This is a story about two writers. A story, in other words, of envy. I met the man at an artists’ colony, and I liked him from the first story I heard him tell, which was about how he’d once been jilted by a blind date, after which he went right out and bought himself some new clothes. He was working on his third book when I met him, but he had no particular interest in talking shop. He read the paper and watched sports on television. He was handsome in a shy, arrogant way, dressed safely but deliberately in his white shirts and black jeans.

He was, I soon learned, struggling.

There may be women out there who do not love this beyond all else in a man, but I’m not one of them.

He played pool after dinner in the barn-like common room of the colony, and I would watch him through the window of the phone-booth door as I made my nightly call to my parents across the country in California. My father, who was eighty-one and not in good health, had recently fallen. He had damaged his back and shoulder, but he was reluctant to go to the doctor, and my mother was becoming frantic with worry and exhaustion. The anticipation of those ten-minute phone calls—during which I did nothing but listen, and even that not very well—dominated my days.

The booth itself was tiny, barely big enough for its folding chair, shelf, and payphone. The air felt pre-breathed and thick with the molecules of other people’s long-distance calls, of their quarrels and appeasements. A small, squat window was positioned at eye level if you were sitting down, and through it, while my parents’ distress poured into my ear, I could see a slice of the man, a helping from his waist to the middle of his thighs, as he played pool. I watched him set his legs, wiggling them into place. As my mother spoke in the tense, coded voice that signalled that my father was in the room with her, I focused on the cue sliding forward and back across his body like a bow. As long as I kept my eye trained on that cue, I told myself, I would not get sucked through the tiny holes of the receiver.

One afternoon, on the threshold of the building in which we both had bedrooms, I ran into the man and, partly in a bid to keep him talking, told him about my parents and my uncertainty about what I should be doing to help them. His own father had died after a long illness, he told me, so he had some idea what I was going through.

Just then a staff member came by and complimented him on one of his novels, neither of which I’d heard of—a fact that helped to equalize the discrepancy between his two published books and my none.

We both watched her walk away again, awkwardness rushing in to fill the space she left behind. He looked back at me. ‘You have to do your work,’ he said. ‘That’s your first responsibility.’

He meant, of course, my writing, and he spoke with a confidence I had never managed to feel about those hours of daydreaming at my desk, stringing together decorative little sentences to describe small, made-up events. Work to me always meant a job you were paid to do, necessary labour that someone else depended on.

He may have been struggling, but he knew what his work was. That was the first thing I envied about him.

When my father, after at last agreeing to see the doctor, was immediately scheduled for major surgery, I made arrangements to fly back to California. I left my computer and most of my belongings behind to ensure my return to the colony, and I bought a copy of the man’s second novel to take with me. Over the next week I read it in various locations—on the plane, in the hospital cafeteria, at my parents’ breakfast table. This life of waiting for what was going to happen in my father’s life now seemed like the only real one to me, and the book like a token I had managed to smuggle out of a dream.

There were moments, reading, where the recognition was so strong, and the life on the page so vivid, I could feel my pulse speed up.

This book is good, I thought with joy—the way you can when it’s the work of someone you don’t really know and expect you never will. Because it’s the very fact of not knowing the writer that gives you that proprietary thrill, that frees up the book to belong to you.

But I did know him, at least a little, so I also felt, intermittently, the stabs of dread familiar to all writers—that here were sentences, paragraphs, whole pages I not only admired but wished I had written.

And I suppose pride was also in the mix, because this man whose perception I envied had possibly liked me. I saw myself reflected, if in an incomplete and distorted way, in that possibility, the way you can see the ghost of yourself in a store window through which you can also see a real woman examining a shoe.

So from the start he was both man and writer, real and something more than real, to me. I had liked him as soon as I met him—a current rippled across my skin when he walked into a room—but something stronger kicked in once I met him on the page, naked and decked out in phrases I would never have thought of.

My father, having undergone a second, unanticipated operation, was still in the hospital when I returned to the colony. I spent four of the five-plus in-flight hours of the trip certain that the plane was going to crash, a conviction that every casual observation—the ominous silence from the cockpit, the flight attendants’ huddled conversations in the galley—seemed only to confirm. Maybe this was just residual anxiety from having been on high alert for the previous few days, or maybe I was not at all sure at that point where I truly belonged and had simply found a colourful way to express that dilemma.

To fend off the guilty suspicion that I was abandoning my father, I reminded myself that I was returning to work, a choice that he, in all his years at the office, had taught me the value of making. But the moment I walked into the colony’s dining room that night and my glance snagged on the man, his white shirt and Oscar Wilde hair, I knew it wasn’t just my work I’d returned for.

