What Should You Do If You Experience Writer Burnout?

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The topic of burnout made news earlier this week when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized it as an “occupational phenomenon.” Yes, burnout is an actual thing, though the WHO fell short of calling it a medical condition. WHO describes burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Burnout is characterized by three factors:

* feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
* increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to the job
* reduced professional efficacy

However, WHO advises that their description of burnout is limited to the occupational environment, not to everyday matters like parenting or going to school.

How does burnout affect writers and other creative types? Do they experience burnout too? The answer, of course, is a definitive yes.

Julie Niedlinger, a freelance writer writing at the CoSchedule blog, says writer burnout happens when you use up all of your creative reserves. “Burnout is characterized by churning out content in a machine-like mode.”

Writer burnout is not to be confused with writer’s block, which is essentially having a lack of writing ideas. You stare at a blank page looking for a nugget of inspiration to begin writing, but there’s no feeling of burnout associated with it.

Other factors may play a part in burnout. Maybe you don’t necessarily like the topic you are writing about. Maybe you notice that the work you are producing is low-quality, below the standard of excellence you normally strive for. Maybe you realize that you pour so much of yourself into the writing process that you have neglected other areas of your life such as your relationships, your social life and your health. Because it seems you are working like a machine all the time, you aren’t totally present with your writing and you no longer enjoy the writing process.

Social media and technology have added pressure on creative types to constantly be “on”. Downtime is not encouraged or even thought about. It’s difficult to know when to turn off your switch.

Add the pressures of daily living – paying bills, making doctor appointments, getting the car fixed, making dinner for the family – and you can see how easily it is to become burned out by life.

If this sounds like you, don’t fret. There are several things you can do to climb out of this cycle of burnout.

1. Remember that you are not a machine. You are only human, and humans need to frequently recharge their batteries, just like cell phones. Otherwise, you won’t operate efficiently. Even better, just unplug yourself for a weekend. Learn to do nothing.

2. Change how you write. Niedlinger suggests diversifying your writing. If all you write are blog posts for low-paying content mills, try writing something different, like short stories or essays. Or write about a topic that has always fascinated you. If you have always enjoyed looking up at the stars and the planets, write about astronomy. Write for the pure pleasure of writing.

3. Alter your language. Stop calling it content or copy, writes Niedlinger. Find another name for what you do. Instead call it “my writing,” “my fiction,” “my essays,” or “my craft.” When you alter the language, you alter your relationship to your work.

4. Celebrate your milestones. Writers can become so trapped in the cycle of doing that they leave no time or space for being, writes life coach Kendra Levin in Psychology Today. Writers today allow no time to celebrate their successes. They have difficulty celebrating milestones, such as finishing a tough revision, finishing a chapter or getting an essay published. There always seems to be more work to do. Instead of jumping into the next project, honor and celebrate what you’ve just completed. Go out to dinner with a friend or give yourself a day off from writing. Every chapter you write and every essay that gets published is worth celebrating.

5. Remember that writing can save your sanity. “Making art can push you to burnout, but it can also save you from it,” writes Levin. “Writing is therapy, writing is meditation, writing is self-care.” I will also add that writing is comfort food for the soul. When life gets to be too much, take your problems to your journal. Use it as a tool to dump all your negative emotions. That’s where you can write to save your sanity, no matter what is happening on the outside.

Burnout doesn’t have to kill your love for writing. When you begin to notice signs of burnout, take note of it. Then make changes that will help you regain a healthy relationship with your writing.

Ambition Isn’t Selfish If It Fuels Your Creativity For the Greater Good

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A few years ago, actress Reese Witherspoon wrote an essay that was published in Glamour magazine about women and ambition. She observed that women are judged too harshly for being ambitious. Men with ambition are seen as powerful and appealing, while women with ambition are seen as selfish and less worthy of being hired or promoted than their male counterparts. The double standard had to end. “We have to change the idea that a woman with ambition is out only for herself,” she wrote.

