the time to learn and grow to deliver ever better work.
On Sunday night, I emailed a draft to two readers of a new project, in a new medium. From a spark of an idea last March, through a summer of writing, and a winter revising, it is perhaps the most time I have put into any project.
It is not likely very good, but maybe one day it will be better.
And in making it better, I hope to get a little bit better, too.
(Even if I still get feelings, sometimes.)