I was falling for another writer, and I recognized my descent by its peculiar calling card: the fear of what I wanted. In my remaining week at the colony, confident that nothing would actually ‘happen’ between us there, I engineered as many coincidental meetings with him as I could. Because we lived on opposite sides of the country and would probably never see each other again, I felt crestfallen, and safe.

My father remained in the hospital, not so much recovering as trading one complication for another, for the next two months. Once I got back home, I visited him every day and never got over the feeling, as I searched for a parking space and walked to the entrance and made my way down the wide squeaky hallway to his open door, that I was pulling myself along like a reluctant dog who might one day slip my collar and make a break for the car. I was afraid of finding some new test under way in my father’s room or some new piece of equipment—evidence of more bad news. When a doctor would come in armed with nothing more ominous than a clipboard, I was afraid of that, too—afraid that my father would not be able to come up with the answers to basic questions like what hospital he was in or who the president was. Even though I routinely have trouble remembering what day of the week it is and can almost never name the date, it terrified me to see my father muddled by this kind of mild confusion. His had always been a sharp and certain mind, an accountant’s mind; ‘sometimes wrong but never in doubt’ was one of his favourite sayings.

One day as my brother and I were leaving my father’s hospital room, I broke into tears—sudden, gulping sobs that overtook me and made it hard to breathe.

My brother put his arm around me and asked me what I was afraid of. Dad was not about to die, he assured me.

‘I’m not afraid he’s going to die,’ I found myself saying. ‘I’m afraid he’s going to live.’

I was afraid that my father was going to get what we all wanted: better enough to go home. And that once there he was going to take the rest of us down with him, starting with my mother.

During that time, the fact that my husband and I had recently separated and I had neither a family of my own nor a full-time job behind which to hide left me exposed to my parents’ needs, which were sizeable. I tried to regard the time I was spending with one or the other of them as a job I would later be glad to have done, but this gladness was often undermined by my resentments and foul moods, by my running tally of the sacrifices I was making and the uncomfortable fact—hard to admit, even to myself—that I wasn’t getting any writing done.

Then one day in my mailbox there was a letter from the man at the colony.

Of course I wrote him back right away, labouring for hours to strike an appropriately offhand tone. I drove my letter to the post office for faster pickup, and began waiting impatiently for a response. Before long we were corresponding, with a double-edged satisfaction that seemed destined to mark everything that happened between us. It was a simple thrill to see an envelope addressed in his hand in my mailbox—and then I would open the letter and begin answering it in my head, and the thrill would get complicated.

In the letters I wrote him, I was compelled to see my life as it must have looked from the outside: a lot of driving and errand-running, a lot of empty, necessary hours at the hospital. Meanwhile, his letters, chronicling his successes and failures at his desk, where he was at work on a novel about family troubles, reminded me of the writer’s life I myself was failing to live.

I knew, from his descriptions of them, that his days were no easier than mine. He was still struggling, throwing away much of what he’d written, and I took a furtive solace in that. But occasionally he would report having had a good day, and I would feel, under my encouraging cheer, the shudder of panic you get when a friend deserts you by joining AA or leaving a bad marriage. It was one thing for him to be sitting down to it every day while I was not; but to hear that he might be getting somewhere made me feel abandoned and ashamed. He was pulling ahead in the great race of life, and he was throwing my own stasis into unbearable relief. Fortunately, over the next two months, such days were rare enough to discount.

Eventually my father came home to a house that had been fitted for his wheelchair-bound return: doors taken off their hinges, rugs rolled up, and a hospital bed installed in the den, with a baby monitor so my mother could hear him call. My reluctance to visit him got worse once he was home. At home bad things might be happening and no expert, no breezy young man with a stethoscope, was there to take charge. There was only my mother, with her fraying nerves, and later a willing but under-qualified aide and a nurse who visited a couple of times a week. In the hospital there had at least been the grim herd comfort of other ill people and other worn out families.

And of course the hospital was a place you could always leave. In the hospital my father was someone else’s responsibility. At home, he was ours.

One night, encouraged by a recent letter and feeling at loose ends at home, I called the man. I was anxious and uncomfortable the whole time we talked, but as soon as we were off the phone I couldn’t wait to talk to him again. We talked periodically after that, but it felt like the sort of dangerous pleasure you eventually have to swear off, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that each conversation brought us closer to the inevitable one in which we would agree to stop talking altogether, so I mostly tried to enjoy the idea of calling him without actually doing it, all the while reminding myself that there was a good chance that we would never speak again and that even if we did, it certainly wasn’t going to lead to anything.

