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.

 

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Three kinds of writing advice I choose to ignore

Being a natural student at heart, I’ve dedicated significant time over the last fifteen years to trawling through books, articles and blogs in order to glean wisdom from more experienced writers and editors.

When published authors are asked in interviews what advice they’d give to beginners, some will set down a list of rigid commandments. Others might say cheerily, ‘oh, don’t listen to anyone’s advice. There are no rules in writing and no one knows what they’re doing anyway.’

I’m not sure either approach is especially helpful. It’s difficult to learn and grow without input from others, and while there may be no rules as such, there are techniques and principles of the craft to master, which help us improve. I’ve also benefited from insight into other authors’ creative processes, particularly the ways they overcome self-doubt.

However, as a learner it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the torrent of do’s and don’ts and musts and shoulds, which can inhibit our creativity and make us discouraged before we even start. Like so much on the internet, writing advice is a useful resource, but it pays to be careful who you listen to, and to be wary of over-consumption.

When sifting through content, to an extent I’ve learned to take what I can use and filter out the rest. I don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they’re a successful writer or well-known agent, but I do try to be open to new suggestions.

I have also identified three types of advice that raise red flags for me.

1.  People who tell me what I can and can’t write about

“Write what you know.” “Write what readers want.” “Write what sells.” “Write something no one else has done before.” “Don’t write about yourself – you’re not that interesting.” “Don’t write outside your own experience of life – you’ll get it wrong.”

We can choose to write on almost any subject, and provided we execute it with enough imagination and flair, we stand a good chance of engaging our target audience. Of course, some concepts will challenge us more than others, which is important to consider when embarking on a new project. But ultimately, I have to pursue whatever idea I feel most passionate about. Other people can help me talk through my plans, but no one gets to decide my limitations for me.

2.  Anyone who claims their writing method is the only correct one

Not long ago I unsubscribed from an account that was emailing me information about self-publishing, because the author told me I should be spending no more than three months on a manuscript. If I was taking a year or longer to write a book, they said, I must be “doing it wrong.”

Conversely I’ve heard people sneering at writers who are able to turn around a novel more quickly than they are, or at those who use plot outlines versus those who don’t. Others insist a specific number of words must be produced or hours committed daily to writing without fail. Even when you’re uninspired or sick or going through a crisis, nothing must ever get in the way of your art.

In the writing community, and of course elsewhere, too many people believe what works for them should apply to everyone, regardless of temperament or circumstances. Sometimes they try to sell their solution accordingly. If I’m going to invest in my writing career, I’d rather work with a mentor who supports my individual needs than buy into a one-size-fits-all formula.

3Anything delivered in an unkind or belittling tone

At some point every writer has to face realistic assessments or criticisms of their work that are difficult to hear. But critique should never be an excuse for mockery or crushing someone’s spirit. I’m sufficiently intelligent to understand feedback without requiring it to be brutal, and there’s already too much negativity in the world for me to give my attention to people who don’t have my best interests at heart. If someone lacks the sensitivity to be encouraging to other artists, I doubt they’ll appreciate my style of fiction anyway.

What do you think about writing advice? Is there anything you’ve found helpful or that really doesn’t work for you?

 

Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness

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All writers and artists who share their work will face criticism. It’s not only inevitable, but essential for helping us learn our craft. But there’s a world of difference between constructive criticism that builds on the foundations of the early draft, and destructive criticism that tears the thing apart.

As a published author, you have no control over spiteful or negative reviews (though you can choose not to read them). When you’re a new writer or in the first stages of a new book, you get to decide who sees your draft. So unless you’re exceptionally thick-skinned, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to find someone supportive and truthful to help you, and avoid those who leave you feeling dejected and hopeless.

In my experience, some writing groups have a macho approach to critiquing, and members may pride themselves on their ‘brutal’ honesty. Well, I’ll be honest with them: it doesn’t impress me at all that they’re able to say what they think without regard for people’s feelings. What takes real skill, in my opinion, is to tell a writer their work needs improvement while leaving them feeling supported and hopeful they can make it better.

Kindness and honesty don’t have to be polar opposites. Kindness without honesty is not true kindness to an artist, because it denies them the opportunity for growth.  And while honesty without kindness may contain some useful truths, it can also cost the artist their confidence and motivation to carry on.

