Professional Rivalry

In Business of Writing, Musings on July 27, 2009 at 6:41 pm

I recently came across a series of emails that chronicle the end of a friendship I had with a fellow freelance writer a couple years ago. It’s something that still smarts even now, an event I still can’t quite get my head around. I am shocked to find that the hurt feelings persist.

The friendship began when she, a lovely woman whose name I would see in some of the same local publications I wrote for, contacted me saying she’d been reading my blog.  We got to chatting and decided to meet for coffee.  She’d been freelancing longer than I had and knew all about how lonely it can get at home and sounded supportive of my jump to the same position. 

Over the course of a year or so we got together more and more frequently, sharing exploits. I often marveled at her success and ability to reach a huge variety of publications, and she expressed admiration for things that I did, like writing a book. I thought we had a pretty good mutual admiration society going.

At one point she suggested we “share sources” so that we didn’t trample each other’s writerly toes, since we swam in a pretty small freelance pool. I was surprised and pleased by her openness. I even took a risk and asked for a contact…and found her to be less open than I thought. It was clear she wasn’t really happy with me asking. Mixed messages!

And that’s when it began to go sour, though I didn’t know it for quite some time. I learned later, that, according to her, she’d only offered to share sources because she was already feeling threatened.

When it all fell apart–ostensibly over her perception that I stole an idea from her, when that idea had actually been in the works already but I had never spoken to her about it–it came with accusations that I was taking work that was rightfully hers (though she felt that I did this unconsciously, which was even more confusing). From her perspective, I can see how it looked bad, but she never gave me the benefit of the doubt. The timing looked too coincidental. And I will admit that I should have changed one detail (which was not even set by me) because it was, in fact, too similar.

But that was it for her. I was judged, accused and sentenced without a trial. I tried falling on my sword, to say that I understood if it looked egregious, but I had honestly not borrowed from her, but all that got me was cut. I decided that she had made up her mind at some ponit to be rid of me, and nothing I would have done could have helped. Stupid as it is, I still hurt over it. I was locked on the thought: hey, you reached out to me. You befriended me! What’s that: keeping your enemies close?

In the end, I decided it was too risky to get too close people who ran in the same circles like that. I would admire them from afar. I’ll never know if that was a wise decision or not.

I’d like to know your stories of the personal and the professional getting you into trouble.

  1. I have an almost identical story (confusion about stealing of an idea, lost friendship) and can really relate to your tale. When I went through my issue, I consulted a mentor who informed me that she kept very few writer friends. She had many creative friends, but in other disciplines. Then I read my Anne Lamott, and her “Jealousy” chapter in BIRD BY BIRD. I thought no way would my situation end up like hers, but it did.

    My friend and I had one brief moment where we viewed each other as competitors and although we talked and cleared up the issue, the relationship was never the same again. It’s very much like the platonic friends who sleep together, it really messes things up. These days I’m more guarded with myself, my ideas and my information. I’m not completely comfortable being that way. I don’t want to ever be someone who isn’t supportive of someone else’s success, but I also don’t want to get hurt again.

    I think this happens to all writers at some point, even Anne Lamott. Is it a sad reality we all must face, or can we somehow avoid it? I’m not sure what the answer is.

    • Dawn, thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry it happened to you, too. I think there is some inevitability in it. I can admit that when a talented friend lands a big pub that I covet, that I experience moments of envy. But I’ve never felt threatened, or that we can’t both have it all. I truly believe in an abundant world and this has never proved me wrong.

      What do you write, by the way? I’ll check out your website!


  2. I had something along the same vein happen to me when I was a massage therapist. A friend went behind my back to try to take some clients and when confronted told me I was being immature and that ‘business is business.’ It bewildered me and made me tentative for a long time. Eventually my puppy-dog pounce regarding friendships returned (it was inevitable) but now it is the pounce of a dog that has been kicked a few times. Tail still wags, the tongue still lolls but at the first possibility of a kick, I flinch.

    I am a big fan of mutual adoration societies and the belief that we do far better supporting one another than competing. Having said that, I have learned to pay attention to red flags and, whenever I am able, to trust my instincts. Not all people operate on this level – I will always have difficulty *getting* this, but I have learned to accept it and to be on guard for it.

    • Alegra, that’s awful. When someone really IS trying to steal your business or leads or sources, it’s screwed! And had I been doing that to my friend she’d have had every right to banish me. But I wasn’t. We happened to become friends right as my freelance career was taking off. And me getting work in a publication she had published in was in no way denying her work! Still…maybe at a different point in my life I would have been insecure in the same way that she was and behaved just as confusingly. And I was even willing to concede that the idea she thought I stole (Write Free e-newsletter, by the way) bore a similarity to an idea she had. But I wasn’t even the one to initate the newsletter; my partner was! I should have just said something to her the night she told me her idea, but I didn’t want it to sound like I was competing with her. Silly me!!