As my father was ostensibly getting better, to the point where he was able to drag himself around the house behind a walker, he was also clearly getting worse. It was hard to get a firm sense of exactly what was wrong, and for a while I was frustrated because he seemed simply unwilling to make the necessary effort. But he couldn’t: he was too tired and discouraged; he was in too much pain. Finally he agreed to go back to the hospital. As soon as he was there, crammed into a corner of the busy emergency room, he looked up at my mother with exhaustion and relief and said, ‘We made the right decision to come back here.’ As if his body had just been waiting for the signal, organ after organ began to shut down over the next few days. Even so, he fought to stay alive. He elected to go on a ventilator, after which he had to be heavily sedated and eventually slipped into unconsciousness. His body by then was wrecked.

Two weeks later we finally decided to disconnect the machine that had been breathing for him. The doctor warned us that it might take him as long as a week to die. The nurse we liked unhooked him from everything except the heart monitor and the morphine drip before she left for the day, and another nurse took over and wheeled him to a temporary room down the hall. My brother and I took the first shift, sitting on opposite sides of the bed and holding his hands. The television was on and we watched it absent-mindedly. After the cramped busyness of the ICU, the room we were in seemed peaceful, in a makeshift way, but my father did not. It seemed to me that he was no more resigned to dying than he had ever been, and I couldn’t bring myself to say the encouraging things that seemed called for, urging him to let go and to trust that everything would be all right. But if he was waiting to hear these, he didn’t wait long; an hour later, he was gone.

I drove to the shopping centre that afternoon under cover of buying groceries and stopped to call the man from a payphone. I think he may have told me the story of the day his own father died, but I don’t remember for certain. What I remember is just my relief that he was home, that when the phone rang, he answered. I remember standing outside a pizza parlour, watching the cars glide in and out of their spaces, listening to his voice.

I had told my mother I would stay with her for a while, so I moved my clothes and books and computer to her house, and began trying to write, without much success, in my father’s study. In the days immediately following his death, my sister and I had sorted and cleared what looked like the most current piles. It felt at the time as though we were working with the determined haste of people trying to beat a storm or nightfall; now night had indeed fallen, my father’s death had become real, and I lacked the courage or energy to examine, much less remove, any of his things. In the centre of his otherwise cluttered desk I cleared a small space for my work, and when I stepped into the room and saw it from a distance, it looked not unlike one of those mysterious crop circles—an emptiness created for no known reason.

I knew this was a strange time for me, living in my parents’ house again for the first time in twenty years, but it was probably even stranger than I realized. I had a sense that my friends were listening in a particular way when we talked, forming opinions. I recognized that attitude of the concerned outsider; I have employed it often enough myself.

The man, too, seemed worried about me and surprised me by inviting me to come and visit him in New York. I still didn’t know him well enough to feel comfortable with him, and I often felt nervous when I picked up the phone to call him. It was odd in one way and not odd at all in another to find myself sitting across the table from him in the apartment he had described to me in his letters. We talked for hours that first night, pushing the words back and forth while each of us tried to figure out what the other was saying underneath them. Finally I took my dishes to the sink and he came up behind me and, after all those months, put his hands on my shoulders.

Over the next two years, as we visited each other for weeks and then months at a stretch, the man and I settled into a routine that included a lot of satisfying time together and a number of anguished fights.

During the day, imagining him hard at work on his novel, I tried to work myself. My collection of short stories had finally been accepted and published by a university press the fall after my father died, and much as I thought I was prepared for the polite silence that greeted that publication, I must have been more disappointed than I realized, because I now found myself questioning my efforts more ruthlessly than ever. It sometimes took me a whole morning to get to my desk; once there, often I would turn on the computer and distract myself by opening a book or answering email or fussing over a small editorial job. When I did finally manage to turn my attention to writing, I worried that the play I had begun working on was a mistake and that I should go back to writing fiction; on the other hand, I reasoned, if I really wanted to work on a play, a play was what I should work on—but then with every line I saw fresh evidence that I was going down the wrong road, and every step was taking me farther from the one thing I knew how to do: write stories. Except that by now I worried that I had already forgotten what I once knew about that, too. I hadn’t written a story in what seemed a long time, and even though I remembered pretty much always feeling as if I didn’t know what I was doing, even when I was doing it, I could see now that in fact I had known what I was doing, before, and it was only now that I didn’t.