It may sound obvious that a critique should include positive comments, but it’s amazing how many people forget this. They assume if an aspect of the writing is already working, it doesn’t need to be pointed out.  But positive feedback isn’t just about ego. It’s extremely useful to know when your words are having their desired impact, and what your overall writing strengths are.

The difference between a constructive and a destructive critique is as much about word choice as content. When I receive a page of criticism, initially I skim through it, and certain words and phrases leap out at me. These are the words that contain a strongly positive or negative emotional charge.

Imagine if a critique of your first ever story contained the following:

Plot clichéd and predictable, pacing slow and boring, couldn’t care less what happens next, characters whiny and unlikeable, descriptions generic, bland and repetitive, spelling and grammar is very poor.

You’d need a hide like a rhinoceros not to feel a bit crushed by that. But what if the critiquer had chosen to turn those phrases into positive suggestions for improvement?

Needs new plot twist or angle, faster pace, more emotional intensity to hook the reader, use more concise and specific description, increase our empathy for the characters, sentences need a thorough edit.

You still might not like it. It probably wasn’t what you were hoping to hear. But there’s a different energy about it. It makes you feel like those changes are possible and within your power to achieve.

As writers, we do have to learn to deal with criticism, but we don’t have to subject ourselves unnecessarily to cruelty or insensitivity that is hurtful and damaging to us and our art. Because ultimately we’re responsible for the influences we allow into our lives.

Holding onto the faith that your audience is out there

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I’ve been thinking recently about my people-pleasing tendencies when it comes to writing. I find that social media, much as I love it and useful as it is, exacerbates these. It’s easy to absorb too much advice, to alter our work to conform to popular trends, and to compare ourselves to others. To measure our worth in clicks, likes and shares.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek feedback or community online. It’s natural to want validation and approval. To know people enjoy what we do. And constructive criticism is important for helping us learn our craft and improve.

But when we know we’re already technically competent, when we know in our hearts that we’ve found our voice or style, we need to maintain an inner belief in ourselves and our vision, even if we’re not getting the recognition we desire.

The best artists give us the gift of their true selves. They write the stories they want to tell. They portray a landscape the way they experience it, not how they believe everyone else thinks it should look.

Naturally, they also want people to love their art.

If we’re authentic and passionate and we present ourselves well, I believe eventually others will respond. There will be an audience for us, however small. We’re unique, but we’re not so special that no one else can understand or relate to us.

Sometimes we look for attention in the wrong places. We submit to agents who hate our genre. We don’t learn enough about marketing. We turn to those close to us for support, but although they may have our best interests at heart, they’re not the right people to appreciate what we do.

It’s possible too that our sense of isolation is partly an illusion. Someone does care, but for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to let us know. Statistics aside, we can never truly measure the impact of our message, or know who else we’re inspiring along the way.

We don’t know yet what we’re capable of achieving, which is why we have to keep putting ourselves out in the field. Even on the days when it’s tough as hell. When it feels like we’re the only one who values our work.

But valuing it ourselves is always the best place to start.

The power of vulnerability: why writers don’t need a thick skin

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“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

We’ve all heard it. Almost every writer has been told that if they plan to put their work out for merciless public scrutiny, they must learn to be less sensitive.

It makes sense, but leaves us feeling puzzled and discouraged. How do we develop this tough exterior? Should we give up on our dreams if we can’t, however hard we try? And how come none of the famous authors we love seem to have one?

The confusion, I think, is in the imagery.

“Thick skin” evokes wrinkly hides and reptilian scales. Creatures evolved for protection against savage teeth and claws. In comparison, our skin is tender and vulnerable. When we fall, we end up bruised or bleeding. The briefest contact with a hot surface leaves us blistered and sore.

Our thin skin also allows us to detect the subtlest nuances of texture and temperature. It lets us feel the sensuous embrace of water, the caress of a loved one, the gooseflesh creeping down our arms as we listen to a haunting song.

It’s easy to see how this relates to art and the emotions. The more deeply we experience the influences of the outside world, the more creatively we respond to it. As artists, we neither can be, nor need to be, nor should be armour-plated.

What we need is more faith in the power of our skin to heal.

Rejection and harsh criticism hurt. They pierce our fragile outer layer, and sometimes they live beneath it for a while. Yet we’re more capable than we know of recovering from those wounds and carrying on.

Opening ourselves up to risk comes at a cost. But the scars we bear are a testament to how resilient we really are.

With thanks to Lauren Sapala for her influence on my thinking about this and so much else.