Writers’ Ten Commandments #10: You Shall Not Covet

This series is about breaking the Ten Commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #10: You shall not covet . . . anything that is your neighbor’s.

A lot of what we might say here is pretty close to what we’ve said about other commandments.

At some point, your characters are probably going to do some coveting. In #1, we talked about characters having a compelling desire for something. That could be something that belongs to the character’s neighbor—for example, his wife, which takes us back to #7.

We as writers should, in a sense, covet the successful elements of our neighbors’ writing. In fact, we should go beyond coveting and steal them, as we discussed in #8.

But there is an area in which it really is not to our benefit or anyone else’s to covet. We should never covet our neighbor writer’s artistic or professional success.

If you’ve read any writing advice at all, you’ve probably heard this before. Envying other writers is poison to the soul. Every writer has his or her own background, style, genre, level of skill and talent, and career path. We can learn from each other, but to compare ourselves to others or expect ourselves to be like others is certain death.

This is true regardless of whether you consider yourself superior or inferior to the other. If you think you’re better than another writer—even if it’s true—you leave yourself open to the sin of pride. If you think you’re a better writer than someone whose career is currently more successful than yours, you could end up with a festering sore of resentment that will make your life miserable, stifle your creativity, and alienate your friends, colleagues, and potential publishers.

If you think you’re inferior to another writer, you may well be right. We all have our superiors. Even the greatest writers might have looked to another writer as being better in some particular area.

If you take this feeling and use it inspire yourself to become the best writer you personally can be, wonderful! But if you let it depress you—if you start thinking, “I’ll never be as good as [fill in the blank], so what’s the point of trying”—you’ve just uttered a self-fulfilling prophecy and shot your writing career in the foot.

And if you use your feeling of inferiority to try to become exactly like the other writer, you’ll ruin yourself artistically. You are not that other writer. You have different circumstances, experiences, and natural endowments. You see the world, and communicate what you see, in your own unique way.

And why would you want to write exactly like her, anyway? What she had to say has already been said, or is in the process of being said if she’s still alive. You need to say what you have to say, in the way that is unique to you.

If you truly have nothing unique to say, why are you writing? Do yourself a favor and find a career with less heartache and more earning potential.

As for the whole roulette wheel that is publishing these days, don’t waste energy envying someone else’s position on the wheel. They could fall to the bottom on the very next spin—and you could rise to the top. But even if you don’t, know that the place you are is the place you need to be right now, for reasons you may never understand this side of heaven.

Worldly success is a chimera anyway. If you found out tomorrow that you were going to die of cancer in one month, would you spend that month desperately struggling to get published or to make the bestsellers list? I hope not. I hope you’d spend it lavishing love on your family and friends and tending to the condition of your immortal soul.

Many years ago in school I memorized Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” One of the many items in Kipling’s list of things one must do to “be a man” (or, I would say, a strong and virtuous woman) is:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same . . .

Forget the triumph, forget the disaster. Just write. Write your heart out, write your best, and someday some poor benighted young writer will be coveting you.

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