I looked forward to evening, to the sight of the man, who still felt new and mysterious, walking through the door, and I also dreaded that moment because it meant either lying about what I had accomplished or, worse, telling the truth—and it meant having to hear about his day.

Because the man, who had been struggling so agreeably when I met him, had finally found his key, the way in. In the months it took me to produce a drifty fifteen-page story about the end of a marriage, a short play about a woman who sleeps with her best friend’s husband, and seventy pages of a screenplay that had the desperate signs of ‘learning experience’ written all over it, he piled up several hundred pages of his new novel.

It was, alas, good. My own reading told me this, but I had independent verification as well—because as sections were finished they flew almost immediately into print, and just as immediately, the phone would begin to ring with congratulatory messages, comparisons to dead writers and to living writers whose reputations were so established they might as well be dead.

In the middle of this somewhat tense time the man came home one night, feeling frustrated after a couple of hard days, and asked if I would read some pages that were giving him trouble. I was immensely relieved to think that he, too, could produce bad work, and grateful that he was willing to show it to me.

I had the sudden wish to knock him to the floor and hike up my skirt, but I thought I would read the pages first.

He brought me olives and a glass of wine, and I sat down to read. Hoping for the worst and prepared to be encouraging.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said when I finished. ‘This is great.’

‘Do you really think so?’ he asked hopefully. ‘You really think it’s okay?’

‘I think it’s perfect. Funny, true, interesting.’ I managed to shove the words up my throat and out my mouth. I might have wished for it to be bad, but I couldn’t tell him it was if it wasn’t.

‘Thank you. That’s a huge relief. That really really helps. Thank you.’

You want to see bad work, I’ll show you bad work, I thought, even as I was privately vowing never to show him another word I’d written.

I was forty, then forty-one, then forty-two years old. I had no children, the husband I had thought I would be with forever was gone, the father I had always assumed would one day really know me was dead, and I had no career to speak of. And now I was with a man who could do this.

The impulse to make love had passed.

When his novel was finally done, the man handed it in, and his editor called every hundred pages or so to say he was loving it, then called to say he was cutting the cheque, and finally called to say he wanted to take the man and me out for a celebratory dinner.

The day of that dinner, after putting in a few unhappy hours at my desk, I went out and bought myself a pair of black slacks and a silk blouse. The evening went well, I thought; the editor seemed to approve, and I felt, as always, gratified by that.

Halfway through the meal, when the editor said something polite about wanting to read some of my work, I did not know what to say, and the man intervened: ‘You did read it, actually. You passed on it.’

In one of those bizarre coincidences that is proof of either the universe’s intelligent plan or its gratuitous randomness, it happened that this editor was, in fact, the one person in New York who, two years earlier, had read and rejected my book before its publication by the university press. I might have thought, until that moment, that this unhappy fact belonged to the category of shameful secrets whose dark power is neutralized when someone actually speaks them aloud, but I saw immediately that it did not.

The editor, an urbane and gracious man, must have said something urbane and gracious then, but I couldn’t hear him over the sound of my own voice in my head: Keep smiling, keep smiling!

Later that night, after the stony silence, the tears, the fury, I had to ask myself: What did I expect the man to do? I wanted it to be his fault, but it wasn’t. I was angry about what he’d said, but I would have been angry about whatever he’d said, even if he’d said nothing—because what I was really angry about was having to go out to dinner with an editor on whom my work had made so little impression that he did not even remember reading it. An editor, it turned out, whom I liked, whom I thought was not just funny and sweet but smart, and who was going to do everything in his power to make sure the man I was with got the notice he deserved.

Over the next several months, what had at first seemed like a pathologically extreme anticipation of the man’s success on my part began to look like nothing more than a reasonable prediction. Advance copies of his book were released, and suddenly he was being interviewed, photographed, written and talked about by, it seemed, everyone. Clearly his book was on its way to becoming not a book but the book, and every day seemed to bring new evidence that he was on his way to becoming that rare thing, a writer whom people (not just other writers) have heard of.

On September 11, 2001, his book had been out about a week. In the shock of that day, he and I shuttled back and forth between the apartment and the television in the realtor’s office down the hall. I felt the sensation of disaster, the weird chill of fear limned by exhilaration at the possibility that the world and all its fixed routines might have changed in a single day.