I have never forgotten that article. Witherspoon’s sentiment has stayed with me ever since. Ambition gets a bad rap sometimes for bringing about negative reactions in people. But ambition is not to be feared. It is not to be hidden away, especially by women, who may have the desire to achieve meaningful things. “Ambition is simply a drive inside of you,” writes Witherspoon. “It’s having a curiosity or a new idea and the desire to pursue it.”

Other writers and creative types have weighed in on the topic. The famous artist Salvador Dali once wrote, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” Without those wings, we might as well swim with the ducks.

Maya Angelou writes, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” It takes more than ambition to be successful. It’s one thing to reach for the highest goal, such as publishing a best-selling novel. But it takes a truly wise person to write a novel that touches the hearts and souls of readers.

There are different ways to look at ambition. For many, it’s a negative trait best left under wraps. But then how will you ever achieve your greatest work? The true measure of creative genius is finding the right balance of ambition. Too little ambition and you risk undercutting your opportunities and underselling your talents. You come across as lacking confidence. Conversely, exhibit too much ambition or the wrong kind of ambition that doesn’t help the greater good and people see you as arrogant.

Where is the happy medium? As writers and creatives, it’s not only okay to be ambitious, it’s imperative. Without ambition, you may never accomplish anything meaningful. Ambition fuels your dreams and your passions. That’s the positive side of ambition.

But ambition has its darker side too. The dark side of ambition drives you blindly toward outcomes that not only hurt others but can ultimately derail your best efforts. Under the influence of the dark energy, you can become more focused on your competition – who is standing in your way of success. The key is to harness ambition’s positive energy without getting sucked into its darker forces. It can be all too easy to fall into that trap. You have to remember that it is just that – a mind trap.

Here are a few suggestions for making peace with the ambitious side of yourself so you can take advantage of its positive energy.

* Be aware of how you feel when you are ambitious. How do you describe your energy level – high, low, medium? Do you feel energized, determined and optimistic about the outcome of your endeavors, or do you feel angered, aggressive and driven to the point of madness? Higher energy and optimism are signs of the positive side of ambition. More important, it makes you feel happy about your work.

* Recognize ambition’s positive energy. Use that energy to create something useful, make a positive impact on others’ lives, or simply make other people happy. When you feel ambitious, it’s usually to DO something or to create something — climb a mountain, write a book, or build a business. Those are positive outcomes of ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it helps others. But if your ambition is to tear something apart or hurt someone, then you have fallen under the darker side of ambition. Always choose ambition’s positive energy.

* Don’t waste your ambition on people or situations that won’t respect or appreciate it. (Another pearl of wisdom from Ms. Witherspoon.) Once you recognize that there are people in your life (bosses, for example) who don’t appreciate your ambitious ideas, quickly move on. Find another company or project that will welcome your ambitious ideas.

* Recognize that everyone has some level of ambition. Some people have more ambition than others, but that doesn’t mean others have no ambition at all. It just means they haven’t tapped into it yet. While many people use ambition in healthy ways, others may subdue their ambition, believing (erroneously) that they are being selfish for wanting more than they have. Or they use their ambition to serve their own purposes rather than for the greater good.

* Being ambitious means taking a few risks. As someone once told me, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where all the best apples are.” Even if it means risking your well-being by falling out of the tree.

* Remind yourself that it is not selfish to be ambitious. If your ambition calls for creating meaningful work that people will enjoy, then it’s not selfish to indulge in your craft. If your ambition calls for you to leave behind your family so you can go to medical school in a different city, it’s not selfish to want to improve your education so you can help heal people who are sick. If there is an overriding desire to help others, then ambition can only help you achieve your goals.

When you learn to tap into the positive energy of ambition, great things can happen.

With Mobile Devices, Can Workers Ever Truly Enjoy Vacation Time?

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The following post was originally published on The Regal Writer three years ago. It seemed like a good time to re-post as most people begin planning summer vacations. RL

Some years ago, I spent one week at a health spa located outside Chicago for vacation. I had a glorious time meeting people from other parts of the U.S. who were there to relax and jumpstart their health routines. There were no phones in the rooms, so most guests brought their cell phones, though the spa advised us to keep them shut off as much as possible during our stay.

