Thursday, 12 July 2018

Ol’ Green Eyes is Back – by Ruth Hatfield

A bit of a tangent this month, but as ever I’ve spent more time mopping up earwax than sitting at my desk in the past few weeks. I’ve also been trying to explain to a child why it’s not good to get into the habit of being mean about other people, even if it’s because you’re worried about them. I dredged up that Roald Dahl line from The Twits: “If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.”

But while I was explaining what this meant, I thought about the dilemma of writers (to be fair this also applies to pretty much anyone in an insecure and solitary profession these days). We go around making contact with other writers and then keeping up with each other’s news on various forms of social media. Often a Twitter feed or a Facebook wall can seem like a string of everyone else’s successes and prizes. Rationally, we know it isn’t really so for all the other writers out there, but that doesn’t really matter. Feelings of jealousy and insecurity can creep in all the same. And that can lead to all sorts of things – trouble and fear in our own writing, ill-wishes towards people we hardly know, a tendency to assume that success in books is sometimes ‘bought’ by publishers with bigger marketing budgets than our own.

What do these feelings do to us and our work? Is it good to admit our jealousy to ourselves, or even to others? We’re authors, we’re supposed know about suffering – shouldn’t we just tell ourselves to be glad for other people?

Actually I think the pressure on writers to be generous and altruistic human beings is pretty unbearable, sometimes. I’m very much of the opinion that there’s no point in pretending we don’t feel the things we do – that way madness and a good deal of self-loathing lies.

But of course, it’s not healthy to allow bitterness to eat you up, particularly when you’re trying to write children’s books. Or to let feelings of insecurity cripple you. And while feeling insecure about the achievements of distant strangers who you might have met once at a conference might be allowed, it’s important to be able to celebrate the successes of friends with genuine joy in your heart – otherwise you really would turn into Dahl’s ugly person.

I think for me, possibly, the key is making a distinction between some people’s successes and some other people’s successes – I do rejoice in the wonderful books written by people I know and like, and I find it’s quite easy to feel good about the nice things that happen to them, as long as I allow myself to accept that I don’t have to feel happy when someone I maybe have met once, but might not really know, wins another prize or publishes another novel and it rattles through all my social media. In fact, in those cases, I’m positively allowed to have malevolent thoughts, and that doesn’t make me a bad person, just a human being.

I’m not sure how to explain that to a two-year-old who’s chanting at strangers in the street, however. But I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on this – do you allow annoyance to flow through you like a river? Or do you take yourselves firmly in hand and try to see the good in everybody’s work?


Penny Dolan said...

Ruth, this is a such a wise and valuable post and a good emotional compromise, it seems to me. Thank you, Ruth!

Those green-eyed feelings can be hard to deal at a personal level and - more tiresomely - can really sap your confidence in your own writing.

Besides, social media can bombard you with people promoting new books, new writers, new festival appearances, new "Writing while Juggling and Playing the Harmonica and being Stunningly Attractive" articles or the new "Best-Ever Author of the Entire Universe This Week" badges (sorry - those last two were lies!) so HOORAY for permission to feel a bit cross at times.

(Ooops. I'm prepping for a pre-school storytime right now so I may be a bit overexcited by Wheels on the Bus etc rehearsals.)

Sue Purkiss said...

It's difficult, isn't it. You try to be nice, but - sigh - it's an uphill struggle sometimes!

Nicola Morgan said...

Really important post. It's important to talk about this because it's such a common feeling but tends to remain unspoken. It's a natural human behaviour to compare ourselves to and measure ourselves against the people around us but nowadays the "people around us" are usually people we've never met and whose struggles we don't know and the truth of whose stories are distorted by the filter of bestness.

Moira Butterfield said...

Social media makes it all tougher, because people are using it to relentlessly advertise and be upbeat. I have decided to quietly unfollow people who constantly advertise and don't do any 'human' posts. They won't notice. They're posting for the reading public, not for me.