Making Friends With My Nemesis

Cover of Making Friends With My Nemesis

My nemesis doesn’t know she’s my nemesis. She doesn’t know me at all. We’ve never met, and to my knowledge she’s never heard my name. 

She isn’t imaginary. She’s a real person who lives in an idyllic place a few hours from my front door. She posts photos of herself on Instagram with sunbeams streaming from the corners of the frames, and her captions are light, witty, almost flippant, made to be consumed and shared out. She probably has a creek running through her backyard.

A mutual friend connected me with this woman a few years ago because we both had daughters with critical illnesses—hers long-recovered, mine newly diagnosed. My friend recommended I reach out to her—maybe you could be friends!

At the time, I didn’t have it in me to build new relationships. My daughter had cancer and our world was falling apart. I didn’t want to reach for this woman’s time and energy, a woman who seemed miles above me and who had already escaped the horrors we were moving through.

I followed her on Instagram and read all of her posts. She’s married, and seems to have a nice family. She dotes on her child, posting throwback photos of them painting together during hospital stays. The comments from her subscribers numbered in the hundreds as she appeared on magazine covers with her husband’s arm around her waist.

 

I started calling her my nemesis because in my mind we were pitted against one another. We had similar experiences, both aiming to write books about them, and she had an edge. The 20k at the top of her Instagram profile and a little blue checkmark next to her name bumped her into an echelon of writers I’d been trying to break into for years.

As a relatively unknown memoirist, the panic around platform and my lack of it haunted me—what if the body count on my social media was the line between publication and floundering? What if the little number at the top of our Instagram profiles could determine who would move forward into their future as a writer?

Shame around what I was writing fanned the flames of envy. My book is about my daughter’s cancer treatment and the mental health struggles I’d had during the years she was sick. I have an undercurrent running through me—a low hum of fear that the emotional honestly in my writing makes me seem like a monster. At a moment when most mothers would have found some inner strength within themselves, I crumbled. I knew mine was a narrative people were likely to resent.

I knew my nemesis was the kind of mother who would endure anything for her child, and in her strength, I saw my own inadequacies reflected back to me. I’d cared for my daughter during her illness, spent weeks with her in the hospital and continued working to maintain our insurance and income, but I’d also buckled under the pressure of it all. I drank too much and took up smoking again. I slept around with ex-boyfriends and spent nights sobbing into towels on the cold tile of my bathroom floor. I was terrified that she represented all that was light and wonderful about motherhood while I bore a much darker truth, and I was afraid hers was the story people would want to read.

In another context, someone sharing my experiences might feel like connection, but introduce publishing contracts into the mix and it becomes a competition. A decade of toxic writing culture and scarcity mindset underscored all of my fears. In graduate school, I was told over and over about how saturated the market was, how hard it is to publish a book. Toward the end of my program, lectures focused more on how to leverage language skills to find jobs outside of publishing books: copywriter roles, ESL education, and online course design were all on the table. Find ways of using your skills to build a career, the instructors said. Be a writer, but don’t write. I understood clearly that there was no room for any of us, and if I wanted to be a part of the landscape of authors I admired, I’d need to push my way in.

 

For years, I compulsively measured my potential against this woman’s accomplishments. Each scroll through her feed dropped a stone into my stomach. I can’t compete with her, I thought. She is light, small like a pixie, and I am a heavy, dark, dragging weight. She has a capital-P platform while I’ve had to inch my way to 1,000 Instagram followers. 

During the lulls in my workday, I’d imagine myself five years on, still struggling to place pieces with mid-tier lit mags. My stomach tightened as I thought about watching someone else tell the story I’d wanted to tell while I dropped years of my life into a job I was beginning to resent like coins into a slot machine.

I worked myself into such a state that I channeled my anxieties into a fiction manuscript—a genre I’d only ever dipped my toes into. In it, a woman spends her life attending to her children, her aging parents, a job she feels lukewarm about. She chips away at a writing life submission after submission, stacking rejection after rejection but never giving up. A week after she retires to pursue her dream of writing a book, she is hit by a car and dies. She spends the rest of the novel stuck in the purgatory of a ghost-existence trying to learn to accept the life she lived instead of the one she’d imagined for herself. The book fell out of me and onto the page over a few weeks, a manifestation of all the fear and anxiety I’d been harboring.

