Art and the fear of mediocrity

_mg_7777Perhaps you can relate to this experience. You go along to your writers’ group with a piece of which you’re particularly proud. Something you poured your heart into, and then polished until it shone. You read it out nervously, and after you finish speaking, there’s an excruciating tumbleweed moment, during which you genuinely think your heart might stop.

Finally someone says, in a thoughtful yet non-committal manner, “Hmmmm.”

At last another voice speaks up. “Well, I thought it was quite well-written.”

And there it is. The word we dread so much. Quite.

Why is it so terrible to be damned with faint praise?  Isn’t it preferable to a savaging? Shouldn’t we be grateful anyone complimented us at all?

When our work elicits only tepid reactions, it feels like our poetry or prose has failed to inspire a single emotion. That despite having attained a degree of literary competence, we’re still not “there” yet.

For those of us who’ve been bleeding at our typewriters for a very long time, not being “there” can be especially disheartening to hear. Because the older we get, the more possible it becomes that “quite well-written” is our final destination on this ride.

In the throes of a first draft, we may veer wildly between delighting in our brilliance and castigating ourselves for being the most execrable writer ever to desecrate a blank page. But deep down, I think we recognise these as passing moods. That neither extreme reflects reality.

The most insidious of my critical voices isn’t the one that loudly berates me for being a dreadful writer. It’s the one that steals into my room late at night, settles on my shoulder and whispers in my ear, ‘actually, you’re not bad. But I’m afraid that’s as far it goes.’

I was talking with some friends last week about our fears of being mediocre. We witness every day how mediocrity is rife in our political and entertainment culture, and yet few artists I know would be happy to be assigned the label of “average” in their field.

And it made me wonder: why are we so ashamed of being something which, by definition, most people are? What makes us believe we have the right to be special? Why do I expect, or even want to be anything more than a half-decent writer with a handful of workable novel ideas?

Is it a sense of entitlement or inadequacy (or both) that stems from having had our worth graded ever since we were children? A necessity of capitalism: that competition for resources requires us to measure our progress constantly against that of our peers and strive for superiority?

I prefer to imagine it’s more because we read Keats or Kerouac, and we were so moved and so blown away by their genius that we committed our souls to aspiring to create at that level. Even though it condemned us to live with the torment of knowing we’d probably never produce even the palest of imitations.

During this discussion, someone pointed out that one person’s idea of average is another’s excellence, and vice-versa. For every so-called masterpiece, a thousand critics will shrug their shoulders. Which isn’t to imply that craft and technique and quality don’t matter. But it does mean that the “faint praise” we’re getting may not represent the whole picture.

Because it is as much about others as it is about us. We may not have found an audience we connect with yet. Even if that ends up being just a couple of readers, if our writing brings them joy or recognition or catharsis, if it distracts them from their troubles by luring them into an exciting imaginary world, then wasn’t it worth enduring all those disappointments?

I think so.

Two of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life are that we can’t control what other people think of us, and that we can’t truly be anything other than what we are. Difficult as these ideas may be to accept, they also help to free us from the curse of comparison.

I’d rather be a writer who risks putting her work out there for people to appreciate or otherwise, than a perfectionist who remains in perpetual hiding for fear of not meeting her self-imposed expectations.

And none of us really know what’s going to happen anyway after we hit the publish button.

 

Author: Catherine North

Catherine is an author living in Manchester, UK. She will be self-publishing her debut novel, The Beauty of Broken Things, in October 2018.

8 thoughts on “Art and the fear of mediocrity”

  1. Someone shared this on Facebook and I recognised that feeling despite not being in a writers’ group (because I dread the kinds of reaction you wrote about!). But I want to tell you what my long suffering partner ALWAYS does when I moan that I am probably quite good but not brilliant. He asks me who my favourite visual artists are and insists I name a few despite (now) knowing where he is going with this. Then he asks who I think is/are the world’s most brilliant visual artists. Try it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your partner has a great point! The artists we love are the ones we relate to, not necessarily those who’ve achieved the most recognition. Actually I’m not in a writers’ group any more either – instead I found a mentor who really gets what I’m trying to do and can offer support as well as constructive criticism. It makes so much difference to my motivation. Thanks for reading and best of luck with your work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello there! Found you on twitter, and so pleased to follow you here. I love this post on the evaluation of our writing by others, other writers or readers. It’s right up my street, including the style of your writing. ‘Quite’ is also like the judgment of ‘interesting’. I’ve saved your last few paragraphs to bits and pieces I sometimes collect, (source mentioned of course) because it is so brilliantly expressed and so perfectly true!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Lynne, that’s really nice to hear! I’m glad you could relate. I just had a look at your blog and it looks fascinating… I love reading about the psychology of creative people and am a big fan of The School of Life too. Will definitely be reading more of your posts! Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Forgot to wish you a good journey publishing your first novel. Bon Voyage! It is a special time and a challenging time, as I discovered myself last year with my first. But it’s so important to hit that publish button, as you say, come what may.

    Liked by 1 person

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