As we tried, along with everyone else, to think about what had happened and what would happen next, another question went unasked: what would it mean for the man’s book? I was sure he was wondering this, and I was too, but I let the whole day go by without mentioning it. In those strange hours when anything seemed possible, it seemed not all that unlikely that the book on which the man I loved had spent ten years working might disappear before our eyes—and yet I said nothing.

I told myself that it would be unseemly, even in the privacy of our apartment, to focus on our petty concerns when thousands of people had lost their lives and the fate of the world itself was suddenly uncertain. But the truth is I didn’t mention his book because I didn’t want to. Because for one day, at least, for the first time in what felt like months, he and his work had been eclipsed—and I was relieved.

That was the place envy had delivered me to.

My friends, trying to be helpful, had this to say: ‘I could never do that, be involved with a writer who was that much more successful than I was.’

But really: why not? Partly, I suppose, because a fellow writer’s success makes it that much harder to console oneself with thoughts of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the world’s notorious indifference’. The world, Woolf said, ‘does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact.’ So when the man was merely gifted but not particularly rewarded, I was comfortable; we were in it together, comrades in a world that didn’t care what we had to tell it. But now, what did his success prove, if not that when the gift is prodigious enough, the world does need us, it will pay?

When the subject of his success came up, often enough a friend would say, ‘The great thing is he really deserves it.’ Were they kidding? This was precisely what made it so hard. For once, the gods hadn’t made the stupid mistake of smiling on another no-talent, well-connected charlatan. No, this was a genuinely excellent piece of work by a man who had dedicated his life to doing such work and was now being rewarded for it. Proof that the system was not essentially corrupt and misguided, incapable of recognizing true merit, after all.

Where was the comfort in that?

One morning, unable to focus on whatever I was working on, I suddenly thought of a passage of his. I got up and walked across the room to pull down from the shelf the magazine in which the passage appeared. This was the wrong thing to be doing, I knew. Still, I watched myself do it. Heart knocking like a lunatic on a door that will never open, I flipped through the pages. I found it. It wasn’t as good as I’d remembered. It was better.

I refused to let myself form the question, but I knew it was in there, all the more powerful for going unasked: If I couldn’t do that, what was the point of my doing it at all? With that peculiarly severe egotism of the insecure, I could not believe I would ever be the best, and I could not bear to be anything less.

But why, then, didn’t I feel this when reading Wharton, or Faulkner (who crowed that a writer will not hesitate to rob his mother, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ being worth any number of old ladies)? Why aren’t we all still eating our hearts out over Shakespeare? Why does it hurt only to read good work by the living? Why does the pain increase as the distance narrows between ourselves and those gifted others: those we know, those we know who are our age (or worse, younger), those we know who are our age and our friends? Worst of all, maybe, when the enviable other is someone we share our life with.

According to an appealingly commonsensical theory of human behaviour known as Tesser’s self-evaluation maintenance model, we all want to think well of ourselves, and one of the ways we enhance our own self-esteem is through our interactions with other people who are doing well. In what’s known as the ‘reflective process’, someone else’s success can make us feel better about ourselves; this explains why, for example, we feel good when our favourite sports team—the individual members of which have never met us and probably have no desire to—wins. And it’s probably part of what’s behind the old model of marriage in which a striving, supportive woman was to be found behind every successful man. In addition to whatever material advantages they promised, the man’s achievements were a feather in his wife’s cap: a sign that she had succeeded in marrying well.

But this happy scenario holds only for those cases in which the other person is succeeding in an area outside one’s own domain. When a rival succeeds, the ‘comparison process’ begins: we measure ourselves against the successful other and feel diminished. Fortunately, this competitiveness is limited to a small number of areas. Unfortunately, those areas are extremely important; they’re the ones on which our sense of self are based.

I came home one evening and the man asked about my day, which had been unremarkable. I asked about his and learned that the British rights to his now-famous book had been sold for a whopping figure, higher than anyone had anticipated. It had been a big day, and he was proud and excited. It was the kind of news you want to call home with, and because his mother was no longer alive and he has no sisters, he had called his sister-in-law.

He hadn’t known where to call me, he said, or he would have. But I could see it in his wary, eager face: he wanted to call someone whose enthusiasm he could trust.

The part that was his girlfriend put her arms around him and told him how happy she was, and the other part, the miserable writer within, kept her distance.

Not long after this, we broke up. At the end of a holiday trip to visit family in the west, I told the man I couldn’t imagine going back to New York; it was too hard there. I told him there wasn’t enough air for both of us in that apartment; I told him I was drowning. He asked me to be more specific, and I told him I just didn’t think I was cut out for this life together.