Among the guests was a heavyset, stressed out attorney in his 50s, who was there with his wife under doctor’s orders to reduce the stress in his life. Every morning at breakfast, he’d be at the table talking on his phone with someone from his office. It always seemed that he was constantly on the phone, or his phone would ring during meal times. As that attorney raced out of the dining hall one day to deal with yet another business crisis at the office, another guest, a manager of a retail store, shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe he doesn’t have someone who can take care of things while he’s away. I’ve got a manager at my store that I trained to take care of things so I don’t have to worry about anything,” he said.

With the long holiday weekend ahead, many workers are taking extended vacations. But how many of them will still check business emails and phone messages when they’re supposed to be enjoying a massage or swimming in the pool? How can any of us truly enjoy our vacation if we’re still conducting business via our smartphone?

Granted, some businesses need to be open for the holidays, and certain professionals, such as medical staff and news reporters, must work part of the time or need access to their smartphones in case of an emergency. But for most people who are enjoying some time off, limiting their use of mobile technology for work is a necessary part of the vacation experience.

According to research from Pew Research Center, 64 percent of American adults owned a smartphone as of October 2014, and I’m sure that percentage has increased since then. Of American smartphone owners, 7 percent are “smartphone dependent,” meaning their mobile device is their only connection to the Internet because they don’t have broadband at home. In addition, 90 percent of adults own a cell phone, 32 percent own an e-reader and 42 percent use a tablet computer. With so many electronic gadgets available, it’s getting harder and harder to detach from work, even while sitting on a beach in the Caribbean.

The U.S. is not alone. Other countries are beginning to realize how overworked their employees are and are relaxing demands on their time. A few weeks ago, for example, thanks to legislation passed by the French government, French workers are no longer required to check into the office or check business emails on the weekend. Their workers, they say, need to take a mental break from work to be more effective.

If you are about to embark on vacation this summer, here are several strategies to help you truly “get away” from the office so you can enjoy the beach, golf, picnics and other fun activities.

1. Set time limits for checking emails and phone messages. Give yourself 30 minutes in the morning, and maybe, MAYBE, 30 minutes at dinner time if necessary. Only respond if there’s an emergency. The less time you spend responding to business emails and calls, the more time you have to relax.

2. Send reminders to co-workers and business associates that you are about to go on vacation. Explain that you will have limited accessibility to email and cell phone, so it will be difficult to reach you except in case of an emergency. Outline what you mean by emergency too, because, as we all know, one person’s idea of a minor issue is a crisis to someone else.

3. Ask yourself, how important is this issue? Does it have to be resolved now, or can it wait until you get back to the office? See if you can barter for more time.

4. If possible, train someone in the office to deal with problems in your absence. If there is no one you can trust to handle business in your absence, you might need to shut down for a few days with a sign on the door and a message on your voicemail indicating you are on vacation.

5. If you really want to get away from it all, go somewhere with spotty Internet service. You won’t be able to check emails, phone messages or update social media profiles, but no one will be pestering you from the office either.

The last thing anyone wants to do on vacation is to think about work. Depending on your job, sometimes it can’t be helped. But by implementing a few personal strategies, you can relax and enjoy your vacation the way you are meant to.

 

What’s Your Legacy, and How Can Writing Help You Achieve It?

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Photo courtesy of Little Free Library

No doubt you’ve seen the Little Free Libraries in your neighborhood where you can go to borrow books or donate a few in return. No questions asked. No fees to pay. No librarians or book sellers to talk to. Just you and a Little Free Library to connect you with other readers in your neighborhood.

What a brilliant idea!

The Little Free Library program is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. (Check their website for special events and discounts.) LFL was the brainchild of Todd Bol to honor his mother who was a school teacher. (Hence the school house designs.) Sadly, Bol died late last year, but he leaves behind a tremendous legacy of literacy and learning and sharing.

In a society that’s become increasingly “shareable,” (ride-sharing, home-sharing, etc.) somehow the idea of sharing books anonymously seems kinder, gentler and not so intrusive. Unlike other shareable businesses that have monetized their services (think Uber and Airbnb), Little Free Library is a non-profit. Though they sell their patented little treehouses on their website, it’s the free exchange of books and the experience of sharing that brings the most value. The people who benefit most are the users, readers like you and me who love to read, who love to collect books and who love sharing what they’ve read with others.

