I was twenty-two and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the same side of the Iowa River as the Workshop. I rode my bike there every Tuesday, gathered in a room of ten or twelve people, and listened as a story written by one of us was first complimented, then examined, then deconstructed, then reconstituted. The leader of the workshop would give each story a diagnosis— POV is inconsistent; needs a proper ending; too many extra characters— and send it on its way. Many of those stories would reappear in acclaimed collections, between the covers of prestigious journals, as a chapter in a novel adapted into a hit TV series. It was all very intimidating.
I was too young to be at the Workshop. I knew this without having to be told. Bored one weekend and new to Iowa City, I went on a long bike ride around town. I avoided the hookah bars because I didn’t want to be around undergrads—I was a graduate student. I avoided the brightly lit sports bars and pizza parlors in the center of town for the same reason. Soon I found myself at the doors of the Workshop house. I could see well-dressed people in the windows, laughing and talking. Someone was playing the violin.
I chained my bike up on the porch and ducked inside. I was wearing ten-dollar jeans and a pit-stained paisley shirt I’d owned since middle school. People were drinking wine and eating cheese in the hallway. I kept to the wall and ran downstairs to the cubbies.
I loved the cubbies. They covered the wall from my shoulder to my ankle and contained Xeroxed copies of the stories and poems that would be workshopped that week. Even though each cubby was designated for a specific workshop, enough copies of each story had been made for everyone in my fiction cohort. I filled up my backpack with rough drafts and climbed the stairs.
Fortunately, the party had moved out of the hallway and into the large meeting room. As I left, I saw the appreciative profiles of well-dressed adults listening to a concerto. A few of the faces were famous ones I’d seen on the jackets of books.
The first thing I did when I got home was re-pack an old bowl of weed and take a long, tar-filled hit. Then I got some strawberry ice cream from my fridge and sat on my floor eating it, staring at nothing in particular. An extrovert, I disliked not having friends. I occupied my time riding my bike, swimming laps at the university pool, writing, reading, and getting high. I had developed a strategy to meet people through the cubbies: I would read their fiction, find them on Facebook, and compliment them on what I loved about their stories. So far this had won me only a few acquaintances and a reputation as the weird, overeager stranger who’d read your fiction without you knowing. I tried not to let this bother me, though I was wounded whenever someone rebuffed my overtures of friendship. Wouldn’t anyone be pleased and flattered to get a nice message about their writing? I knew I certainly would.
Sitting on the rug I’d kept in my childhood bedroom, I took another hit and tried not to cough, even though there was no one around to hear me cough. I knew these things about myself: I was a good writer; I was a good biker; I missed my friends from college. I took another hit. Another. I lay down on my back and watched the fan on the ceiling turn its cartwheels. I was getting high enough that the tips of my fingers felt numb, which was pleasant. The ice cream carton had begun to leak a pink half-circle above my head.
I opened my backpack and read the first story: impressive. The second: intriguing. I sent my comments via Facebook, praying the writers would add me back. There was a party in the apartment next to mine—young, loud voices asking when someone named Donovan was going to get there. What a fake name, I thought, then laughed. Honestly, Donovan is the fakest name I’ve ever heard come through a wall.
I pulled the last manuscript from my bag. It was thicker than the other two, what looked like the first few chapters of a novel. The writer was someone my age, someone with whom I’d had a pleasant conversation at a Workshop barbecue. I took another hit. Friendship material.
I read the first few pages and a feeling came over me. I was shivering without being cold. I sat up cross-legged and read a few more pages. The shivering wouldn’t stop. I sat on my sofa, at my kitchen table, in the alcove by my kitchen table. Still, it wouldn’t stop. Maybe I’d gotten too high. I set the manuscript down, jogged around my kitchen, drank water, cleaned up the leaking ice cream. I made myself a turkey sandwich and ate it. I made myself a second turkey sandwich and ate that too. Then I went back to the manuscript.
I read the rest of it and understood why I’d been shivering. The writing wasn’t impressive or intriguing. It was stunning.
I clutched my stomach, doubled over. It felt like something was serrating my gut. I went back to the manuscript and reread a few pages. There it was, the kind of writing I aspired to do myself, the voice I thought I’d have time to cultivate, the wisdom and command of the language and empathy and insight I thought writers acquired as they aged. This writer had it all right then.
I had been told by countless mentors and peers how talented I was, that I was scraping the creative ceiling. But no one had told me to prepare myself for this—for wanting what someone else had. I felt like Salieri watching Mozart at the piano. I was cursed to recognize the genius without being able to reproduce it myself.
I lay in my bed, feeling scooped out. Life and talent, I knew, were a zero-sum game: There wasn’t enough room for two people at the top. In my head I replayed everything I’d said and done since arriving at the Workshop. I’d been so confident. I’d told goofy jokes that hadn’t landed. I’d spilled lots of wine on myself. I’d assumed people would chalk these things up to my “eccentricity.” Now I was mortified. Who did I think I was, Deborah Eisenberg? I was a foolish kid who’d believed all the sugary encouragement she’d gotten on her way to disappointment. Embarrassment rose in me like a fever, and I rushed to the bathroom. I was small and dumb and irredeemable. I sat on the tiled floor clutching my sludge-filled stomach, sobbing, resisting the urge to bang my head against the wall.