‘What life? What are you talking about?’ It was late; we were arguing in the dark, on a sofa bed in his brother’s house.

‘This life. Where you’re so…big, and I’m so little.’ It made me feel littler just saying it.

‘I don’t think of you as little.’

The fact that I believed this helped not at all. I was drowning; what good did it do to hear that he thought I could swim?

But breaking up, it turned out, was not the answer, either. I still wanted him, and my pride, already inflamed, now fairly throbbed at the idea that it was my own weakness that kept me from having him. I was in pitched battle with myself, and the wrong side was winning.

A few months later, when I persuaded him to try again, I sensed this was our last good chance at being together. I also sensed, despite my recent conversion to the belief that problems are solved by talking, that this one, born of words, was one that words would never fix. The more I talked about it, the more secretive he would become, and the more guilty and resentful we would both feel.

It became, and remains, the thing we don’t talk about.

When the man told me stories about his wife—his ex-wife, but she had a fearsome presence that made her more real to me than I sometimes felt to myself—I would feel a cool draught, as though someone had left the door to the future open a crack.

She had been a writer, too. During the happy, lean years of their marriage they would both write eight hours a day, fuelled, in the starving-artist tradition, by a diet of rice and beans and jumbo packs of chicken thighs. They were going to publish together, the story went; their books would find their way to discerning, appreciative audiences. And when his first book made good on their bargain and hers did not, he tried to wait for her to catch up. She moved on to a second book and on to a second house, alone, where she hoped to work better without the distraction of his success. But the second book wouldn’t come together; she couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t until they had finally separated, for good this time, that she gave herself the gift of putting that work away. As far as he knew, she had stopped writing altogether—except for an essay that had just been published in an anthology, which he learned about and bought one day.

In her essay, as I remember it now, his ex-wife wrote about what it felt like when she and her husband separated. I had a hard time reading this; I was simultaneously so curious to know what she thought of their life together and so afraid to find out that the sentences kept shorting out on me. But I got the gist: she not only stopped writing when her marriage to the man dissolved; for a time, she stopped reading.

Well, I was in much better shape than that! On the other hand, he and I were still together. Who knew what I would have given up by the time it was over?

What would have happened, I wondered, if the situation had been reversed, and she had published first? He would have kept on, I’m sure; her success might have been satisfying or frustrating to him— perhaps both—but he would never have given up.

I thought of Alice Munro’s ‘Material’, a story about women and men, writing and envy. In it, a woman comes across a published story written by her ex-husband and discovers in it an affecting, sympathetic portrait of another woman whom, in their real life together, he had mocked and treated callously. ‘How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read… It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love.’ But when she sits down later, to write him a letter of praise, the words that appear on the page are these: ‘This is not enough, Hugo. You think it is, but it isn’t.’ And then she admits it to herself: she blames him, still; she envies and despises.

I’ve read this story half a dozen times over the years, and when I think of it, I always remember that woman envying her ex, the writer. But when I looked at it again recently, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just him she envies but them—that is, not just her former husband but her current one. Different from each other as they seem, they have both ‘decided what to do about everything they run across in this world, what attitude to take, how to ignore or use things’. What she envies is not something about being a writer, but something about being a man.

My father had been a managing partner—a phrase I had never stopped to consider before—of an accounting firm when I was growing up, and my mother was, therefore, the managing partner’s wife. A corporate first lady whose job, in addition to running the house, was to entertain my father’s business associates and accompany him on trips.

‘Everywhere we went I was his wife,’ she told me recently. We were in what is now her house, standing next to a dresser on which was a smiling picture of my father that neither of us was looking at. ‘He was never my husband. I hated that.’

‘But you weren’t in his field,’ I tried to explain. How could she possibly think that her situation was anywhere near as bad as mine was? ‘You weren’t trying to compete with him.’

‘No, I didn’t even have a field.’

She had the purity, the self-righteousness, of unadulterated resentment. Here was the old-fashioned envy I envied—the clean, sweet fury of a woman who had a man to blame. Their life together had been dedicated to his job, and she had had only one choice: she could have left him. But how could she? She had no income of her own and four kids, the youngest of whom, that good-natured albatross, was me. Whereas I—I!—had had all the advantages, and I still felt resentful. Nothing righteous about that.

It’s tempting to take comfort in generalizations, and I have. I see myself as belonging to a generation of women who were raised to believe that we could do and be whatever we wanted—by women who, by and large, had not enjoyed that freedom themselves (and who perhaps envied their daughters for it). I grew up still wanting all the old things—to be pretty, to be good, to be liked—and also wanting not to care about such things.