      • Yes, it happened when I was younger and it was devastating because of the investment I had in the relationship. I look back on the relationship as a gift because from that point onward I began to attract amazing friendships into my life.

        For me, the a mark of true friendship is the ability to express, “Hey, I am feeling envious/resentful/depressed/excited/conflicted/proud” and, hopefully, laugh about it, discuss it, use these challenges we all face to create more intimacy. I think it is about as much as you can ask from another human being!

        It is so unfortunate when there are misunderstandings that go on like what happened to you with the newsletter. It is stuns me how much can get lost in translation and the effort it sometimes takes to translate correctly!

      • Alegra, I totally agree that the mark of a true friendship is being able to handle these unpleasant feelings. I have another friend who is also a freelancer and WAY more succesful than me (who of course doesn’t see herself that way). We can talk through this stuff–though for some reason I’m never truly envious of her. Maybe because her energy about it is so clean and she would give me her most prized contact if I really wanted it.

  3. Hi, Jordan. It saddens me to hear your story and others like it because I’m a freelancer and sharing contacts is half of what freelancing is about. I hope it doesn’t dissuade you from trusting another freelancer. Recently I’ve been working with some folks who are very protective of their contacts. Even though we’re working as a team, they often don’t want to share. They have reasons, some of which make sense, but it surprises me. My feeling is that helping an associate can only be good. But if someone has cut you off, like this person did to you, then you have to let them go and move on. I know you know this, and I know it’s disappointing, but your time is valuable and you don’t need that kind of small-minded energy in your life. Time is precious. The only truly bad experience I’ve had so far as a freelancer is the time I landed a story with one editor at a big, glossy magazine (now defunct) and another editor stepped in and nixed it without letting me know. I had to call the editor up to find out what the story was and she was unapologetic and mean. I had to wonder how many other people she treated that way. As I said, that magazine is now defunct.

    • Thanks Jessica. Yes, I thought I’d let it go, so I’m working on that now. I’m a very sensitive person–sleights stay with me. Something about the whole thing really wounded me. I think because I had worked really hard to get to know this person and because I felt like she’d been dishonest with me for a long time. But, whatever!

      I had an experience with a medium glossy, too, where the publisher nixed what his two editors had approved because he wanted something different and of course, wanted it next week. So I made them pay me the kill fee for it, and give me a new assignment with a new fee, and amazingly they agreed. Then I foolishly signed up to write a second article for them and the editor assigned to the story decided to rewrite my article, got really into it and wrote his own version and they published his. They paid me anyway but both occasions proved what a low rent operation it really was masquerading as a swank one.

      • Hi, Jordan.
        Believe me, I wouldn’t get over what happened to you. I’m working on trying to let things go, too. The worse is when you think you’ve reached a point of trusting and then a turnaround you didn’t expect happens.

        About the glossy–in my case, I wish I had kept my presence of mind as you had and asked for the kill fee. The other editor had written to me with all the assignment particulars, including price, so I was in a position to ask, but I was so startled by her cold, unapologetic manner, I withdrew instead.

  4. Sorry this happened to you, Jordan. I suspect the reason this woman reached out to you to begin with is that she was paranoid. I’ll bet that if this incident didn’t happen there would have been something else down the road she found unforgivable. I think the handwriting was on the wall from the beginning.

    I have a positive story to relate on this issue. A few months before my second book came out, my publicist mentioned another Avon author on Long Island who wrote humorous women’s fiction, saying it might be a good idea if we did an event together.

    The other author is Saralee Rosenberg, and I imagine she could have been hesitant about hooking up with “the competition,” but in fact the opposite happened. The two of us understood from the start that the sum was greater than the parts, and a partnership would be mutually beneficial.

    Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had so much in common that we became best friends immediately. And now, over a year later, we talk almost every day and help each other out as much as we can. I feel like we’ve been friends our whole lives …

    • Ellen, I think there are more examples of your kind of story than the opposite, and maybe that’s really what I should have focused on as a post–but I know sometimes people need to get this stuff off their chests. I’m so glad you had such a good experience, and how savvy of the two of you. How lucky, too, that you now have a new friend out of the deal. This kind of story warms my heart. But there are ton of great places that facilitate this online too: Backspace, Zoetrope (at least when we first met there)…I’m drawing a blank but I think it is more common for writers to want to help each other.

