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Reverse Schadenfreude

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Feb. 18th, 2010 | 09:40 am

I was thinking about this last night as I sucked down mass quantities of Diet Coke in front of the TV (yes, I watched about 30 minutes of the Olympics, just in time to see that poor Swedish woman crash and burn.)

Writers do suffer from angst, much as one does in any profession. The self-flagellation that goes on is painful, moreso for the fact that we know it's self-flagellation most of the time. In most professions, like teaching, there's a place to go to whine and gripe about your bad days. This is usually the lunch-room, the break-room, the teacher's lounge.

But, you protest, writers have on-line communities where we can commune with each other and spin out our sad tales of frustration, rejection, and betrayal.

No, we really don't.

Not if we have any sense.


Most writers I know are careful about what they say on-line...even in private forums. You never know who's lurking in those forums. You never know when someone will lift your post and e-mail it to someone you'd rather not see it. And once the ENTER button is depressed, it's out there. You truly can't retract things. Never completely. So in some ways, our frustrations end up spinning about in our own heads, magnifying themselves until they hurt and bite.

I do have a couple of writer friends with whom I feel safe saying almost anything via e-mail. I trust them. They can trust me. I'm not going to repost anything they send me. I'm not going to out their _______ toward _______. And that's important for a writer to have. And of course, poor displacedtexan has to listen to every moment of the self-flagellation.

But I was discussing 'guilt' with someone on-line last night, especially regarding the reverse form of schadenfreude that we writers often feel. (You know, when your friend gets a book deal, and you don't have one. Doesn't matter if you don't have a book out there. You still feel bad because you don't, even while you're supposed to be happy for them, and then feel guilty because you're not being happy enough for them...because you think that, comparatively, you must suck.)

I had the thought last night that this reaction must stem from the Protestant Work Ethic. If you're not familiar with this sociological concept, then you should read up on it. Basically, we work hard to get ahead, because those who get ahead are the ones predestined for salvation. If we're not getting ahead, then, well....we must be sinners. Therefore visible signs of success are what show our inner goodness. (So we have to keep working harder to get ahead for the sake of....getting ahead.)

That reverse schadenfreude above? Yes, I think it stems directly from this.

If we were good, we would be successful. If we were good enough, that is. So every time someone achieves what we have not, it must be a sign that we're not working hard enough, we're not writing fast enough, we're not smart enough, clever enough, novel enough, interesting enough....

...and then we start beating ourselves with the imaginary cat-o-nines. (I suspect some writers are using the real thing, but who am I to judge...)

I've told friends before that I'm a very workmanlike writer. My work is not poetical, experimental, or ground-breaking. I don't even use flashbacks. I just like to tell stories. This, of course, is the cause of some limitation. There are markets I'll never break, and that's OK. I'll never be the darling of the industry, and I'll never be the scourge of the industry, either (S. Meyer, I'm looking at you.) I don't have an agent, but I'm not actively trying to market a book right now.

And yes, I am trying to push my envelope. I've proven that I can sell up to 38K. I want to sell longer. I'm trying to do less of the stuff that editors want me to fix all the time. I'm trying to be better about setting. I'm trying to write something marketable, rather than just something that I like. I'm working on those things.

But some nights, I reflect that fatalismo might have been an easier social paradigm under which to be born. Then everything would be destined and would fall out as planned. (This is different from the above, because how hard I work does not figure in it at all.)

And that person who just sold three books to ________? It would be so much easier to be happy for them because I would simply think that my failure to achieve the same would only be a matter of fate--completely out of my control--and not reflect on me in any way.

Then again, maybe not...

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Comments {64}

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
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I suspect that most of us feel this from time to time...

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Jon Gibbs

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from: jongibbs
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
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Honestly, I don't think it matters if someone else sells a book before me. Unless that person's book is the almost the same as mine, It's no different from someone I know getting promoted in their job?

At least, that's how I feel about it now, over time that view may change ;)

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Being British, you may have escaped the PWE ;o) It's a Calvinistic phenomenon...and very central to American culture...

And some people are simply wired that way, as well.

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Heather

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from: edgyauthor
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
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Oh, this so true! Too often I feel like I should give up simply because other writers seems to be moving ahead in some way while I keep struggling to hop off Square One. I try not to angst about it publicly, but yeah. It's way too easy to have these things eat at you if you're not careful!

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
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Very true. It's so hard to pull out of the angstiness sometimes....but if one doesn't, no writing will ever get done...and wouldn't that be a shame?

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Martha Wells

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from: marthawells
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, to everything in this post.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
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Thanks. I suspect that we must truly be writers if we doggedly refuse to let the slow times stop us, and keep reminidng ourselves that there are good times ahead...somewhere...