In that way, Bol was a genius. He might have created Little Free Library for his mother’s memory, but you and I are the benefactors. That’s a tremendous legacy to leave behind, hopefully for years to come.

That leads me to wonder about my own legacy. What do I want to create that will have lasting meaning and value? I pose those questions to you as well. What do you want to achieve with your writing, your art or your small business that will make the world a better place?

In the writers’ group I belong to, several members joined because they had personal stories that they wanted – and needed — to tell. One man is writing stories so his teen-aged daughters will understand his personal history and their Asian cultural heritage. Another man is writing a memoir to inspire other young people that it is possible to survive a complicated and emotionally difficult childhood to become a better human being. Yet another member, a young girl still in college, writes to simply bring joy to others. These are their chosen legacies. None of them are focused solely on being published. Instead they hope to publish with a purpose.

I suspect that when it comes legacies, it’s difficult for some of us to choose what that is, or even what it means. Susan Bosak, founder of The Legacy Project, says legacy is about life and living. “It’s about learning from the past, living in the present and building for the future.”

More specifically, she explains that legacy is “an interconnection across time, with a need for those who have come before us and a responsibility to those who come after us.”

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Knowing what a legacy is doesn’t make it any easier to decide how to manifest it in our lives. To help sort through it all, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How would you like children and grandchildren to remember you? If you don’t have children, maybe you have nephews and nieces that you can leave your legacy to, or perhaps someone else’s children?

2. What do you see as your primary place or purpose in life? How did you come to that conclusion?

3. What lessons have you learned from your life experiences?

4. If you could solve one problem in our world – and only one problem – what would it be and why?

5. What is your superpower – your best talent? How would you like to use it?

6. Can you tell your life story in six words? (To learn more about six-word memoirs, check out Smith Magazine.) Breaking your life down into six words really cuts to the heart of what’s important to you.

To create a legacy, you first need to see the bigger picture. Then you can begin to write. Writing in and of itself is not the legacy, but a vehicle for achieving the higher purpose through your stories.

A Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt

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“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win
by fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Shakespeare said it best when he said that “our doubts are traitors.” They betray us by preventing us from engaging with our creativity in a healthful way. They betray us by instilling fear in us that our words will never matter. And they betray us by asserting their will over us. If we give in to those doubts and fears, we lose the chance at achieving greatness with our writing and making a difference in the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about how we can manage our own writing expectations. One of the factors I described is the inner critic, that internal voice that suggests you may never be good enough.

That inner critic is especially adept at creating an atmosphere of self-doubt. When that critic plants seeds of self-doubt in your mind, they are bound to sprout numerous buds that can grow into overgrown weeds.  When those overgrown weeks begin to choke your creativity, you know it’s time to take action. The last thing you want is self-doubt creeping into your writing practice.

Many writers have written about how they have dealt with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity all their writing lives. No one is immune from feeling that way, not even the most successful published authors like Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Sandra Brown, to name a few. I’m sure even Shakespeare had moments when he doubted himself. Self-doubt is as common as breathing.

Every writer who has experienced those feelings have found ways to deal with them, from journaling to staying focused on their craft to simply ignoring them. Borrowing from some of their ideas, here are a few ideas how you can deal with self-doubt when it makes its presence known in your writing practice.

1. Acknowledge its presence. Every writer who has ever written anything, published or not, has experienced occasional bouts of self-doubt in their careers, and the more successful ones are more prone to experiencing its ugly cousin, Imposter Syndrome. That’s the unshakable belief that you’re getting away with something and that you will soon be found out as a fraud. Realize that self-doubt happens to everybody. It’s a normal part of the writing process and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you. In fact, many writing experts say that if you don’t ever feel self-doubt, you’re probably doing something wrong.

