Chanel Dubofsky: So, Sarah Seltzer. I’d like to talk about professional jealousy. Do you experience this? If not, this will be a short conversation.
Sarah Seltzer: Haha. Yes, everyone has this problem, right? Particularly in our Facebook age. It is sometimes potent for me because I have a limb in different professions. I envy people who are totally devoted to one subject, because they can hone a “brand” and be known in a shorthand way, like “person X, he is a civil liberties activist.” Sometimes I feel like I’m all over the place, so no brand for me. What about you?
CD: I am constantly professionally jealous, even though I theoretically know that numerous people can do the same kind of work. Everyone has a unique perspective, and someone else’s work doesn’t take away from what I’m doing. But I don’t always remember that, and I’m not proud. How do you deal with it?
SS: Well this is what I tell myself when I feel the prick of envy: you forget that everyone doesn’t see these invisible hierarchies and networks that you do.
Especially when you live somewhere like New York, which is a media and publishing and finance and theater and legal hub. People are focused on their own industries! Once at a party when some new acquaintances found out I had a part time job, freelanced and was getting an MFA, they were like “your life is awesome.” And was like “why would you say that? I can’t append a two-word tagline to my name!” And then I considered it and I felt SO VALIDATED because I’ve worked hard to craft a meaningful existence and that’s not easily measurable, not the way being a darling of a specific industry is.
CD: Yes it is good to remember that, no matter how jealous you are of others, it is very likely there is someone who is jealous of you. We may be always thinking how much better we could be doing, but not everyone sees it that way. I am, for example, mostly professional jealous of people who are making their entire living writing because, let’s be real, I am only interested in doing that. But that I’m making any money from writing is also something to be proud of.
SS: Dreams are important, but rent is too, and not feeling dependent is very, very important, at least to me.
CD: Yes! There’s this idea that there’s a way that your career has to look, and I’m constantly having to remind myself that I am the boss of me. I decide how it looks. And people tend to see freelancing as really scary, so, you know, we are actually brave.
SS: We are! I am working 24 hours a week in an office now and it’s great. BUT my years of being a free agent were awesome. I could run out and cover a protest if I wanted. I could take my work outdoors and lie on the grass. That freedom, for me, has a value that has to be weighed against money and respect. That’s a frequent balancing act we face as writers, isn’t it? Do you have a rule about working for free?
CD: My rule about working for free is that if I’m not doing something for money, I have to be doing it to expand my audience or because it’s fun. I am not allowed to do free things because I feel flattered to have been asked (I have to keep telling myself this). What about you?
SS: If it’s short and gives me pleasure and a reputation or resume booster, I’ll do it. If it’s really eating into my paid writing time which is now limited, I won’t.
CD: It took me a while to get to the point where I acknowledged that writing for free had advantages that I could talk about. I didn’t want to admit that I did it for a while. There is such a stigma about money and respect, and I felt like admitting I didn’t get paid also meant admitting my work wasn’t worthy of respect. I believe in negotiation, and asking for money, particularly for women, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that (often) not being able to pay people has a larger context based on ideas of what’s valuable. I write about gender and feminism, but that space on the internet is generally non paying. (There are exceptions, of course.)
SS: What triggers your jealousy? I get jealous of people who don’t have outward doubt. I get hamstrung asking myself, “Shouldn’t I be helping save the world instead of advancing myself? Why am I writing a meandering piece about a novel when I should be exposing corruption? And of course what does it matter, death is coming for us all so I should go lie in the grass.” (I like lying in the grass). And then I see people out there steadily doing their thing and I want to say, “Can I lend you these existential saddlebags for a bit?”
CD: Yeah, people who front really well get to me. People with seemingly unshakeable confidence in their work and in general. I have to remind myself that they have days when they’re unsure of themselves, too. (Right?) Although, I also think you kind of have to be able to project that kind of confidence even if you don’t have it. Faking it until you make it is a thing.
SS: It is. That is sometimes harder for women. We have “imposter syndrome” as they say.
CD: Do you have any tricks or mantras?
SS: My partner introduced me to a trick that works for me to ward off envy: Asking, “Would you change places with person x” who has had some notable triumph? The answer is always no, no matter the triumph.
Also Lawrence Selden from the House of Mirth, says, “My idea of success is personal freedom. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit, that’s what I call success.” This is both Selden’s virtue and fatal flaw, but it was my high school yearbook quote and remains my mantra. For instance, I refused to take any unpaid internships, which would likely have helped me a lot career-wise. And yet here I am. I get paid—often—to write! I am so fucking lucky, and I recognize that.
CD: We are lucky! I feel lucky that I don’t have a kid or anyone to take care of, so I can take some risks and not get a “real job” just because that’s what “normal” people do, that’s how people are supposed to function, they go to an office every day.
SS: Yes! An anarcho-socialist direct democracy of the spirit is extreme. But a kingdom that rules over the spirit is brutal. In the middle there’s a nice republic where you balance the need to eat with the need to soar.
CD: I don’t think I have a mantra? I should probably get one? Other than “Write like a motherfucker,” which is borrowed from Cheryl Strayed. Although, that is a really good one and gets me through and over pretty often. Speaking of which, I am trying to rid myself of this idea of scarcity-that if I share, there’s less for me. That’s not true!
SS: That’s why I try to be generous and spread good karma and Tweet-boost other people. And then I get mad if they don’t return the favor. But it’s not a transaction.
CD: Yes! But with capitalism, everything is a transaction! Maybe a big part of overcoming the professional jealousy is learning how to rethink things. Especially in terms of what we do, writing about labor and feminism and the like. I don’t want to have bought into that crap, that there is only one way to be good at what you do,that there’s a prescribed path, a system. I love writing so much that I will do it no matter what, and that means breaking a lot of rules. And inventing some.
SS: The green-eyed monster lives in all of us! It’s part of being human. But the only thing you can control is yourself. I tell myself, “sit down and do the best job you can do.” On a good day, that works. On a bad day, well, there’s always schadenfreude—other people are bound to fail once in a while, aren’t they?