Guest Post: How to Steer Clear of Critique Group Envy
Image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Here’s a new guest post from award-winning children’s author and writing coach Dianne Ochiltree. She takes an honest look at some ways being in a writing critique group can give rise to creative envy – and six ideas for overcoming it. Enjoy! ~ AMC
Over the years, being in a critique group has done wonders for my career as a children’s author. It’s been a source of learning and growth, before and after publication. It’s helped me hone my craft and develop my career. In fact, I consider participation in a critique group so vital to success in this business that one of my first pieces of advice to beginning writers is to join or start one, ASAP.
However, I also need to acknowledge the green-eyed monster that may be sitting in the critique group meeting space: ENVY, a.k.a. creative jealousy. And that, my friend, is completely natural.
That’s because comparison and competition are natural parts of human nature, and human life. In tiny doses, envy is the burr under your saddle that gets you moving in the direction of your dreams. But if taken too far or not addressed at all, this below-the-surface jealousy can become destructive to your writing, as well as dangerous to your well-being as a writer.
So…what does creative envy look like? Here are three common scenarios:
- Your book barely got reviewed when it came out two months ago. And those reviews were mixed—not the glowing ones you’d hoped for. Your critique mate’s latest book garnered a starred review from Kirkus, plus rave reviews from several other highly visible and respected sources. Ouch.
- You have struggled for six years, writing, rewriting, and editing your novel. It feels like you just can’t get it right. Your critique mate, also writing a novel, has sailed through the creative process without much hesitation or apparent difficulty. Argh.
- Two of your critique mates often compare notes on what their agents are or are not doing for them. The conversations involve book sales and royalties that your own work has not approached. Plus, you’ve been trying to get an agent, any agent, for a long time with no success. Blech.
I’ve seen these scenarios and dozens more. And I’ve allowed that green-eyed monster to make me feel lousy about my work at many of these times, seriously sidetracking me. I don’t want this to happen to you! So, I’d like to offer you some thoughts on where creative jealousy can come from, and what to do if it arrives on your doorstep.
Envy…consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations…
If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar;
Caesar envied Alexander; and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.
~ Bertrand Russell
It starts with fear
First, I believe that creative envy basically comes from FEAR.
Fear that there is only so much success available in the universe, and if someone else gets it, there won’t be any left for you and your work.
Fear that you and your work are not good enough to grab whatever success might be left in the universe, if there IS any left to be found.
Fear that you and your work are not even good enough to be in the company of this critique group….and on and on.
People, this is a regrettably familiar loop of thinking I have fallen into when encountering creative envy. Can you see how quickly I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole? Worse, can you guess what lies at the bottom of the rabbit hole? (Hint: self-sabotage, usually in the form of writer’s block.)
Six ways out of the rabbit hole
How to avoid all this yuckiness and “I-suck”iness? Here are a few thoughts which I hope prove useful:
- Get real with yourself about the basic dynamics of creative work. Remember that everyone has a unique creative process, and yours is never going to look like someone else’s. From the outside, everyone else’s creative process looks ‘easy.’ Sometimes, it is worth it to share a struggle or two with the group in a structured way. For example, at lunchtime break, my critique group often tosses this question out, “What was the biggest challenge for you with your writing this week?” and we go around the table with our answers. We all have challenges, we discover, and brainstorm solutions if that seems useful. Side benefit? We’ve built a lot of trust in one another with this simple practice.
- Speaking of trust, stop waiting until you feel your work is ‘perfect’ to submit it for critique with group members. Trust that your colleagues are there for your development as a professional writer and give feedback that will foster genuine improvement of your craft. You are not in competition with anyone here.
- Trust that your work will be evaluated in line with its stage of completeness, and please, stop waiting until you think it must be perfect before submitting for critique with your peers. Not submitting a piece of work each session is not allowed in my group, which has gotten us all in the routine of bringing ‘swiss cheese’ pieces (drafts with a lotta holes!) when that’s all we’ve got. It has helped me realize that we all start with writing that needs a lot of work. Hard to work up envy and jealousy in an environment like that.
- Understand what your personal triggers for creative envy are, and know that you can stop the spiral early on. Primarily ask yourself what fear about your work is hiding underneath that green-eyed monster. Just recognize it without judgment. Forgive yourself for being human. Get back to your writing.
- Then do a little alchemy and turn that envy into motivation. Inspiration. Direction. Let what someone else has done, be it with their writing or business skills, inspire you to get the same type of prize from the universe. You can always remind yourself that the universe’s vending machine never runs out of candy bars – there’s an unlimited supply of success for everyone willing to do the work.
- Another truth to remember is that everyone in publishing has someone below them and someone above them on the ladder of success. You may climb the rungs upward, but this will always be the case. Even authors on the New York Times bestseller list are ranked higher or lower. There are many gradations in success and success has its seasons. Success is uneven and unpredictable. Within your critique group, if you are in it for any time at all, you will see this play out. Sometimes one critique mate will be ‘hot’ and others will be ‘not.’ Envy blinds you to the fact that you and everyone else will have your turn to wear the publication crown. It also hampers your ability to work effectively toward that goal.
So many good things can happen in a critique group! I value all my critique group experiences. And I can say looking back that they have taught me how to embrace imperfection, accept my envy triggers and divert them into motivation. I have come to see that the groups I’ve been in and the lessons they have taught me have benefited my writing, and my ability to live as a creative person. May they do the same for you.
Dianne Ochiltree is an award-winning children’s author and writing coach. Learn more about her books and her critique services at www.dianneochiltree.com. Read her previous guest blog on the categories of children’s books .