Hours went by and the party next door got louder, quieter, silent. I fell asleep on my bathroom floor.
My ego was the ugly, rotting head of a sunflower held up by a withering stalk. Every bout of envy I endured was a knife’s thwack to the stalk. When someone turned in a piece of writing I felt was superior to my own: thwack. When someone published a book while still in the Workshop: thwack. When someone won prizes for their book: thwack thwack. I begged myself to stop being so petty. I begged myself to focus on my own work. But the envy continued unabated.
At the same time, I was donning a smiling mask over my Mr. Hyde-faced envy. I was going to Workshop events and making real friends. The demands of socializing kept me too busy to focus on being envious of people, so I socialized as much as I could. These new friends were boosters of my writing, champions of my cause, firmly In My Corner. Likewise, I was their biggest cheerleader, celebrating their many and massive accomplishments. We went for dinner, for drinks, to haunted houses in the fall and sledding hills in the winter. I loved them and told them as much; they felt the same about me. It was with them that I transcended my smallness and stumbled upon something like generosity of spirit. But I never told them that I still went home and smoked myself into a stupor because I felt so envious of certain people I actually wanted to die.
I measured myself using the capitalist metric and always felt horrible as a result. Part of me knew it made no sense to do this in a profession as variable and subjectively assessed as writing, but I could think of no other way to understand my place in the world. If it takes two people five years of labor to write a novel and one person gets paid $100,000 for it while the other gets paid $5,000, how could we not conclude that one person’s labor and ideas are more valuable than the other’s? We’re told to just be happy for the writer with the big advance, that writing is hard enough as it is and at least one of us is succeeding. And while all this is true, it probably won’t keep the writer with the smaller advance from feeling puny and ignored, from determining that the arrangement is unfair. Imagine getting paid minimum wage to work a cash register Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and learning that the person who works the cash register Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday is getting paid double what you’re making. You might wonder why that person’s time is more valuable. You might obsess about them, the quality of their output, their easy manner with the manager. You might wonder what’s wrong with you that you’re worth so much less. You might try to improve yourself, becoming speedier, more efficient. And when your pay still doesn’t go up, you might be inclined to quit.
The Workshop encouraged us to put the World of Publishing out of our minds. We were to forget about the looming presence of agents and editors and the strange things they could do to our work. But the agents and editors managed to find their way in. They visited Iowa City and got permission to sit in our workshop rooms and solicit our manuscripts for their perusal. Deals were inked, clients signed. Here was another occasion to compare myself to others: I had been courted by Agent X but rejected by Agent Y and I knew someone who had been courted by both X and Y. Even when the agents and editors weren’t actually present, they were still flitting around in my mind, money-specters. Is my story salable? I wondered. Is this weird, treacly little thing I made in my apartment and honed in workshop ever going to reach people and affect them in a meaningful way? Another thwack to the zombie sunflower of my ego.
I remember sitting in my Iowa apartment with one of my new friends and talking about the literary world. My friend, older than I was, even-keeled and a brilliant writer, thought it was strange that people got so competitive sometimes. What are we all competing for? The same Pulitzer Prize? The same New York Times review? the friend asked. There’s more than one way for a book to succeed. There’s room enough for everyone. I wanted to believe her, but I knew—I thought I knew—that we were all fighting against scarcity, competing for a spot at the top. And I knew that I was going to be a casualty in the war on anonymity, that I had tried and failed to become something bigger than what I was. I wasn’t even Salieri—I was Salieri’s Salieri. My friend just couldn’t see it yet.
I think I should go to bed, I said. It’s already been kind of a long night for me.
You’re crying, my friend said.
You know you’re a really good writer, right? my friend said.
I cried harder.
I graduated from the Workshop. I was at work on a novel, but only at night—by day I was a journalism student. Gathering facts and interviewing sources was refreshing. Writing news was predictable and reassuring in its predictability. I was informing people of what was happening in our world. People would make important decisions because of what I wrote. Still, news articles didn’t have fiction’s throw-you-from-your-seat lightning bolts of epiphany.
And then an agent emailed me asking if I was working on a novel. Skeptical at first, I allowed myself a phone call with him and discovered I liked him. Then he was reading my novel and exclaiming over it. Then I was signing a contract with him. Then my novel was out on submission. Then publishers were bidding on it. Then it was sold to an editor who was passionate about it. Then I was cashing the first check of my advance.
Everything was happening that my stoned twenty-two-year-old self had so wanted to happen. But here was the problem: I knew others who had more. As uncool as everyone seemed to agree it was to measure oneself by the capitalist metric, it was a thousand times cooler to be succeeding by that metric. Yes, I had a solid advance, a great publisher, a great team promoting my book. But look at this person, who had all that and a piece in The New Yorker. Or this person, who had six celebrity blurbers. Or this person, who’d already become a celebrity. I could feel the familiar sludge in my stomach, the pressure behind my eyes, the bleating cry in my head that told me I was insignificant.