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J. T. Glover

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from: jtglover
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
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Great post, and it captures nicely both the combination of feelings we have about fellow writers' success and ours by comparison, as well as how that should or shouldn't be put online. I read a thing by A Certain Writer the other day about their path to success, which included a by-the-way comment about "pity all you poor sods who kvetch online and have all your neuroses archived for your readers and future selves." To that, I thought, "huh, that's very true." It's hardly something I haven't thought about before, but the very in-passing nature of the comment reflected the author's view of how life is for us, or for those of us who blog, kvetch, etc.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
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That's one reason that I don't kvetch much on-line. I'm actually a naturally upbeat person, so my down periods never last long, but I do have them. I suspect most of us do.

But if we blog at all, it's because we want to reach out and touch people, so we have to give something of ourselves...even if it is our neuroses... ;o)

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Ada Milenkovic Brown

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from: accordingto_ada
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
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I've decided I can't give up. It's too late. I may not succeed, but I don't have the luxury of moaning in corners any more. I'm 55, I no longer have the stamina to do what a person in their 40's can do in a day. If I want to ever have a career, I have to keep going, and even then I may still never have a career's worth of publications, but if I stop, I definitely won't.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm in sort of the same boat, because if I go back to teaching math, I'll get stuck with the very worst classes...Algebra for Dummies...and that prospect is too horrible to contemplate!

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MG Ellington

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from: xjenavivex
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)
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Perfect post. Thank you.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome ;o)

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Wendy S. Delmater

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from: safewrite
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC)
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Reverse schadenfreude. Great way of putting it.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
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My husband's wording, not mine. He's brilliant ;o)

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jakobdrud

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from: jakobdrud
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
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Very well said. It really hit somthing I recognize. It's worth remembering that in a lot of jobs it's ok to have an off-day (or an off-week or an off-month), but when we're the only one at the desk, it's impossible to ignore 'the slacker'. That's tough.

Btw. Silly Me couldn't help wondering how a burglar would phrase your post. I mean, they're self-employed too, right? ("My best friend just broke into this huge big mansion, and I've been doing flats for I don't know how long now, and the cops are the only ones who think I'm any good, and it's not like I can share my successes on the web...") Ok, better stop there.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:14 pm (UTC)
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I suspect there's a story in that last part...

Yes. We generally don't get vacations, either.

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Laurel Amberdine

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from: amberdine
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
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FWIW, instant messaging with someone you trust is a pretty good angst conduit. :)

At the moment, I'm pretty much immune to the so-aptly-named reverse schadenfreude, but I don't know if that's because my spirit broke under the years of non-achievement, I've matured past it, or it's just temporary because I'm not working on much lately.

I can say it IS nice to be able to be genuinely happy for someone. Especially because I have an exceptional ability to locate and befriend soon-to-be-successful writers. I ought to be an agent or something.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC)
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There are times when the angst doesn't bother me either. It seems to come in waves (perhaps tied to the biorhythm, or something...although I'm not sure I beleive in biorhythms...)

I've been studying this reaction for a while now, and it's odd to me when it strikes...and when it doesn't. There are people who do things, and I'm purely happy for them, wihtout any refelction on myself. Other times this above reaction is provoked. I find it the oddest when I'm upset by someone who succeeds where I didn't even try. (Like selling to a magazine to which I've never submitted...why would that even remotely bother me?) So I know it's not a logical reaction at all. But I truly am happy for the folk who are succeeding...honestly ;o)

Not working on much lately? I'm surprised. You've had some really interesting posts...which I'd thought were indicative of Deep Thought...a place I rarely go!

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Snuffy LaRue

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from: jess_ka
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC)
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If we were good, we would be successful. If we were good enough, that is. So every time someone achieves what we have not, it must be a sign that we're not working hard enough, we're not writing fast enough, we're not smart enough, clever enough, novel enough, interesting enough....

Yup... It can be hard to separate yourself and remember not to compare, very hard.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC)
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Yes, and I think it's in our nature to do so, so we have to fight it...

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(Deleted comment)

J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
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I love your icon ;o)

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(Deleted comment)

asakiyume

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from: asakiyume
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
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This is part of why I'm not fond of the stream of conversation that stresses how all the people who have succeeded have worked very very hard and revised tirelessly, etc. etc. That's not that part that I mind: that part I believe! It's the unspoken corollary: that if you're not published (or not published in the super-popular venues, or not published with a top-flight publisher, or not published NINE TIMES or whatever), its because of some lack on your part.

That's not to say that we don't have flaws. Everyone can always improve. Pick your iconic writer--whoever she or he is. Even that person can improve! So that's a given. But if you're not achieving as much as so-and-so, it's not necessarily because you're a lazy layabout or have no gift for words.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC)
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And there's always going to be someome more successful--on some level--to compare ourselves with. If not on one scale, then another...

I do believe that hard work is important, but there are a lot of other factors that enter the mix.

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S Lynn

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from: robling_t
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 08:51 pm (UTC)
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Basically, we work hard to get ahead, because those who get ahead are the ones predestined for salvation. If we're not getting ahead, then, well....we must be sinners. Therefore visible signs of success are what show our inner goodness. (So we have to keep working harder to get ahead for the sake of....getting ahead.)

