Envy is a writer's best friend. Indeed, it does for the aspiring scribbler what compasses do for hikers in the wilderness. In the moment that a writer, smoldering with jealousy, holds between his trembling fingers a page of someone else's brilliance, he begins to discover himself as an artist. Without recognizing it, he has caught the scent-trail of his muse.
You know it the first time it happens. In the coziness of your reading nook, you're sinking into a novel...and suddenly the writer fires off a metaphor that dazzles like a ruby, a snatch of dialogue that seems to echo in the hollow of your heart, a line of such bold understatement that its simplicity cuts into your soul. You rush onward, peeling through the pages as if skinning an onion, on one hand desperate to consume every remaining morsel of story, and on the other, desperate not to believe anyone could write something so achingly good.
You finish. You clap the pages shut and sigh. I'll never write like this.
Once, the temptation was overwhelming to admit I could never be among the hallowed legions of wordsmiths whose novels are the soft bricks in the bookstore aisle wall. My first ordeal with the good kind of envy was early in high school with the author Ian McEwan, when I read his World War II literary novel Atonement. The sublime descriptions still make my neck tingle—"the leonine yellow of high summer" coming into the greenery, the "chaotic swarm of impressions" that assault a young writer's mind, the "caged panther" that is a torturous migraine headache. McEwan was a mage-behind-the-page, skating invisibly through characters' thoughts and conjuring genius with a flick of his pen. This is the way he seemed to me, at least, and my intimidation would've turned into despair had my own situation not made me realize a simple truth: no one can hold a pen in the womb. Every writer begins as a novice.
Since then, I have realized the work of great writers does not exist to dampen dreams, but to goad young writers into accepting their creative identities, which comes with the principle challenge of crafting something even better. The key to overcoming this envy isn't to imitate my favorites, but to let them guide me, admiring them as proof of what others can do if they stick proudly to their own vision.