I distracted myself not just with journalism but also with teaching. I liked both because they expanded my world and took the edge off my envy. As a journalist, I was competing with others to get a story—something that required quick thinking and good timing, certainly, but not some divinely inspired gift. As a teacher I was competing with no one; the goal was simply to manage my class and pray they learned something over the course of fifteen weeks. As a lowly adjunct, the sight of harried tenure-track professors didn’t exactly incapacitate me with envy. I didn’t yet know if I wanted what they had.
But sometimes my distractions weren’t enough. News of another writer’s mega-success would cut through my force field of tedium and responsibility and I’d be beaten raw by self-doubt. I knew by then that I was being foolish, that I needed to be happy for others. And I was: The mega-successful person deserved it, was a stellar writer, would go on to have a fruitful and exciting career. I was also beginning to learn that I was more valuable than the dollar amount assigned to my productivity. That external markers of success aren’t all there is to live for, that I needed to remember why I loved to write in the first place, that another person’s riches didn’t spell my ruin. That I could live my life in complete obscurity and still make valuable contributions to the world simply by caring for and understanding the people around me.
Still, the envy beckoned. By then I had grown almost comfortable with it. If I channeled my ambition into envy, I would never be at risk for failure because I would have already failed. Stop thinking like it’s a zero-sum game, I chastised myself. Celebrate people’s’ awesomeness instead of wanting what they have. Another part of me asked: Can’t I do both?
A writer friend who gave a guest lecture in one of my three adjunct classes asked me if I found it difficult to talk to people I knew after they’d become famous. I held back tears and was silent for a moment. Then I cleared my throat.
Yes, I said. It’s really difficult.
One day my girlfriend found me collapsed on our couch, arms crossed, gripping my elbows in frustration. I was speechless with self-hatred, worried about the usual host of things: my novel, an essay I was writing, how I stacked up in the literary world.
My girlfriend sat down next to me and stroked my hair. When I didn’t relax, she faced forward and sighed. I can’t keep reassuring you of your talent, she said. Nothing I say sticks with you.
I flinched as she spoke. Was I a narcissistic black hole she’d poured time and attention into? Was she going to leave me?
Nothing’s going to be enough for you. You could publish this book to acclaim, win a bunch of awards, get your own HBO series, and you’d still be flopped on this couch like a corpse at the end of the day.
She was right. I knew she was right. I curled my legs into my chest and silently inventoried my accomplishments. I normally spent so little time thinking about them that when I did, it felt like I was considering a stranger’s life.
My girlfriend turned on the TV and went to read in the bedroom. I remained in my self-pitying crouch, my stomach sludgy and my head dense with pressure. There was high-pitched squealing on the TV. Then laughing. I sat up. A young girl in an apron said, I’m Aviva, I’m from Chicago and I’m eight years old. I think I have what it takes to be MasterChef Junior!
I watched one episode, then another. They were highly gifted elementary school students competing for $100,000 on reality TV. One had a tiny mohawk and gestured a lot. Another had rose-patterned tights and an overbite. Another wanted to be a softball player when she grew up, and another wanted to be a preacher. They were under an enormous amount of pressure and they were enormously kind to one another—kinder than their adult counterparts would have been. When Lila dropped her tray of macaroons, the others chorused around her: It’s OK! You got this, Lila! When Aviva cried as she got eliminated, the others surged forward to give her a hug. There were almost certainly producers coaching the kids on how to present themselves, but I preferred to believe that each had been plucked from a loving home and dropped into the studio as is. Their goodness was overwhelming.
I could have thought: If these ten-year-olds aren’t envious of one another, then surely I can get my shit together. I could have thought: We should all be like these kids. But I wasn’t evolved enough to have those thoughts. What I thought was: These kids are more famous than I or anyone I know will ever be. More people would watch MasterChef Junior than would read my book. More people would watch MasterChef Junior than would follow the literary awards season. More people would watch MasterChef Junior than would pay attention to which books became other TV shows.
I smiled. A door had opened in my mind and through it shot a shaft of light. MasterChef Junior was part of the wider world, the one where all the niche things I’d been obsessing over didn’t matter. I was more than a collection of literary achievements: I was a whole person. I had a life full of experiences. I had traveled all over the world and made friends as I’d traveled. I had learned different languages. I had heard stories—thousands and thousands of stories—about people’s lives, their desires, their taboos. I knew of voices in need of amplification and systems in need of repair. This was the reason I had begun to write in the first place, this large and varied world. I took comfort in its largeness. It was larger than my writing. Larger than anyone’s writing. And full—so full of things to do and explore.
I was small, yes. But we all were.
Rebekah Frumkin will teach an online writing workshop here at Catapult— Building Character.