  5. Jordan this is such difficult scenario. Often times as we struggle with being self-employed, we try desperatly to merge our need for socialization and business in order to consolidate precious time. The idea seems great at the time, but often our individual needs and struggles to make the bills and succeed take precedence.

    A few years ago, I befriended a brilliant woman who had an amazing ecommerce idea which, unfortunately, was way ahead of its time. I decided to invest in her company. Unknown to me was that this frieind suffered from various personal and financial setbacks, and soon our business meetings became therapy sessions, and my investment turned into paying her rent and food–(Which I didn’t mind, I would have helped her out as a friend financially anyway). Alas, when my money ran out, and she was unable to raise more capital…She ended the friendship, the business crumbled and I was broke. It was a hard pill to swallow, I felt betrayed, mourned the loss of the friendship, and had a pile of bills mounting.

    Over the years, I managed to save up again, lived on very little, and accepted help from my husband and managed to start saving again. I don’t regret what I did, because at the end of the day, I will always feel good about helping someone pay their rent and eat. I learned two very important lessons from the experience: 1)to be a little wiser, and 2) Negotiate a win-win situation where both parties gain a positive outcome. Every event in our lives whether good or bad makes us just a little wiser and stronger. I strongly believe that I was repaid in the business experience and personal growth that I gained from the situation which to me is priceless.


    • Ninevah, I think this is a good point: I need to find the lesson in it. What I learned, what was good. I usually do that, but for some reason this one has stuck in my craw an unusually long time. What an interesting tale yours is. I think you are an amazing person to view it through the lens that you do!! You are remarkable.

  6. Urgh. Aren’t those emotional cuts are so hurtful. Like a paper cut, they’re stealthy (it’s only paper after all), small and hurt like the dickens.

    When I taught singing a colleague/friend expressed gave me a tough time for having clients that she believed should have been hers. Her communication wasn’t clear and I was so intimidated by the lack of clarity in her judgment, so hurt and ashamed that it took me years to realize that this particular person, when feeling anxious, turns to bullying, entitled behavior.

    I was lucky enough, as a singer, to have only one sad experience with another woman who, I realized later, was jealous of me. In that case I was able to overlook it, but I avoided the woman as much as possible in the small town where we both lived. Only recently did I learn that this woman was raised/neglected by her parents, as were her 7 siblings. Her mother would retreat to a room in the cabin, secluded from her children as she sang and played the piano. It’s interesting to note that one member of that large family became a famous singer. I don’t know if family members are jealous.

    Jealousy is an emotion that can eat us up or give us an opportunity to figure out if we’re missing something somewhere in our lives and what could be done to give us more confidence or satisfaction or connection.

    • Claudia–these stories hurt me on your behalf! It’s painful to go through this stuff, but I also think it’s necessary. We learn about ourselves through jealousy. I have had plenty of moments of jealousy that I’m not proud of. I learned that these are usually meant to point me towards what it is I want more of in my life!

  7. Jessica: My husband was the one who talked sense into me, actually. He made me realize I didn’t have to be walked all over just because I was so eager to please. I owe it all to him!

  8. Hey,

    I have had a few disappointments with friends and it hurts more than disappointments with couples! I understand completely.

    As you say in some of the comments, focus on the good friendships you have and forget about this episode. I wouldn’t take any decision for future relationships, because every relationship is different.

    I know we are not competence in the writing world, but I am your biggest fan and I get happy with absolutely every positive thing that happens in your life!

    I guess I could be jealous of a few things you have sorted out better than I have, but my feelings are exactly the opposite: it makes me extremely happy that you are there because it gives me hope that I may one day too.

    Much love.

  9. yikes that is terrible–I hope we can still be friends even though I like writing! When I went to your event at Copperfields I thought you were totally open with your ideas and I found it refreshing. Another blogger I read recently was talking about her fear of looking like she is “copying” other artists when she is really just doing her own work. I believe ideas arise simultaneously much of the time and why can’t people accept that as proof that they are on the right universal track? We tend to be so precious with what we think is ours and I wonder if it even is. I really love the book “The Gift” about the artist and the muse that runs through.

    • Karen, no I feel good about our connection. You’ve been nothing but supportive and open and I don’t even feel like we have the makings to go down such a bad road together!

      Ideas do arise simultaneously. And honestly when I try to put myself in my ex-friend’s shoes, if it happened to me where I thought she’d borrowed my idea, I’d just out and out ask her and tell her what I thought about it and hear her out. I most definitely wouldn’t have written her off or decided she was bad people. So I suspect she’d been trying to get me out of her life, on some level, for awhile. Jeez. I clearly am so not over this. It really pisses me off. She might even read this someday (doubt she cares to follow me, though).

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