David Congalton is a writer and radio host living in San Luis Obispo, Ca. His new collection of essays, “Man About Town: Stories of San Luis Obispo” is available through Amazon Kindle.
Envy: The Four Letter Word for Writers
There is a scene in my movie screenplay “Authors Anonymous” where Colette, the New Age, unpublished, Danielle Steel-wannabe, confronts fellow writer Hannah, who has already scored an agent, a book deal, a movie deal and now an invitation to meet a famous author.
“Why does all this happen to you, and only to you?” a frustrated Colette demands to know. “Isn’t there anything—some kind of cosmic creative crumb—for the rest of us to nibble on?”
Envy is the four-letter word that plagues many writers, especially many beginning writers. Yes, we want our colleagues to succeed, but only to a certain degree. We smile and applaud and cheer them on when they land an agent or sell a book, but then we go home and scream at the sky, wondering, Why not me? Few of us will fess up to the truth, but anyone who has ever put pen to paper, or clacked away on a keyboard, has experienced envy at some point.
My moment came in 2000. Catherine Ryan Hyde had sold her remarkable novel “Pay It Forward” to Simon & Schuster the previous year. My wife and I had become good friends with Catherine—having known her before she ever sold her first short story. That was followed by the excitement of Catherine landing representation with an agent and the publication of her first novel.
We could only stand back and watch in awe as Catherine experienced this amazing career trajectory after years of rejection. “Pay It Forward” became a sensation. Boom. New York publisher. Boom. Four-book deal. Boom. Movie deal. Boom. Kevin Spacey starring in the movie. Boom. Invitation to join President Clinton for a private screening at the White House. Our heads were spinning trying to keep up with Catherine’s success.
The movie version of “Pay It Forward” came to a local theater. We sat behind Catherine at the Central Coast premiere as she basked in the effusive audience praise and media spotlight. Fans crowded around her. Reporters and TV cameras captured her every step. The evening was electric. With one book, Catherine had become a hometown hero and began what would become an international movement of paying things forward.
Frankly, it was a lot. We were driving home afterwards when the ugly truth came bubbling out.
“You know what? I’m envious of Catherine. Look at all her success,” I confessed to my wife.
My wife didn’t hesitate to put me in my place. “Catherine does the work. She’s earned her success. You haven’t done the work.”
I felt stupid for having said what I did. My wife was right. Sure, I had some good ideas and a lot of dreams, but I lacked the work ethic that Catherine embraced daily. I hadn’t done the work.
But five years later, those feelings about Catherine became the basis for my screenplay “Authors Anonymous,” a comedy depicting the implosion of a writers’ critique group when the members become envious of Hannah after she becomes an overnight literary success. Basically I took Catherine’s amazing year and gave it to young Hannah Rinaldi (Kaley Cuoco), a writer who finally achieves success because she’s the one who does the work.
It took nine grueling years from page to screen for “Authors Anonymous,” an odyssey worthy of Homer, but I finally achieved success as a writer by buckling down and doing the work. I had my own Central Coast movie premiere in 2014. More than 700 fans showed up and my name splashed across the marquee in giant letters. Heady stuff, worth every hour of effort and every single rewrite.
There are no shortcuts to success. Envy has no place on the creative journey. Catherine has gone on to publish multiple novels; she’s an amazing writer. I couldn’t be happier for her. Why? Because the serious, mature writer is one who is genuinely excited for the success of others. I’m only in competition with myself these days. I’ve experienced the joy of the spotlight and I’d love to see other writers have their chance.
When talented writers like Catherine succeed, it inspires the rest of us to try our best. To work hard. To work harder. Get going. Your spotlight awaits.An earlier version of this essay appears in “Man About Town: Stories of San Luis Obispo” by David Congalton (2022)