2. Give self-doubt a persona. Whether you call it your internal critic, the fraud police or something else, it might help to give self-doubt a name, writes Jim Dempsey at Writer Unboxed. Or try drawing a picture of it. What does self-doubt look like to you? Then put the drawing on your wall and stare it down whenever it tries to speak to you. When it shows up in your practice, you can say, “Oh, no, here comes Negative Nellie again!” It might be easier to fight off its effects when you can bring it out in the open, rather than hide it away in your subconscious where it can do more damage.

3. Write about your feelings. If you keep a journal, as most writers do, take time to write about those dogged feelings of doubt so they don’t overwhelm you. It can be easy to allow self-doubt to consume you to the point where you cannot write or create anything. Don’t do that. Instead, write about those feelings. It’s another way of acknowledging their existence, and that’s healthier than brushing them aside in the hopes they will go away.

4. Realize the feeling is temporary. Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity will ebb and flow in your life like ocean waves. Recognize that those feelings will pass in a matter of hours or days. Don’t let them deter you from your writing. In fact, most writers say it’s important to keep writing during those blue periods. You’ll eventually come out of them.

5. Give yourself permission to write junk. During those periods of self-doubt, it’s important to keep writing, suggests Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice. Your writing won’t be the best stuff, but at least you are still working on your craft. There’s no such thing as wasted words, she says. No matter how awful your writing may be during that phase, there’s bound to be nuggets of valuable content that you can build on. Have faith in the writing process. It won’t let you down.

Acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the writing process. Make friends with it. Know that it will come and go in your life like old friends do. The next time it shows up in your writing practice, welcome it. Remember that it’s there to help you overcome obstacles so you become a better writer.

Tips for Managing Your Writing Expectations

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As creative writers, it’s easy to fall prey to unrealistic expectations. Writers must strike a balance between expectations that are too low or goals that are set too high. If expectations are too low, they may be a product of fears and self-doubt that our writing is not good enough. If expectations are too high, they may reveal an overly optimistic view of talents and skills that haven’t been mastered.

Developing a healthy balance between the two can provide a more realistic vision of your writing. The more realistic your expectations are, the more easily you’ll be able to achieve your writing goals. Here’s how you can manage your expectations as a writer.

1. Assess your skill set. Make a list of all your skills. What are you especially good at doing? Are there certain skills that you need to learn? For example, do you need to learn how to edit yourself? Or do you need to develop a better ear for dialogue? When you assess your skill set, you gain a clear understanding of your strengths and limitations.

2. Assess your writing goals. Think about the types of writing you want to do. Do you want to write fiction or screenplays, or are you happy writing for businesses?  Do you want to be a published author, or do you prefer to write as a hobby? Do you want to be paid for your writing? If so, research places like Writer’s Market for information about paid writing markets. What time frame do you want to achieve these goals? Some can be achieved within a year while others may take several years. Still others may never be realized. You may need to prioritize these goals and set milestones for achieving the larger ones.

3. Check in with yourself periodically. Goals and expectations can change over time. Set aside time every quarter (ideally) or at least every six months to review your writing goals to determine if you are still on track. When you reassess your plan every few months, you can make adjustments along the way so you stay on track.

4. Seek a second opinion. If you feel stuck and you’re not sure where to go next with your writing, it might help to get the perspective of a friend or two. It may be that you aimed too high with your writing or your expectations are too low. They can provide valuable insights into your approach. For example, if you lack self-confidence, they might point out some of your strengths that you can capitalize on. Or if you are painting an overly rosy picture of your writing life, like writing an 800-page novel in the next six months, they can provide needed perspective so you can see if that is a realistic goal.

5. Challenge your inner critic. Writers are naturally born with an inner critic, a voice that tells them their writing stinks. When you notice that voice in your head, stop for a moment and challenge those thoughts. Who is really thinking them – you or someone else? Counter with a positive affirmation in return. For example, if the voice keeps telling you that no one will like your story, counter it by pointing out all the times when someone DID like your story. Keep countering that critic with success stories of your own until that voice is silenced for good.

Or put a sign on your wall: “Inner critics not allowed while creative genius is at work.” Or something similar. The sign serves as a constant reminder that what matters most is your opinion, not someone else’s.

