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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Winter reflections on a work in progress

winterMany apologies for not updating this site recently. I’ve been busy with various projects, including photography and blogging for another site about mental health, which I’ll share once it’s published.  Before things get too hectic as the year draws to a close, I wanted to give you an idea of where I’m up to with my novel.

My fantastic writing coach Lauren Sapala gave me some detailed and very encouraging feedback on the story.  As always it’s a pleasure to read Lauren’s comments because she totally gets what I’m trying to do and responds emotionally to the characters just as I’d hoped.  She also has great instincts for improving a draft and pointing out where something is unclear or confusing.

After making these initial changes I gave the book to my husband.  Although I’ve been working on it for two years, he didn’t know much about the storyline or what to expect. He hasn’t finished it yet, but it’s been interesting to see his reactions, which so far aren’t that dissimilar from Lauren’s: they mentioned liking the same sections. He’s giving me line-by-line editorial comments which are helping to make the writing stronger and more concise.

Once this second round of amends is complete, which I anticipate will be early next year, I’m going to send it to The Literary Consultancy for a full professional assessment. I’ve paid for similar agency reports in the past, so I know from experience that they don’t hold back in telling you what’s wrong with your manuscript. Which is good, because it’s what you’re paying them for, but it’s not necessarily easy to hear either.  So, that will be January’s challenge.

I have no idea what they’ll say or whether it’ll require a complete rethink or just tweaking, but I’ll deal with that problem when it arrives. If it needs significant rewriting then I’ll ask someone else, maybe a couple of people, to look through the revised version. After that, an amazing friend of mine who is a freelance editor has offered to proofread the final copy.

And then… that’s the text done. The next stage will be to start on the cover artwork, formatting, website, adverts and the film I’m planning to make in place of a book tour. It’s exciting to think about.

Some people have asked if I’m planning to have one last go at submitting to literary agents before I self-publish.  As things stand, I’m not.  The reason is that I see self-publishing nowadays as a positive choice, not a last resort for the rejected. I love the idea of having creative control over the cover design and the marketing. Also, my story addresses several themes that are very current (you’ll see what I mean) and I’m not willing to wait years longer to get it out into the world.

I have been through my 15 years of rejection and while it hasn’t exactly been fun, it may have made me stronger in some ways. It certainly rids you of any lingering sense of entitlement. Nobody owes you a publishing contract because you were a straight-A student or got a literature degree or have written stories since you could hold a pen. And potential isn’t enough: if your work isn’t marketable, the industry can’t afford to support you until you get there. Not when they have a surplus of talented writers to choose from.

Although I’ve abandoned the traditional publishing route, I still get a regular hit of rejection in the form of contests. I scaled back my entries this year as they were becoming unaffordable at up to £25 a go and so I only entered five. Four have been a no, but there’s one more result to go before the year ends.  I’m trying not to read too much into my lack of success. When a longlist only represents around 3% of the entries, I don’t think you can conclude the others lacked merit or might not go on to win other contests.

In all honesty I would still like to have validation from the literary establishment one day, but I recognise that it isn’t necessary any more. Technology is removing those barriers. We get to decide for ourselves when our apprenticeship is over and we’re “good enough” to begin for real.

Inspiration, progress and self-imposed deadlines

20526075_10155453733650833_4314066651167167073_nAfter an extended phase of excruciatingly slow progress with the book, I finally decided what I needed was to be on a tighter schedule. I’m now planning to have a finished draft ready to send to my fantastic writing coach, Lauren Sapala, before I go on holiday at the beginning of September.

Setting deadlines works wonders for my motivation, but there has to be a way in which I can hold myself accountable for sticking to them. The reason I lost momentum with the novel was because everything else I needed or wanted to do over the summer was taking priority. Yet failing to work on it was causing me as much, if not more stress than if I’d been under pressure to finish it. Committing to send it off by a certain date was enough to get me back to the keyboard, and I’m writing in cafes again (buying a laptop that actually functions has helped with that too).

We could all say we’re too busy to write if we want to. I admit I have more free time and flexibility than writers with children do, but I still have a full-time job, as well as other commitments, and low energy on most days. I also fall prey to the distractions of social media and keeping up-to-date with the latest political intrigues.

Choosing to devote a solid amount of time to the writing you’ve neglected can have a snowball effect. It lures back into your imaginary world and you become infatuated with your idea all over again. The high you get from creating makes you want to experience it increasingly often, and soon you’re no longer too busy to write, you’re too busy for the other stuff that seemed so important yesterday.

This has been my experience over the last week or two. I never stopped loving the characters, but the drive and enthusiasm I needed to complete their story had faded. Thankfully, just a little attention has rekindled the fire, and I’m more excited about publishing it than ever. Now the narrative structure is in place, the bit I find hardest, it’s a pleasure to be able to start fine-tuning the language and dialogue.

When I’m struggling with my work, it helps me to dedicate time to reading other people’s writing. I can’t stay up all night to finish a book like I used to, but I can let myself become thoroughly absorbed in a quality novel. I try to read as a writer, noting down beautiful phrases and the techniques authors use to allow us to enter their character’s mind. I tell myself that if they can do it, so can I.

It’s not just writers who help me to persevere. I’m drawn to creative people, whether they’re musicians, actors, photographers or artists who achieve excellence and inspire emotion. I can go to a concert or exhibition and leave buzzing with renewed determination to succeed in my chosen art form.

This won’t be the final draft by a long way, but it’ll be the first time I’ve been ready to ask a trusted reader to share their reactions with me. After that, I should have a better sense of whether I’ve managed to convey my vision and given the characters the unique voices I already know they possess.

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.