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My co-worker bounces on the balls of her feet, trying to get my attention. I am struggling with a byline article that’s due Monday; a Mozart symphony I am not knowledgeable enough to name is cranked up in my headphones for focus. She taps my shoulder; I slide my headphones off.
“Mixtape! Mixtape!” she says. She is sweating and wide-eyed.
“Hamilton Mixtape!” The track list has been released and she has come to me, the other theater-nerd in the office, to share in her excitement.
“I know,” I say. “The Roots are all over it.”
“Regina Spektor. Do you know how much I love Regina Spektor? I’m like having a panic attack.” She’s not kidding, her forehead is sweaty, she continues to bounce, and her hands are visibly shaking. “Don’t judge me,” she says seeming to remember that we are in an office.
“I’m not. This is awesome,” I tell her honestly. What I don’t tell her is that I saw the list this morning, reading Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Twitter feed while I waited for the bus to work. I don’t mention that I turned off my Twitter and Facebook notifications the instant I saw it, that I can’t engage with this today, that I don’t have time for an artistic panic attack right now.
The ever-expanding body of work Miranda is putting out is enough to make anyone jealous. The same day the track list was announced, The Root’s co-founder, Black Thought (Tariq Luqmann Trotter), himself a revolutionary force in hip hop, tweeted “Every time I get a bunch of notifications & think I tweeted something dope, it’s just @Lin_Manuel tagged me in a post.” Black Thought went on to say that he was going to spend the day replying to all of Miranda’s followers, a herculean task.
The artistic panic attack that nags at the base of my skull wonders if I’ll have anything to add to this conversation. The playful exchange between these two musicians at the top of their game is like a cool kids table with a cover charge of a few Grammy Awards and decades of performing in a language that changed the vernacular of popular culture. I look down at my tray of well-placed marketing copy and half-finished short stories and take my seat with the thousands of other writers attempting to be clever enough to get a re-tweet from one of these giants. Being re-tweeted by Miranda or Black Thought is equivalent to taking a milk break at their table, #NerdCulturePayDirt.
Once or twice, I admit to trying, always with a healthy sense of worry about being annoying, acutely aware that my input is unnecessary to their creative process. But I can’t stop myself, driven by a desire to shorten the distance between my work and theirs. As a white girl corporate ghostwriter in Seattle, I couldn’t be further away if I was working in pig latin.
Artistic jealousy is not logical, nor should it be confused with inspiration which is a benevolent but unreliable phenomenon. Artistic jealousy is a powerful anxiety that looks at examples of brilliance and asks “When are you going to make something like that?” It is the overwhelming sense of pressure to produce something of substance, any work of art that is necessary to the cultural conversation. It is a constant ticking clock when you compare your age to the age of your heroes, and an acute understanding of the distance between the work you are developing and the finished product of masters of their craft.
In her blog, Author Esmé Wang writes on the subject of artistic jealousy saying, “Most of us working in creative fields know what we want. We know it in a way that burns.” Lose control of the damper that keeps that burning in check and you have the makings of an artistic panic attack. On the day the Hamilton Mixtape track list is announced, I turned off my Twitter feed to keep control of the damper. Of course, I know it’s there, that unique way Miranda is wearing his success, that appearance of effortlessness that Black Thought commands, those triggers that set me into a panic only involve unlocking my phone.
My first artistic panic attack happened when I was in college, I had convinced my roommates to watch the HBO production of Angels in America. We piled onto a scratchy fourth-hand couch to watch the DVD on a ten-inch television, with an open case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. We had come as far as Perestroika, the show’s second three-hour half. I had read the play. I knew what was coming. As Roy Cohen’s death drew closer, I began to get anxious, my stomach twisting into knots every time the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg showed up, is this where it happened? No. No, remember it’s Louis who says the prayer. The perfectly intoned Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, led by the ghost of Rosenberg, finished without a separating breath by “You son of a bitch.” It was perfect. It was brilliant. I was crying. My roommates were confused.
I left the room, my roommates, and an unfinished beer. I went to my bedroom, pulled my copy of Angels in America from the shelf, reread the line, opened my own neglected notebook and wrote. I wrote dreck—I wrote the kind of thing you write when you are trying to be great. My breath quickened, I felt sick and dizzy. I realized I was having a panic attack. The rest of the semester, everything I wrote was an homage to Kushner in some way or another, none of it was particularly good, but I wrote more than I had in a year.
This problem is not new, a 1989 New York Times article by Bonita Friedman details the potentially debilitating effect of writer’s jealousy. Historically jealous artists have created master works, Neil Cassidy’s First Third was born out of a desire to be like Jack Kerouac, and image robbing Frida Kahlo of her jealous responses to Diego Rivera.
“Sometimes the only reason I write is jealousy,” my friend Leigh texted me. She is a PhD. student shopping a manuscript. I had taken a break from texting her my daily page count to discuss the particularly snappy title of a former classmate’s recent publication. We both wished we’d thought of it first.
“I’m jealous of you,” I wrote back. “I’m jealous of anybody that has a finished manuscript.”
“You are one of my favorite people on earth,” she replied, which is the way she says thank you.
Leigh’s book will come out long before I have so much as a literary agent. I will be sufficiently jealous, and have plans to tweet every review she receives with photos of me in a jealous rage. She has worked for years and the best way I celebrate her is to mimic being unhinged by her reaching the goal line before me.
Artistic jealousy is the motivation to keep writing when the inspiration is long gone. I rely on Miranda and his genuine effort to encourage his fan base to value and pursue art, checking for his daily affirmations while commuting more than an hour so I can work a job that pays me to write.
When I’m home, I catch up on the thread. I listen to Hamilton, read Nobel Prize winners and my friend’s newly published works, I intentionally kick the damper off that burning envy and let myself be overtaken with artistic jealousy. I have to turn the music off, put the other books away, once I get going because it is too distracting be surrounded by those completely perfect lines. I write until I can’t make myself continue, or until my husband comes home from the dinner shift and I am reminded that my alarm goes off at five every morning.
The next morning, Miranda’s twitter feed is there to greet me. Two of the songs from the Hamilton Mixtape were leaked at midnight East Coast time. My co-worker comes in with headphones on.
“Did you listen to it?”
“Right now.” She answers without turning off the music. “It’s so good.”
“Have you heard Kelly Clarkson doing It’s Quiet Uptown?” I ask
“No, this is Busta Rhymes.”
“Don’t listen to the Kelly Clarkson cover in the office,” I warn. “You’ll cry.”