6. Expect rejection. No matter what kind of writing you do, rejection is bound to happen. Someone somewhere will be reviewing your work, and not everyone will like what you write. Rejection is a natural part of the writing process. Rejection can help you reassess your writing project to see if it still works. It can help you look at other avenues for publishing that you might not have considered. If two editors didn’t like your piece about making your own food for cats, then maybe a third editor will. Rejection can be disarming at first, but it can also fuel your motivation to keep trying.

7. Let go of the need to be perfect. When you first begin writing, you might envision what your final piece will look like. Then as you begin writing, you realize that your piece is nothing at all like you imagined. Perhaps you write a dozen or so drafts before finally giving up. First drafts are supposed to be crap, says essayist Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird. Know this and accept it. First drafts help you unload the ideas from your head to the paper before you can craft them into a story. If you try to be perfect as you write, you will never accomplish much. All you will have to show for your effort is a waste basket filled with crumpled sheets of paper.

Unrealistic expectations are often the result of feelings of inferiority or idealized visions of writing success. Neither of them are satisfactory. Keep your expectations realistic by periodically assessing your skills and emotional mindset.

How Writers Can Turn Envy Into Motivation

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Have you ever listened to someone read from their recently published debut novel and think, “Gosh, I wish I could have my novel published.” Or maybe you read someone else’s work in your writing class and thought, “I wish I could write like that!”

If so, you’ve just been attacked by a little green monster named Envy.

Envy shows up in your life when you perceive others having what you don’t have: talent, power, prestige, money, popularity.

Envy is usually tied to some other hidden emotion. It may be a sign of competitiveness or insecurity, for example. You want what others have because you fear you don’t have enough of it yourself. Or that you’re not a good enough writer to ever be published like your friends and colleagues. You subconsciously compare yourself to others and fall short. Envy steps in to fill the void.

Envy also shows up when you compare your sense of self with your ideal self, writes Mary Lamia, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to project that ideal on someone else. If your personal ideals are exaggerated and unreachable, you will always feel that you are never good enough.

David Ludden, Ph.D., also writes in Psychology Today that envy has a dark and light side. On the dark side, we may harbor ill will toward someone who appears to have more of what we want. Benign envy – the lighter side – can be converted to motivation to improve ourselves. We can use envy to learn from others and observe how or why they have become successful. For example, maybe they got published because they took the time to research the publication and figured out how to pitch their story to the editor. Maybe that other writers gladly accepts feedback from an editor while you are reluctant to accept their critique.

When envy shows up in your life, there are several ways to deal with it. For starters, you need to be aware of when it shows up. What prompted its entrance? Most important, what can you learn from it? Here are three ways writers can deal with envy.

1. Embrace the emotion. Accept the fact that it’s normal to feel envious of others sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just a signal that you might be feeling insecure in your own abilities. Accept the fact that it will show up on occasion. As author Elizabeth Sims suggests in The Writer, envy loses its power over us when we tell ourselves that it’s okay to be envious.

2. Keep a journal. Ask yourself probing questions, then write down the answers, says writer Amy Torres at The Writing Cooperative. For example, ask yourself “Whose talent do I wish I had?” “What does this person have that I don’t?” and “I wish I could write as well as [fill in the blank].” As you ponder the answers to these questions, note what emotions rise to the surface. Then embrace those emotions. Allow yourself to really feel them. Then write about what you feel in your journal.

3. Be the best writer you know how to be. Show a confident front, says Sims. Even if you don’t feel secure, put on a brave smile. Fake it until you make it, as they say. Then go out and be the best writer you know how to be. Don’t worry about what the other writers are doing with their work. Focus on your own craft. Smile and keep working.

Envy and its ugly cousin jealousy are bound to show up in your writing life. That’s normal. When they do, recognize them for what they are – signs that it’s time to refocus your energy on improving your own writing practice. Observe what the object of your envy is doing. Maybe you can learn from their example. Then use the benign energy of envy to motivate yourself to work differently.

Once you embrace envy as part of the writing process, those periods of envy will shrink so you don’t notice them anymore.