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On jealousy

I'm not jealous of other writers' opportunities. I'm jealous of all the time they have that I wasted not being myself.

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Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 14 2021

10 min read

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I've been getting jealous a lot lately. Somebody achieves something I would like to achieve, or they get to a major goal sooner than I did, or they just get a job I didn't even apply for. If they're my friend, I'm endlessly happy for them, of course. And if they're not, I quietly seethe.

Jealousy is a pretty common thing for almost all writers of all stripes. No matter how well your career is going, you can always point to someone else whose career is going better. There are, I know, a lot of people who are bitterly jealous of me. I know because I've found them. I know exactly where to go to find the "Emily VanDerWerff is overrated and doesn't deserve a tenth of what she's got" club.

Obviously, jealousy is part of any human endeavor. I would guess that a bunch of astronauts were jealous of Neil Armstrong. But I think it's particularly acute for writers because each and every one of us simultaneously is pretty sure we're the worst writer who ever lived but also simultaneously sure we're better than every other writer we know. This jealousy is hard to kill, and the only way to mute its power is to constantly tell yourself that you're not jealous.

The thing is: I'm not sure I'm jealous of the opportunities other writers have gotten. No, I'm jealous about something entirely different.

What I'm jealous of is time. I knew from my very earliest days that I wanted to be a writer, and that I wanted to tell my own stories. But for most of my life, I didn't know how to tell those stories. By that I don't mean that I didn't know how to write. I was writing all the time, and I was occasionally writing stuff that people seemed to really like. And in time, my criticism ended up being something that got a lot of attention.

But I was always fighting past myself. I've been rereading a lot of my old AV Club work for a variety of reasons, and there's a strain to the writing there that feels so much more apparent to me now. I was fighting through so many layers of myself, and the only way to get any better was to brute force my way through as many words as possible. I wrote endlessly in those days, because I knew if I couldn't make the writing sing, I could eventually get somewhere interesting by exhausting myself.

There was a whole other layer to this, too. A lot of building a career as a writer is making connections with people who will help you move onward and upward, and I was terrible at this. Sure, I was good at being personable, and there were multiple times when I made good friends in my field. But when it came time to press on those connections and network to get to the next level, I seemed to not have that gene. For whatever reason, so many of the dudes I knew were able to backslap and glad hand their way to better jobs, better salaries, and better titles. When I got a job at Vox where the people hiring me all but begged me to ask for more money, I just went along with the initial offer.

Sidebar: "Do trans women experience male privilege before transition?" is the sort of issue I'm not about to tackle in this newsletter, because it's a massive clot of interconnected things that are ultimately impossible to untangle. But when people ask me for my thoughts on the subject, I usually relate some version of the above paragraph. Because the world perceived me as a talented, straight, cis white man, I was placed in lots of positions where I could have advanced rapidly. But because I wasn't a straight, cis, white man (I was talented, dammit), I had no idea what to do with those opportunities. Either I squandered them badly, or when I pressed the point on something, there was an immediate and instinctive sense that I was doing it wrong. (A surprising number of people I knew professionally told me after I came out that they had always just thought I didn't like them, which was really not what I was going for but what they perceived all the same.) I remember, vividly, always feeling like I shouldn't advocate for myself, because I wouldn't want to take up too much space. This thought pattern is not especially common in assertive people of any gender, for one, but for another, it's especially not common in straight, cis, white men, even those who maybe don't have the goods to back up their confidence. A more succinct way of putting this is: I had access to male privilege, but no idea what to do with it. When I came out, I suddenly lost that access but had much more of an idea of how to push for what I wanted from my life and my career.

So when I say I'm jealous of time, what I mean is that I wish I had had the courage to say who I was at 23 or 28 or 32. Being an out trans woman in the 2000s (when I was in my 20s) wouldn't have been easy, but I would have had full access to myself. I would have been able to say, "No. This is who I am. This is what I do. This is what I want." Maybe it wouldn't have worked. I would like to bet that it would have.