But old habits die hard. Maybe it was no coincidence that when I was feeling most outstripped by the man’s success and talent, when I was reading those pages of his that I wished I had written, I responded by withholding from him the gift of myself. When he was being lauded and invited, the world praising his intelligence and imagination, my way of evening the score was to shy away from him.

As long as he wanted and didn’t quite have me, the logic went, we would be even—and I could stop feeling so outdone by what he had that I wanted. But what did that really mean? That if I could not be happy I was ready to make us both miserable. And that my answer to his work was my self; he had his book to make the world love him, and I had my sex with which to take my revenge.

It reminded me of something that had happened not long before I met the man. I had written a short play, in which six women are doing what my characters always seem to be doing—sitting around talking. I had written it for a class, because at that point I was having trouble writing anything unless it was for a teacher who would tell me it was good. As it happened, the teacher didn’t think this one was particularly good. She thought the stakes weren’t high enough, and nothing much happened, and six people was too many for a play that was only ten minutes long.

Afterward, as I was leaving the room, discouraged but not quite convinced, a man from the class came up to me and told me he’d liked what I’d written.

All his plays were about rodeo men and the half-dressed women who were always crying at kitchen tables after they left. I now realized he had a much more subtle mind than I’d ever given him credit for.

‘Thank you,’ I said.

He suggested that one thing the play might benefit from was the addition of a man, just at the very beginning, to pique the audience’s interest.

I told him I’d consider that.

‘You want to get a drink?’ he asked me.

What are we here for, others or ourselves? Grandiose and overstated as it sounds, doesn’t it come down to that? I always thought I would have at least a working answer to that question by this point in my life, but I don’t; and in the absence of that certainty, everything feels provisional.

The last time I saw my mother, she and I talked, over a pleasant restaurant dinner that both of us were happy not to have cooked, about what will happen when she can no longer stay in her house. I love my mother. I want her to be happy and safe, free from worry.

And yet what do I find myself doing? Reassuring her that everything will be fine, leaving my nearby brother to look out for her, flying to the other side of the continent, and writing about the guilt I feel.

Another writer and I talk about some of this one night. Before I really knew her, I used to think of this woman as a relentlessly cheerful and optimistic person, so given to looking on the bright side that she wasn’t even aware that’s what she was doing. Tonight she reassures me, again, about the merits of a draft I’ve shown her, gushing in a way that makes me want simultaneously to embrace her and to run screaming from the room. But it’s a good talk, full of confessed fear and desire, full of the agreement women love. We each order another glass of wine. I tell her, sounding less convinced to myself than I’d thought I was before I started talking, that I’m hopeful that my various crises of confidence may be opening the door to a new, more assured way of working.

When we get to her, she surprises me by revealing that she’s been depressed lately. She feels as though all anyone wants to do these days is exercise furiously to stay in shape, and she wants…something else. She’s losing track of the point of it all.

The next morning, my phone rings and it’s her, telling me that she’s just learned that her sister has inoperable cancer. I can hear the fear and grief in her voice, but I can also hear the mobilizing of forces, the list-making and dinner-cooking, the shoulder pressing gratefully to the wheel. She certainly wouldn’t have wished for it, but she has a job again; it’s clear what it is, it’s clear it must be done, it’s clear she knows how to do it and that she’s good at it. She’s suiting up to do what’s been women’s work since the beginning of time, and it would be hard to argue there’s anything on earth more meaningful.

That’s how I feel sitting here, anyway.

But then I think again of Munro’s story ‘Material’: ‘I envy and despise.’ Isn’t the most important irony of that story the invisible one at its centre—the fact that it was written by a woman, who gave to her gifted male doppelgänger the qualities and perceptions, the easy knowledge of how to ignore or use things, his ex-wife so envies?

Life, obviously, is about more than this. It’s not as though anyone thinks that being a good writer makes you a good person. But it helps. (Isn’t this perhaps one reason why women, as a whole, are more apt than men to see writing and reading as therapeutic acts? All that private time spent rendering and transforming personal experience on paper is easier to justify if the writer—and, ideally, reader—is healed in the process.) If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment.

But how do you know you’re good, if not by comparing yourself favourably to others (an essentially un-good activity)? And how many women are comfortable doing that?

Here’s Edith Wharton: ‘If only my work were better, it would be all I need. But my kind of half-talent isn’t much use as an escape.’

