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Write On

Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbor’s Skill

"thou shalt not covet" line on broken 10 Commandments sculpture

photo by mojoey

I once wrote a comedy script where the premise turned on an observation about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We may think of it as a heartwarming redemption story, but what ultimately triggers Scrooge’s change of heart? High spirits and wassail with the Ghost of Christmas Past? Regret over the way he’s treated his employee, with Christmas Present? No, he’s only truly moved to change when he’s reminded that he’s eventually going to die, and—hey—it might be nice if someone dropped by his funeral. MERRY CHRISTMAS.

The fact that Scrooge kind of ignored the carrot until he got the stick doesn’t discount his change of heart. A lot of healthy change can come from less-than-healthy motivations. You just need some self-awareness about the flaws that drive you.

Jealousy is a big driving force in my life, as I’m pretty sure it is for most of my fellow comedy writers—and probably the populace at large, though I’ll try and keep my negative generalizations local. Despite its reputation as both a deadly sin and a green-eyed monster (which, as injurious descriptions go, sounds kind of sexy), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with jealousy per se. Coveting others’ success can be a hell of a motivator to achieve. It only becomes problematic when you don’t direct that energy toward your own work, but let it feed the bitter conviction that others are undeserving.

I’ve never gotten that far. Oh, I’m shamefully jealous of my successful friends, but before I get close to resenting them, I remember they’re (1.) the most dedicated people I know, and (2.) mind-bendingly funny. This does little for my writing or my career, but it does keep me from becoming a jerk. (And it gibes with the best piece of career advice I’ve gotten—from an SNL writer whom I met when I first moved to New York—“Don’t be a dick.” The guild should embroider that on a sampler, to give out with membership cards.)

Where jealousy can improve your writing, is when you move past simple envy to examine what got someone where they are. Other people aren’t successful simply because they’re not you. They’re successful because they’re doing something you aren’t. What is it? How can you apply that knowledge to your own work? How can you change a shallow focus on outward trappings into a deeper understanding of your writing?

For instance: I put in a packet for a late night show. I didn’t get the job, but a close friend did, which gave me a unique opportunity to see what a “winning” packet looked like. I was struck by how far beyond a typical segment his material went. While we were roughly equivalent on the basic gag level, the creativity put into goosing the stock format and finding new ways to visualize the jokes put his over the top. I had been too hung up on capturing the existing voice of the show to think about the ways the host and writers might be looking to push the material further. Now when I submit a packet I (1.) try to capture the show’s voice, but also (2.) find ways to showcase my own voice within that model, and (3.) never stop at something that could merely air on the show as it is, but strive to write something that represents the show at its ideal.

Another example: a friend recommended me for a job writing online content. When I didn’t get it, she privately disclosed that part of her producers’ decision was due to my lack of experience producing web video. So, I decided I should start producing web video—and it was immediately the most successful thing I’ve done. Instead of grousing about the position, I took the note and did something about it. (Well… I don’t want to make myself out to be more well-adjusted than I am. I groused a bit. Or at length. To everyone on Gmail chat.)

Too often, jealousy stops at someone thinking, “I’m just as good as he/she/it.” (In the rare occasions you’re competing with a screenwriting toaster oven.) Even if it’s true, there’s usually a lesson to be learned by the comparison—not that you should emulate success blindly; there’s plenty of terrible material that’s wildly successful—but the exercise is a much more healthy way of dealing with that envy than to enter yourself in a race you’ll never win.

3 Responses to “Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbor’s Skill”

  • Ian:

    Ya. Friend of mine is writing a book, sending me drafts. It’s good. I’m not precisely jealous, but I had always thought I was better at this type of writing than him (and I think I was, but I’m not anymore). That got me moving because goddamn it, I’m not going to be worse at this. 🙂

  • That’s the (negative) spirit!

  • Janine:

    Fantastic! I definitely have the same jealous streak (inflamed mostly when friends don’t just have good things happen but gloat like crazy about it when they do). and “Don’t be a dick” is totally my mantra that I chant to fend of feelings of bitterness and turn it into motivation. Thanks for this piece- glad I’m not the only one 🙂

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