With a Little Help From My Enemies

December 01, 2005

My college offers new faculty members monthly meetings on "Life on the Tenure Track" that push the kind of advice I often give my graduate students in creative writing: Put your writing ahead of your teaching, write a little every day, give yourself deadlines. Practical advice. Advice that's easy to ignore.

I prefer the wisdom once offered me by my high-school track coach: "You need more enemies."

Hate can fuel you, all right. Rage, too. But an even stronger motivator, I find, is jealousy. The younger sister to a genius brother, I quickly learned that the successes of those you love are a much greater spur than the successes of those you hate. He was an editor for our high-school literary magazine; I was editor-in-chief. His Science Olympiad team won the state championship; mine won the nationals. He went to Cornell; I went to Princeton.

At the time, I was unaware of my tendency to edge past each of my brother's accomplishments. Only around the era of my 10-year high-school reunion did my parents point out a truth they had been laughing about for years. I was appalled.

I was a competitor who didn't like to think of herself as competitive. It seemed ugly.

Now fast-forward to 2005. I had been working on a novel for more years than I chose to admit, and while my work had been steady, I knew it could be faster. The amount of time the project had taken had caused me to lose much of my drive. And the threat of coming up for tenure in a handful of years wasn't enough to get that drive back.

That's why a nemesis seemed like a good idea. Someone to hate who deserved to be hated. Someone I wanted to beat.

The problem was, as a writer and, hopefully, a decent person, I'd been trained to see the humanity in everyone. Having a nemesis required the inability to imagine that an award-winning author might deserve her acclaim.

At the time, my 5-year-old nephew was very busy running his own Superhero Office, which was saving the world from Pooky, a villain who, as depicted by my nephew in crayon, consisted of some very large, creepy eyes and bristling hair. My nephew's campaign to defeat Pooky was all-out and brutal, but I kept wondering what had happened to make Pooky the way he was and whether I could redeem him once caught. I kept thinking that maybe other people deserved to publish novels and I didn't.

I needed more enemies. I needed a Pooky of my own.

But years of receiving the Princeton Alumni Weekly had also worn me down. A Princeton graduate learns pretty quickly to feel small in the pool of her peers. By this point, my college mates had so out-succeeded me that I had turned from jealous to complacent. One had become a regular for The New Yorker; one had won a MacArthur genius grant; one had married Jeff Bezos, best known for founding, and had then proceeded to write a beautiful novel of her own; another's first novel became the mega-selling Good in Bed. Some kids much younger than I had written novels titled Everything Is Illuminated and The Rule of Four.

I was publishing stories in literary magazines that weren't sold in stores and entering year 5000 of writing my novel. Choosing a nemesis from among my fellow alumni would have been like choosing to compete against Tiger Woods.

And then it happened.

The 16-year-old daughter of one of my former professors -- a girl for whom I had baby-sat while I was a graduate student -- published a novel. With Random House.

I had seen the file on her computer screen years before. Kelly's novel. I had smiled. How cute, I had thought. And now she had finished her novel, and I hadn't finished my own.

Suddenly I began to write as if my chair were on fire. I wrote a chapter a week. I wrote, I wrote, I wrote. For the first time in a long time, I cared about my novel again. I actually wanted to write. And eventually I began sitting down at my desk with pleasure, without needing the spur of jealousy to put me there. But it sure did help.

Was she really my nemesis? Of course not. She was 16; she was a girl I had had fun with, someone I truly liked, a girl I wanted to succeed.

It turned out, for me, that the best model of jealousy-driven inspiration remained the McCartney-Lennon one -- in this instance, known as Bucak-Bucak. If only my brother had published a novel at 16, I would have had mine done at 15.

At a conference last summer I heard the poet Edward Hirsch say hardly any writers reach the "roof of their potential" because they don't work hard enough. One of the frustrations of being a creative writer on the tenure track is that you start to think of publication as your goal. It's easy to forget your real goal: artistic integrity, great work, work that deserves to be read today and tomorrow. Your real goal is the "roof of your potential."

Sometimes I wish those "Life on the Tenure Track" meetings would skip all of the practical advice. I wish we would all sit in a circle and read from our favorite works. Then wouldn't we all want to go home and write? Isn't that what made us writers in the first place? Jealousy?

Most of my colleagues are not creative writers -- they are literature scholars, historians, and sociologists, but surely they have their equivalent inspirations. Rather than warning against failure, our meetings could model success. I don't need any more practical advice: What I need is inspiration.

During the three years I was a graduate student, every one of my writing professors published a book. And they were fantastic teachers. Kelly's mother, a novelist who was then director of the graduate-writing program, used to write every morning at 4:30 a.m. Now that I am on the tenure track, I recognize how astonishing those accomplishments were. Those faculty members, more than anyone or anything else, remain my models for what I can and should do.

It's not that writing my novel has gotten any easier, nor does it go significantly faster. But it's fun and interesting again. A challenge that I take on out of daily desire rather than daily obligation. Being beat to the publisher by a 16-year-old reminded me of my own 16-year-old self who could barely dare to imagine that one day she might get to write for a living.

When I finally read Kelly's novel (which, by the way, is for young adults), to my horror and my joy, I liked it. It wasn't perfect, but it was professional. It deserved to be published. I turned from jealous to impressed and proud. It was as if one of my own students had published a novel. And I look forward to the day one of them does.

As long as I publish mine first.

A. Papatya Bucak is an assistant professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.