Here’s Joan Didion on the subject of her first novel: ‘It’s got a lot of sloppy stuff. Extraneous stuff. Words that don’t work. Awkwardness. Scenes that should have been brought up, scenes that should have been played down. But then Play It As It Lays has a lot of sloppy stuff. I haven’t reread Common Prayer, but I’m sure that does too.’

Or Dorothy Parker: ‘I want so much to write well, though I know I don’t, and that I didn’t make it. But during and at the end of my life, I will adore those who have.’ (Here is perhaps womanly envy in its purest form: one’s own worthlessness worn as a hair-shirt reminder to love those who are better.)

It’s hard to talk about the category of ‘women writers’ or ‘women’s writing’ without feeling that you’re picking at a scab that will never heal as long as you keep picking. On the other hand, vexed as they are, those categories continue to be meaningful, even if we can’t always agree on just what the meaning is.

Most women I know are reluctant to say, ‘I am better than her, and her, and her—okay, I’ll keep going,’ and most men I know rely, when necessary, on some formulation of exactly that. Plus women have not only each other to compete against (in devious and exhausting ways, requiring much track-covering and nice-making as they go) but men to envy; because it’s still the case that women writers are compared to each other, and the big (as opposed to, say, lyrical) literary novel persists as an essentially male category. Women’s books are still not talked about in the same way men’s books are, and women are still sensitive to that.

As I was turning all this over in my mind, I thought again about meeting my boyfriend for the first time. How before I had known anything about him, I had known this would happen—that one day he would write his Big Book, and the world would roll a red carpet to his door. All those months when he was miserably, triumphantly, cranking it out, page by artful page, I had known it—more certainly than I had ever known anything about my own life. (No wonder I had gotten so little of my own work done—I had been so preoccupied with monitoring his.)

Had I been clairvoyant, then? Or was it something more metaphysical: had my fear acted like a cosmic magnet, drawing to itself the object of its obsession (forgetting for a moment that my boyfriend might have had anything to do with his own fate)?

Or had I, in some perverse way, got exactly what I wanted?

I had found a partner who, by being so good—and so successful— at what I wanted to do, had called my bluff. I didn’t want to quit, it turned out. I wanted to find a way to keep writing, whether I could ever be good enough or not.

I did envy his talent—the way he could go off in the morning and come home at night with five smart pages, the way he could expertly tease out a metaphor, nail a character in a sentence, and tackle geopolitics or brain chemistry without breaking a sweat. I envied the fact that in airports and restaurants, strangers—readers!—would come up to him and rave about his book; I envied his easy acceptance at magazines that had been routinely rejecting my work for years.

For all that, though, I was startled to realize that I didn’t wish I’d written his book, any more than I would have wished to wake up tomorrow looking like the beauty from a magazine cover. What I envied were what his talent and success had bestowed on him, a sense of the rightness of what he was doing. I wanted what women always want: permission. But he’d had that before this book was even written; it was, after all, the first thing I’d envied about him. It was arguably what enabled him to write the book in the first place.

I was raised to admire a life of service, and to this day, I do admire it. When I see someone bend to the task of helping another, I think she is doing the work of all, the human job. But someone else’s good deed never stabs my heart the way a good book does. I admire it, but I do not envy it. Whatever else it has done, my envy of the man has helped me see the difference between what I was raised to want, what I wish I could want, and what I do want.

I flatter myself that I’m doing better with it all, that I’m adjusting. The man and I are finally happy and at ease, for the most part, and his book and public stature are a fact of our life together.

But who am I kidding? At home sometimes I don’t want to check the phone messages; when I step into a bookstore and see that stack on the new-book table, I can sometimes feel my heart rattling the bars of its cage. I read the reviews and the interviews, but not all of them; I want them to be good, and then I want to forget them. The book itself, which I’ve read twice, I don’t even want to look at now.

That’s how much better I’m doing.

And yet I am doing better, because something within me has surfaced: another story. In this new story, every ugly impulse and selfish yearning, the whole insecure unlovable mess, has been given wing. There’s no better self to protect any more; the moral high ground has been ceded.

In this story, I don’t do the work I was born to, perhaps not even the work I am best at, but the work I have chosen—incompletely, erratically, often unhappily and uncertainly.

In this new story, I write to refute the ex-wife, and to avenge her. She is my enemy and my friend.

I have met the circumstances that are larger than my capacity to be gracious, it turns out. I have come up against the limits of my goodness: someone I love has what I want, and he probably always will. What else is there to do for it? I might as well work.

Five Cats and Three Women