The Sixth Sin

(I typed that title, and now I’m trying to think of the story that goes with it. Cool it, brain! We’ve got enough on our plates right now.)

Have you ever read something and thought to yourself “God, I wish I’d written that”?

It’s not a feeling that comes around too often, thankfully for my stress levels. But sometimes…sometimes I read something and it’s just so good that I am seized with this terrible desire for it to have been my creation…

Do I like it? Or Like-like it?

There’s a difference between reading and enjoying a book and this authorial envy, however.

At this point, I like to think that I’m pretty good at predicting what sort of books I’ll like. Now and then I do take a risk (which may or may not pay off) but the truth is that I read primarily for my own pleasure, and it does me not one bit of good to read something I don’t enjoy. So I have a lot of practice choosing my reading material.

The end result of this is that I like nearly every book I read.

If you take a look at my Goodreads profile, you’ll see that the vast majority of my books are rated 4/5 stars. Now, some of those are nostalgic ratings (mostly those are the ones without reviews) and they may be adjusted in the future if I reread the books. But for the most part, those ratings aren’t because I can’t be mean (well, maybe just a little). They’re a reflection of my ability to identify reading material that I will enjoy.

The point is, it’s not a rare phenomenon.

Authorial Envy, on the other hand, is just that. There are certainly many writers whose work I admire. A lot of those, however, are writers whose skill I recognize, but who write in a style that doesn’t feel like “me”. It’s not something I think I could emulate, and I don’t particularly want to. (Lois McMaster Bujold comes to mind as a particularly good example of this. Her writing is stunning, and her characterizations divine, but my brain doesn’t work that way, never will, never could.)

Some books, though — some books I read and think to myself: This is what I wish my writing was. This is what I wish my stories were like. 

Now What?

All right. So what do I do with these feelings of envy?

One option, of course, is to descend into a spiral of deprecation and self-pity. I can’t write like that. She’s so much better than I am. I’m a terrible writer. It doesn’t matter how much I practice; I’ll never be able to do that. Everything I write is crap.

That may be a tempting route to follow, but it’s not very productive. And (mostly) untrue. So I take those thoughts, and I reframe them — I can’t write like that, but I shouldn’t try. I should write like me. She’s better than I am at this moment, but I’ll improve. It certainly does matter how much I practice. Everything everyone writes is crap in the first draft. It’s what you do with it after that counts.

Then, too, I can take the envy and see it as a challenge: this is something that somebody made, and I love it, and I think it was well done. I will challenge myself to make something as well done as this.

I probably won’t succeed the first time I try — or the second — or the thirty-first. But each effort will be better than the last, and hopefully somewhere in there I’ll find my style. My voice.

Your Turn

Do you ever read something (or watch something, or see a piece of art, etc. etc.) and think “I wish I’d made that”?

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