The Importance of Being Envious

by Tom Robbins

At the onset, I have to state that I’m not convinced that there’s any such thing as “writer’s block”. I suspect that what we like to call “writer’s block” is in fact a failure of nerve or a failure of imagination or both.

If you’re willing to break rules, risk ridicule, and explore the unknown, and if you’ve somehow managed, despite social conditioning, to hold on to your imagination (more’s the pity if you haven’t), then you can dissolve any so-called block simply by imagining extraordinary, heretofore unthinkable solutions, and/or by playing around uninhibitedly with language. In other words, you can imagine or wordplay, conjure or sport your way out of any impasse.

Prolonged neurotic “blockages” aside, however, it would be false not to acknowledge that every working writer experiences days when the ideas and images reveal themselves more reluctantly than usual. Biorhythms could be at fault, it could be a savage hangover, external or internal distractions, or one of those ruptures that occur periodically in the pipeline from the Other. (Writing imaginative fiction is such a mysterious enterprise that often there’s no way to explain its sources except to attribute them to Something Out There Somewhere.)

On those dreaded occasions when your muse shows up wearing army boots, it may be time to tap into one of the strongest and most persistent, if seldom discussed, human emotions: jealousy.

Yes, we should never underestimate the valuable role that sheer envy plays in the creative process. Whereas in a romantic relationship jealousy is stupid and destructive, as a lubricant of the verbal brain machinery it can be highly effective. It’s elementary: you read a few pages (sometimes a few paragraphs or even a line or two will suffice) of work of which you are in awe, and in minutes you’ll find yourself motivated — burning! — to try to compose passages of equal merit.

Well, at least envy can usually motivate me. On a pedestrian morning, grounded in a no-fly zone without a banjo on my knee, I’ll read, say, a poem by Pablo Neruda or César Vallejo, turn to the early pages of Anaïs Nin’s Seduction of the Minotaur, sample a bit of Pynchon, Nabokov, or Henry Miller; or even put Bob Dylan on the stereo, and soon I’ve waxed six shades of pistachio and kiwi. The green beast has awakened and is starting to chase me down the street.

Call it forced inspiration if you will, call it literary Viagra, but as a writing exercise envy works. “Could I not coin phrases that smoke and pop like those do?” I’ll ask. “Is that guy’s word-bag really that much bigger than mine?” Or, “Do I have the guts to work as close to the bull as she does?” Feeling almost ashamed in the presence of such verve, I’ll return to my idling narrative primed to redeem– and entertain — myself.

By no means is this a case of competing for fortune or fame. It isn’t as if I want to elbow Norman Mailer out of line at the bank or steal Louise Erdrich’s ink. What I desire is to feel for myself the rush Mailer or Erdrich must have felt when they pulled that particular rabbit out of a hat. What I covet is to have the kind of effect on language-concious readers that Norman and Louise have just had on me.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether your prose actually meets the master’s unintentional challenge. That degree of success is probably not in your cards. But you have to believe it might be. And in merely attempting, with every muscle in your envious psyche, to climb to that elevation — to be that inventive and amusing and tough and daring and true — you may well have mooned the drab angel of mediocrity, and if nothing else you will have let loose your juice.

The Exercise:
Use the green sparks of envy you sometimes throw off when you read a particularly dazzling piece of prose to jumpstart your own literary motor.