All the Time I’ve Wasted Watching the Better Versions of Me

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Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.

A while back, I searched my Gmail archive for the words I hate. I was trying to unearth the kind of ugly, grasping email I am prone to sending when my already tenuous sense of self-worth runs up against, say, a particularly well-lit photograph of a beautiful girl at a party I was not invited to, or a sharply written piece of criticism in the print version of a magazine whose online culture editor still has not responded to my pitch, even though it’s been two weeks and I’ve sent a gently nudging follow-up email. After skimming roughly 500 emails, I came to the conclusion that past me was clever enough to be less obvious about her envy, to use words less cruelly blatant. The things past me — and, let’s be honest, in plenty of cases present me as well — is unashamed of hating are more quotidian. Past me hates making new friends. She hates change and her apartment and most people — no, everyone. She hates making decisions and her job and fun. She hates — I hate — myself and my brain. She hates everything.

This discovery prompted two revelations — apart from the obvious, that I am a person who loathes with a distressing kind of glee, which was no revelation at all. One, that even a person who will declare her hatred of most things in ALL CAPS and festoon this declaration with a flurry of exclamation points, even she tries to be coy about the foul competitive gut-punch of a feeling that, in the face of another’s perceived success, cries out, Why not me? Two, that the emails I found, in all their hyperbolic self-loathing, were in fact the emails I had sought. From the hollow pit of my stomach comes that obscene why not me? From my brain comes the answer, in ALL CAPS: You could never be that person smiling easily at a party; yours could never be the name typed neatly in ten-point Old Hoefler above the 4,000-word review. The person behind that smile, that name, makes friends and decisions easily. She’s hung prints up behind real glass on the walls of her living room and she has the job she wants, or is well on her way to getting it. She embraces change and fun. Hating people is beneath her. She would never hate her brain, or her self. How could she? Look at that smile! At that name! Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point!

***

I say “the person,” but the person is a woman, always or almost always. Not that men don’t smile easily at parties, or have names that appear above 4,000-word reviews — they do, of course, all too often — but rarely do I find that male triumphs stoke the sick flames of envy as do those of their female counterparts.

I thought about this as I read Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” which was originally delivered as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. Watkins writes about watching boys, first as a girl — watching them “play the drums, guitar, sing … play football, baseball, soccer, pool, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering” — then as a writer, watching Melville, Salinger, Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, Hardy, Carver, Nabokov, Pynchon. Watching “to learn.” “I have been,” Watkins writes, “reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.”

Reading Watkins’s essay I thought two things: One, that she was right, that her experience was true to my own, that I have watched boys as a girl and as a young adult — there is a short story to be written about the time, in college, when I went home with a boy and then watched him play Guitar Hero with his roommate for 20 minutes before we had sex — and as a woman and as a writer. But two, that she had elided one consequence of this watching — or perhaps not elided, for perhaps Claire Vaye Watkins’s misogyny is not as thoroughly ingrained as my own — which is that it encourages competition with other women. I have been competing, my whole life, with and through other women, for the attention of men who have no idea I exist. Competing for the attention of an omnipresent male gaze that, I have always assumed, can rest on just one woman at a time. Grasping for the one female slot. (This male gaze, in my imagination, is straight, white, and cisgender, and while I can only speak to my own experience, I imagine it must be even more challenging for the many people further away than I am — as a straight, white, cisgender woman — from the cultural default to land one of the few slots conceded to those in any way “other.”)

I have never wanted to be “one of the boys,” never yearned for anything so impossibly grand. My ambitions have always been more modest: to be the one the boys notice, and therefore anoint.

***

One of the problems with trying to be a writer — a female writer — in New York is that the city feels glutted with other versions of yourself, trying to do precisely the same thing: women you have met, or will meet, women with whom you may share friends or an editor, women you follow on Twitter, where they link to articles they have written, and on Instagram, where they post pictures of the notebooks in which those articles were, presumably, drafted.“I feel so crowded,” I wrote to a friend, “so many people [are] trying not just to be a person — but trying to be the exact person I want to be.” In a GChat conversation with another: “Great to know [redacted] is just a better version of me. Great great GREAT.”

Not long after I moved to New York, an acquaintance of mine posted a link on Facebook to a review she had published, in a national magazine, of one of that fall’s big books. I read the piece through a veil of desire and hatred so potent it was nausea-inducing; it also made it impossible for me to tell whether her analysis was any good. Envy had completely knocked out my critical faculties.

I was reminded of this humiliating moment — the moment of self-centered self-flagellation in which I transformed a piece of literary criticism into a personal rebuke — reading a book review Sarah Manguso wrote for the New York Times on her own struggle with writerly envy. Truthfully, I was reminded twice: First, when I saw Manguso’s piece being shared and posted, on Twitter and Facebook, and felt a panicked twinge; and then again when, nearly a month later, I finally ginned up the courage to read it.

In her essay, Manguso succinctly describes the essential thought behind one writer’s envy for another: “He doesn’t deserve that … but I might.” In other words: Why not me? This is what I felt, as I skimmed my acquaintance’s prose. The essay’s very existence was an affront. I could barely see the words on the page; I could only see that name, in print, and the success it testified to, the life I imagined it represented. For it is an embarrassing fact that my envy focuses not necessarily on writers whose work I admire, but on those whose performance of the writer’s life I find convincing. This performance includes bylines, yes, but it also includes photographs of writing desks — four blooms in a clear vase atop a blond-wood table, light streaming through a window, photographs pinned, in artful disorder, to the wall — of perfectly manicured nails below an underlined sentence in a book. There are moments when the work, terrifyingly, seems to recede into the background; when what obsesses me is appearing, to the world, like a person who might create that work.

In this state of mind, being published does not help, not because there is always someone else who has published something better (though that is also, definitely true), but because, whatever I publish, I remain the person whose dresser is covered in dust and detritus and whose jeans are coming apart at the crotch; the person who writes in bed and bites her fingernails and hasn’t showered in days; the person who procrastinated for weeks before sitting down to write so that she could blame the deficiencies of her eventual piece on not having had the time to get it right. I remain, in short, myself; and I know myself to be inadequate.

I have wasted a lot of time on envy. And I expect I will waste more. Because to want to be published — and I do want to be published, as shaming as that admission is — is to want not merely to write but also to be seen.