Megan McGrath is the author of the novella, Whale Station, and winner of the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Her acclaimed short work is published in literary journals and anthologies including Griffith REVIEW, Meanjin, Seizure, Tracks, Writing Queensland and Tincture Journal, among others. Follow Megan on Twitter @megansfictions or visit her website megansfictions.com.
This is the first in a three-part series of columns on literary jealousy. This part appeared in Issue Thirteen and the rest will appear in the journal throughout the year. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
I was in a foul mood when I went to buy Dave Burton’s How To Be Happy. The relentless heat had forced me away from my West End independents and into the air-con at Indooroopilly Shopping Town. In Dymocks, the book wasn’t shelved in YA or Australian Biographies, so I asked the elderly shop-clerk where it might be. I followed her to the Children’s Non-Fiction section where a few copies were squeezed between the DK history books and a make-your-own-skeleton kit. “Weird place to shelve it,” I said. She looked at me like I’d never read a book in my life. And worse, like I really needed this one.
At the counter she looked me in the eye and said, “You take care, OK?” Take care? I was reading the book because it won the Text Prize and Burton was a local artist doing great things for our community. Take care? I didn’t need to know how to be happy—I was happy. Three months ago I got engaged in Paris. Two months ago I won the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award (QPYPWA). Last month I hiked the Grand Canyon.
OK. Maybe, to steal the first line of How To Be Happy, I’ve lied to you already. Maybe I wasn’t reading his book just because he was a talented local artist. Maybe I was jealous.
I’d been jealous before. Mostly of other emerging twenty-something writers who seemed to know more about feminism than me, and who had friends riding the desks at all the right journals. I had been so jealous in 2014 that I considered giving up the writing game for good; I couldn’t seem to get a break, while another writer I knew was publishing work all over the place. In Overland last year, Stephanie Convery wrote of the jealousy she felt at her frenemy’s success: “Of all human emotions, jealousy is the ugliest, the least dignified, the most destructive”. Destructive indeed—my professional jealousy was all-consuming, isolating, and I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to change.
Winning the QPYPWA was a start. Unlike many other development awards, the QPYPWA is awarded for an existing body work rather than a draft manuscript, meaning I now had a bunch of money and support to create something worthwhile. I wanted to write my first novel, but with so many stunning debuts by young Australians published in the last few of years, I knew I’d have to convert my jealousy to fuel if I was to craft something worthy. After finishing How To Be Happy, I decided to connect with some of the debut authors who were making me green. David Burton was my first step.
Convery wrote: “The need to self-promote and network in order to publish, coupled with the human desire for a community of peers, results in a social dynamic that is never entirely professional and never quite friendly”. When I was paired with Burton on a panel at the Queensland Writers Centre, I was determined to prove Convery wrong. I would be professional and friendly. I’d celebrate Burton and his successes, and speak openly of my own. And I would not, even for a second, be jealous.
On stage, it was pretty clear the audience was there for him. While I was speaking about my novella, Whale station, a young man raised his hand and said, “I have a question … for the gentleman”. I swallowed the rest of my sentence and tried not to death-stare the kid as I said, “Sure, go ahead”, as if I was moderating a festival session. No, I wasn’t cured.
Afterwards, I reflected on what Burton had said in the session. About how he had been physically moved to write this book. And the book was good. I already knew How To Be Happy was heartfelt, compassionate, honest and funny.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say”, and I knew Burton was a writer with plenty to talk about, including his unique upbringing, struggle with depression and his sexuality. In his own words, How To Be Happy takes “the experiences of youth and makes them explicit and presents them honestly: depression, anxiety, sexuality, etc. I’ve just seen too many young people be traumatised by the cultural silence around this stuff.” How could I compete with that? I was a middle-class white girl with good teeth and enough of a drinking problem to be considered normal. Against Burton, against anyone, what did I have to say? Was the novel I wanted to write valid? Was it going to contribute something worthy to Australian literary culture, or was I just making noise?
In the week following our panel, I asked Burton about his experience debuting and if he’d ever had any of the crazy feelings I’d had. Throughout How To Be Happy, Burton spoke of his peers with shining admiration, but to me he admitted he compared himself to others all the time. Of course, he did so in a constructive way. While I was wasting time being a two-headed snake, Burton had found a way to be proactive. “The most helpful thing I’ve done recently is compare myself by age. So I’ll look up what Steinbeck or Twain or even Rowling was doing at twenty-eight and compare where I’m up to in my life.”
He was right. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to publish a novel before I was thirty, when most of my idols didn’t release substantial work until later in life (J.G. Ballard, thirty-two, Raymond Chandler, forty-four, Mary Wesley, seventy-one).
“The big life lesson, for me, is to accept what’s good when it comes to you,” Burton added. With a year of funded professional development ahead, I was in the midst of a good thing, and Burton’s honest advice had transformed some of my jealously into admiration. With this first step being a success I wanted to know more ways to combat professional jealousy and restore my sense of validity. The only question was, who was next?
Read more: www.daveburton.com.au