 

When I was laid off from the job I hoped I wouldn’t die working at the end of 2023, I decided to take a year to write and query my first book. I took online workshops, scheduled strict and plentiful blocks of writing time, and started a newsletter. I published an essay a week and slowly climbed my way to fifty subscribers—the beginnings of my own little platform. Each time I checked that number on my Substack dashboard, I felt a quiet hope for my work’s place in the world. My anxieties quieted—I was on my path to my book, I was sure of it.

Three months after I started my newsletter, my nemesis posted her own newsletter launch announcement. Days later she restacked a note announcing she’d crossed the 1k subscriber milestone, complete with a little orange badge. I cried.

I thought about blocking her, pushing her and her content off of my desk entirely. It was impossible to focus on my own work while she seemed to slide easily into successes I was straining for. We’d been through similar experiences and I watched people flock to hers, offering reassurances—likes and comments by the dozen—while mine languished in the five or six like count.

What if her story is a hit and no one wants to read yours? my brain whispered to me in the empty hours when I turned to put my own words down on the page. What if she gets the bestseller sticker? The podcast interview invitations? The movie deal?

An immediacy crawled up my spine in these moments, sending me into a spiral of panic. I imagined what she might be doing:Did she have an agent yet? What conversations were happening behind the scenes that I couldn’t see? I dreaded an announcement—a screenshot of a Publisher’s Marketplace listing, a glowing Kirkus review. I wanted to fall through the floor. Book publication felt like a pie, and I saw her cutting slice after slice, piling them high on her plate, leaving me with crumbs.

 

I can’t run this race, I sobbed to a friend over the phone, my heart thumping in my throat. I want to give up.

Give what up? She shot back, annoyed. Liz, you haven’t done anything yet. And it’s not a race! You have your own story! Stop being ridiculous. Keep querying.

I knew in my heart that I was doing this all to myself, but I couldn’t turn away. I wanted to disengage, but I was afraid that if I missed a shred of information, I’d lose some advantage. 

I hate-scrolled my nemeis’s posts, picking them apart, ranting to a few close writer friends about my frustrations. The irrationality of it hung in the back of my mind, but the immediacy of my fears sat in the front row, nodding their agreement. I saw the shadow of my nemesis’s potential crowding out the space I’d imagined for myself. This woman was going to fuck everything up.

 

In one of her newsletters, my nemesis told a story of waiting in line for coffee at a cafe around the corner from her daughter’s doctor’s office. Behind her was another mother she recognized from the hospital. This other mother was grumpy, she wrote, never smiling, and always wore black hoodies with sharp, sarcastic sayings on them and Doc Martens with the laces dragging. She drew a contrast between her and this other mother, combat boots versus Boston Clogs.

This is me, I ranted to a writer friend over lunch one afternoon. I’m like the mom with the dragging boot laces! And she’s my clog-wearing nemesis!

My friend nodded vaguely, not caring about this woman or her stories about shoes, seeing my frustration for what it was. I pressed on, and for an hour we tossed dozens of placations back and forth over tables of mezze and bottles of wine. Platform can be anything, studies show social media numbers don’t necessarily convert into book sales, your voice is your own.

You think I’m crazy, I said, during a lull in the conversation.

Well you’re trying to write full-time, so yes. 

I looked at her across the table, my friend of over a decade patiently waiting for my rants to end so she could talk to me about the divorce she’d just filed for. I felt a flare of shame light up my chest. My friend put her hand on top of mine.

You’re the only person who can tell your story, she said, looking into my face, and then, you’re making this all up, you know.

 It felt like an egg cracked on the top of my head, yolk dripping down the sides of my face in sticky strings of realization: I didn’t have a nemesis. I’d just dragged some woman into conversations where she didn’t belong, placed her in opposition to myself, because I felt like I’d explode if I didn’t let off the steam of my anxiety.

 

In a recent Substack, the writer Emma Gannon shared her feelings of envy or jealousy—the green slime feelings, she called them. She wrote about being both on the receiving end of envy and the one dishing it out. She described her own nemesis, a woman she saw as being more successful than her, who won awards she wished she’d won and whose book sales and placements eclipsed her own. She also shared a message she’d received from a writer who envied her, who reached out in a DM to say she had to stop following for a while because she was wrestling with her own feelings of jealousy and resentment.