Every time I see, say, a 25-year-old novelist or a 31-year-old showrunner, I think to myself that that could have been me and maybe should have been me. But for much of my adult life, writing felt like falling to me. So long as I kept falling in the direction I was already going, I knew what I was doing. But the second I started trying to push in new directions, it was like flapping my arms and willing them to become wings. I knew I should know how to do it. There were all these thoughts in my brain. But I couldn't figure out how to make everything click.

Trans people who transition in adulthood speak often of their lost childhoods or adolescences or college years. What I'm slowly starting to orbit is the idea that I lost a lot of my best years as a writer to the vacuum that was trying desperately to be anyone but myself. I wanted to write so very badly, but writing either eluded me or felt too hot to the touch, like it could bring me toward the truth but only so far. I should have had so many more years. I should have had so many more stories to tell.

The irony is that writing is what eventually led me to myself. In the summer of 2016, I started work on a script where the protagonist was a teenage girl, and spending so much time inside her brain helped me start to conceptualize that, yeah, I had always dreamed of being a woman for a reason. The more I worked on that project, the closer I got to myself, and when my wife and I embarked on our next project after that, the protagonist was a trans woman, which ended up finally pushing me over the edge.

My transness and my writing have always been so deeply linked in me that I feel an innate sense that you cannot remove one from me without removing the other. I was able to force the writing into place for a while, but it eventually started to break down, when my transness was there, waiting to lift it up again. I'm glad I figured it out in the end, and I can't wait for you to hear so many of the stories I'm going to tell in the next few years. I have scripts that might sell and a novel to revise and a third season of a podcast to produce and so many articles to write at Vox. But I'll always wonder what stories were lost, between the certainty of my youth and the sudden recognition of the self as an adult.


Talk back to me: What professional regrets do you have? Tell me in comments or in an email response!


What I've been up to: It was a quiet week for me at Vox, because I was working on a big piece that will publish in the next few weeks. But if you're reading this sometime Monday morning, you can probably find my thoughts on Mythic Quest up at the site. tl;dr: I like it a lot! I like Poppy especially!

You can also check out my guest appearance on the Pod Directive, the official Star Trek podcast. I recorded this two days before Christmas 2020, hence my good cheer in the episode.


What you missed if you aren't a paid subscriber to Episodes: I really loved Nicky Watkinson's argument that the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, which I had long written off, is actually a revolutionarily queer TV show, even by today's standards. It's a great piece!

Torchwood, meanwhile, envisions a world where queerness is unremarked upon, sublimated, and casual. The rest of the team discusses Jack’s sexuality early on, but he never comes out or talks about his sexuality himself. Every other member of the Torchwood team is also seen to have onscreen relationships or sexual interactions with characters of their own and other genders. None of them can be considered either straight or gay. Although several of these queer interactions come about as a result of alien interference, raising some questions about consent, none of the characters ever express any regret, shame, or negative emotions regarding their actions. The show acknowledges that queerness is not the norm (“I’m shagging a woman… and an alien.” “Which is worse?” “I know which one my parents would say.”) while allowing its characters to have messy personal lives that aren’t endlessly discussed, dissected, or categorized.


Read me: I am legally forbidden from writing professionally about Kelsey McKinney's excellent new novel God Spare the Girls, because she is a close friend and former co-worker, but I highly recommend it anyway. It's a terrific look at sisterhood, megachurches, Texas, and locusts. It has the easy-breezy voice of Kelsey, whose writing I have always loved, and reading it may or may not have inspired this newsletter. Pre-order it today!


Watch me: Video Game Dunkey has always been one of my favorite YouTubers, but I love what a great critic he's become in recent years. He's one of the voices I trust most when it comes to games criticism, and now... he's doing movie criticism? I honestly wasn't expecting him to post a video examining Jacques Tati's Playtime. I'm thrilled that it's as good as it is.


And another thing... God, this tweet makes me laugh. It's so dumb.


Opening credits sequence of the week: I kind of love this opening for a James Garner comedy that went nowhere. The theme song slaps, and I love that Kate Mulgrew is apparently playing a schoolmarm from a Western.


A thing I had to look up: Yes, I went and found the people who say mean things about me on the internet. They were being pretty quiet, which is nice of them.


This week's reading music: "Solar Power" by Lorde (sorry, I'm obsessed)


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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