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Byline Envy

A plucky freelance writer learns how to surmount rather than succumb to the second sin.

By Nancy Davidson - September 1, 2004

Of all the deadly sins, envy is the least fun. Unlike gluttony and sloth, there is really no pleasure to be derived from indulging it. Nonetheless, I can't help it. It's one of my weaknesses—I find it hard to resist.

While my freelance food-writing assignments occasionally provoke envy among friends who are not writers, their mild twinges (easily assuaged by being invited along to eat for free) are nothing compared to the crippling frenzies of envy—part rage, part insecurity—I can work myself up to when I see a feature on one of my favorite chefs in The New York Times, under someone else's byline.

Byline envy—it's a moral failing of nearly all freelance writers. We know we should feel happy for other freelancers who have a moment of success, and we know we should be thrilled for them when they're personal friends. But, often, secretly, we're not. For freelancers, it sometimes seems as if there's just one pie, and there aren't enough slices to go around. And the fact that every slice of pie is labeled with a writer's name makes it possible—especially when no slice has lately been earmarked for you—to develop a mental portfolio for each writer perceived to be a competitor. Because freelance writers' career trajectories are so public, it's tempting to slip into the habit of commiserating with friends over other writers' successes.

When I first started writing for publication, I gorged on envy and believed it was justified, especially when an adorable, super-skinny food writer who looks like she never eats (another source of envy) published not so insightful or revealing essays about her dating life. I fantasized then that, given the opportunity, I could do better.

The most recent case of envy occurred a month or so ago when I read an article by Alex Witchel in The New York Times on DiPalo's Fine Foods, a shop in Little Italy to which I have a passionate and irrationally possessive attachment—as in, it's my Italian cheese shop, and what was Witchel doing there? Though I had managed to transform my interest in DiPalo's into a feature for the New York Post two years ago, I'd been required to make it newsworthy by placing the family-owned store in context: It became a story on the status of the San Gennaro festival in the incredible shrinking Little Italy. In between jumping up and down and stamping my feet in frustration when I read Witchel's piece, I noticed that it included some of the exact quotes that were in my article, plus quite a few more that were in my notes.

Despite my envy, I had to admit the piece was great. It was the story I wished I could have written. (And, perhaps, could have, if I had both Witchel's history with the Times and, as she does, Frank Rich as a husband—a fact that years ago provoked more than a little envious speculation about the source of her success.) My idea hadn't been copied, of course. Good ideas are all around us, and more than one person will always pick up on the same idea. That's what creates trends. Once I simmered down, I was able to carefully read the article and learn from a more experienced writer. I learned something about interviewees, too: Even the most heartfelt sentiments can be canned and whipped up upon request.

Still, the envy was giving me indigestion. It can, after all, be deadly. So I was forced to develop some homemade remedies, things I can do when envy threatens to paralyze me. Don't be too jealous of me for inventing them, but here are my easy three steps to coping with byline envy—after, of course, the first step: recognizing you have a problem.

1. Visit a magazine store. There are more magazines at a Barnes & Noble branch than I can read—let alone write for—and that's just in the areas that interest me. A quick visit reveals hundreds of possible places to pitch that I might not think of sitting in my room as envy gnaws away at me.

2. Turn a competitor into a colleague (or even a friend). Gossip—envy's offspring—is insidious. While it may seem fun and comforting in the short run to snipe and critique, a friendship built on envious gossip can quickly deconstitute, separating into unemulsified layers, the mixture spoiled by too much of the ingredient that once bound it.

I've found it's much better to share than to compete. Then, instead of saying, "Why her and not me?" when I see the name of someone I met at a press event, I can say, "you go, girl!"—a sentiment that is much easier to swallow.

3. Turn it into motivation. Indulging in envy can be paralyzing; it takes up too much space and can make it hard to concentrate. Rather than be stymied by negative emotion, my goal is to be inspired by my colleagues, to look to their work as examples, and to motivate me to pitch my ideas. (My new motto: You can't bitch unless you pitch.)

I've noticed that as I achieve more of my goals, as I get more of the assignments I long for, the episodes of envy dissipate faster and are less frequent. But envy never goes away completely. And that's not so bad. Envy has its uses. It spurs me on, it begs me to try harder. Plus, as a food writer, I know that even sour grapes make an excellent verjus.

Nancy Davidson is a freelance writer who has written for Cooking Light, Gastronomica, Health, Saveur, the New York Post, The New York Sun, and Time Out New York.

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