Oh, god, yeah. And then if you're in the arts it's compounded by the whole "but that's not a REAL job" BS where if you're not successful it's because you're a bum who wants to eat bonbons on the sofa all day write stories instead of sweeping streets like a proper god-fearing citizen, and if you do manage to make a go of it it's either luck or everyone who'd rather have been writing than sweeping streets like a proper god-fearing citizen resents you for it... or both.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
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Oh, so very true...no one thinks I do any sort of work. I just do that 'little writing thing'...

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Pam

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from: musingaloud
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
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I was just thinking about fate the other day. Sometimes I do believe in it, things are destined to be a certain way and things always work out for the best, even if it doesn't feel it at the time. But when it comes to my writing, I find I don't want to believe in fate after all (unless, of course, it means I'm fated to publish, and then it's all good).

Ok, that doesn't make a lot of sense, but I'm with you the whole way.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC)
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We spent a lot of time in college, arguing free will versus predestination, and 25 years later, I still don't know what I think....but I definitely learn toward free will. (Unless, of course, I'm fated to publish.)

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Sophy Z.S. Adani

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from: alaneer
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 09:50 pm (UTC)
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Great post, and yes to most.

In my case I often rant about why I hadn't started writing 10-15 years earlier.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 11:36 pm (UTC)
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Yes, can you imagine where we'd be if we'd started writing (for publication) in college? Then again, we'd have very different lives, and that's not something I'm sure I'd like...

Edited at 2010-02-18 11:36 pm (UTC)

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melissajm

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from: melissajm
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
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Goodness, yes. I can honestly be happy for someone, and then think "...but then what am I doing wrong?"

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 18th, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
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It's such a strange feeling...and we know it's not a socially acceptable reaction, so we're a little ashamed as well...

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displacedtexan

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from: displacedtexan
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 12:18 am (UTC)
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I'm very happy to listen to your reverse schadenfreude. After all, if you can't rant to me, you're left with Mr. Loki, and while he's a good listener, he's not very empathetic.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 12:21 am (UTC)
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That is true--empathy is not one of his strong suits. Thanks ;o)

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isleburroughs

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from: isleburroughs
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 12:44 am (UTC)
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Just think of nine impossible things. Twenty seven years ago I had a fellow student who wanted to become a neurosurgeon to fix his/her mildly retarded brain. At the time I thought hmmmm...that's about as possible as me becoming an astrophysicist or a published s.f. writer for that matter. But I never gave up on the latter of course.

And now that impossible thing could be possible.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 12:48 am (UTC)
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Interesting...

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kellymccullough

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from: kellymccullough
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)
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Very nicely done.

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J. Kathleen Cheney

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from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 02:38 am (UTC)
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Thanks ;o)

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(Deleted comment)

(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 04:07 am (UTC)
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There are some people I want to see succeed so much my teeth ache (Not like yours, of course...metaphorically) and that is mostly the 'they earned it" perception, although the 'they've had so many hard breaks' also figures in that as well ;o)

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kara_gnome

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from: kara_gnome
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
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A friend of mine loves this certain author--loves her with a love that is greater than love, huge, huge love, right? She keeps trying to turn me on to the joys of this author, and I try, I really do, but everything I've read so far is so thin, so insipid...the point is, though, is that there's plenty of readers and writers to go around :) This may sound very small, but just knowing this makes it an easy trick to be genuinely happy for another writer's success.

Blogging also allows me to see the work and effort involved, and to admire that as well; oh, something like that :)

Well, great post, awesome!

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J. Kathleen Cheney

(no subject)

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 19th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
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Glad you liked it.

It's really not approrpiate to call this emotion envy, I think, because no one else ever achieves our success. They achieve a different success, a separate one, because we all write different things....so we can't truly want theirs...

This is a more insipid emotion altogether. ;o)

Edited at 2010-02-19 02:19 pm (UTC)

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Schadenfreude -

from: anonymous
date: Feb. 22nd, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
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J. Kathleen,
Still not sure what that means, although I enjoyed reading your comments. Nice to see you at a NTRWA meeting. However, when I got home and opened the self-addressed envelope from Harlequin, it wasn't good news, just a form letter from an editor I'd met at national, so here I sit wondering where to go from here as I'm knee deep in a sequel, and 60,000 words isn't enough for any other market. Guess I'll keep writing and see how the sequel develops. Like your 55 year old commenter, I'm too old not to keep at it so I can accomplish something. Besides, what would I do with my early morning hours before work?
Carolyn Williamson
There IS Life After Lettuce
(and several romantic suspenses I'm hoping
will find an appreciative editor)

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J. Kathleen Cheney

Re: Schadenfreude -

from: j_cheney
date: Feb. 22nd, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
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Sorry you didn't have better news...I always quaver in fear when I see my self-addressed envelopes returning to me.

I'm the same way. I've committed to this course, so there's no turning back.

Sorry I didn't get a chance to chat, but I'm really looking forward to the DFWWW conference in April! J. Kathleen ;o)

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