I read through her entire post and then read through it again from the beginning, nodding at each sentence. Yes, yes, yes, I thought, this is how I’m feeling! This is the feeling I have!

Then I realized I was reading the words of Emma Gannon, someone I consider to have stratospheric levels of writing achievements. So then we’re all in this together, I thought, some in the air and some on the ground, but all of us breathing these same fears, chewing around the same undercurrent of tension. I let the sickness I felt at myself ease some. I breathed once, twice, three times, and released something I’d been holding on to—my own green slime gunk, and with it, my fears.

I wasn’t jealous of my nemesis’s hypothetical success—I was afraid of my own failures. I was afraid there was someone out there who could tell my story better than I can, and I was projecting those fears onto someone who didn’t even know I existed. I was in a hell of my own creation, born out of the darkest parts of my imagination.

I thought about the lunches where I’d read her Instagram captions out loud in a snarky voice to my friends and felt deep shame. This isn’t who I am, I thought, and then realized: if it’s what I was doing, then it’s who I am. This wasn’t who I want to be, I amended. I wouldn’t want anyone talking about my work or my life the way I was talking about this woman’s, and I knew by engaging in it, I was also inviting it in, choosing that kind of writing life for myself.

What kind of person do you want to be? I wrote in my journal one morning, and then crossed out ‘person.’ Writer, I wrote, underlining it twice. What kind of writer do you want to be?

 

In Before and After the Book Deal, Courtney Maum includes a section titled, “A few words on envy.” In it, she pegs writer-on-writer envy as inevitable and outlines some ways to cope with it. Her suggestions include taking time offline, considering what envy is trying to teach us about ourselves, and even surrendering to it: “learn to cherish this unrequited form of love.”

Each of her suggestions is helpful and born out of true experiences, but nothing was so helpful as just seeing this section included in the book. On my bulletin board of writers whose careers I aspire to emulate, Courtney Maum and Emma Gannon sit side-by-side. If the Courtney Maum was acknowledging envy in her book on publishing—the book I bring to bed with me like a bible—then there was hope yet for me.

 

After some weeks of reflection, I joined my nemesis’s Substack as a paid subscriber. I read her posts each week and made sure to like them. I commented when readers were invited to contribute, and I added her newsletter to my Substack’s recommended readings. I even joined a meetup she hosted on Zoom and listened as she shared about her struggle balancing her marriage and her daughter’s illness. I imagined what it might have been like to have a partner during my daughter’s cancer years, someone to carry the responsibility of maintaining income and insurance, and a lick of envy flared in me. I pushed it down and away, determined to move past my own tender points.

In engaging with her work, I realized what I should have known all along: we are completely different. Our paths and our voices are not the same, and there is room for us both. I want to tell my story so that other mothers who struggle with addiction and mental health in times of extreme crisis can set down the heavy weight of their own imagined inadequacies. This woman is not my enemy in this. She is a kind human driven by her own ambition, reaching for her own goals, telling her own story—one that has incredible value and that comes from her heart.

I still harbor some slivers of anxiety, but they’ve become motivators. I’m putting consistent hours into my work now that I’ve imagined someone breathing down the back of my neck, and I write myself through anxiety with my head down and my eyes trained on the page. When I hear about someone else’s successes, my heart leaps—it feels like abundance, like possibility. If they could, then I can. A win for one of us feels like a win for all.

Most importantly, writing is fun again. I show up to the page excited, impatient. My writing brain works almost continuously when I’m in a good place, and I can feel the idea mill turning while I make my kids dinner. I find roads into long-blocked essays while I walk the dog. The work feels fluid, enjoyable, something that moves through me instead of something I’m pushing against.

 

My office walls are lined with bookshelves, and each one is full to bursting. When I look at them, I remember how many stories I’ve seen myself in and how no two have been the same. I release my fear of a been there, done that response to my work, because no one has been where I am. No one has lived exactly the way I have.

Who do I want to be? Not the woman who sees other women as competition. It leaves me rotten on my insides, feeling sick, and I go to sleep sweating, my heart in my throat. I wake up unfocused, afraid, scrambling to keep up in an imaginary race I’ve set for myself—one that no one else is running.

If I want this badly enough to be afraid of someone else having it, then I want it badly enough to go after it. 

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