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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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.

The mysterious origins of fictional characters

_mg_7743For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the concept of fictional characters. People who exist in the form of ideas, transmitted from the minds of creators to readers across continents and centuries. Despite having no physical presence, they’re recognisable and knowable, as well as the subjects of endless dispute and reinterpretation.

Having studied literature and been a member of book clubs, it strikes me just how intense and heated the discussion can get when readers love or despise a particular character. Fiction seems to give us an outlet to express strong feelings or beliefs about others that we’d hesitate to reveal in a real-world context.

We all have our favourite characters, but where do they come from? Are they inspired by real people? Are they invented from scratch and assigned a set of predefined characteristics? Or do they emerge fully formed from somewhere deep in the swirling chaos of the subconscious?

Obviously the answer depends on the author and their subject matter. I can only speak for myself. I’m not a memoir writer or an autobiographical novelist, and I don’t base my characters on real people (as my friends reading this may or may not be relieved to know…)

I do, however, use some elements of my life, as well as aspects of personalities I’ve encountered in the past. All authors to an extent ‘write what they know.’ Whether our story is about medieval pirates or a satire on the modern workplace, we use our emotional experiences as a basis for exploring those of others.

I began my current novel in 2015 with two characters and a setting. That was all I had to go on.  I had a vague sense of where I wanted these two people to end up, but no real plan for how I’d get them there.

For me, the characters emerge as blurry figures, which slowly come into focus. Sometimes I start with a name. I have a thing about names. They have such strong associations for me that I’d more willingly change my character’s age and appearance than what they’re called.

Gradually, more details are revealed. The outline of a face, an accent, a profession. Very soon I know all sorts of things about them: their troubled past, their taste in art or music, their secret fears and desires.

This is the point where I feel them to be ‘alive’.

Writers talk about ‘the characters controlling the story,’ which sounds mystical, but what it means is we’ve achieved a deep-level, intuitive understanding of that person in all their complexity. After that, they do take charge, because we can no longer make them say or do things they wouldn’t, in order to further the plot. We can try to force it, but it won’t feel right, and we or our readers will sense a lack of credibility.

Secondary or minor characters are slightly different for me. Sometimes, like the main players, they appear seemingly out of nowhere. Other times I consciously create them, because I feel the story needs someone extra to lend it humour or a different perspective.

These characters may start off as one-dimensional or stereotypes. I find it takes a little longer for them to come fully alive when they occupy less space in the narrative. It may not be until the second draft that I get to know them as individuals, which is when they start behaving outside of the narrow expectations I’ve set for them.

As any avid reader knows, it’s possible to become completely and utterly obsessed with fictional characters. This is even more true when we’re creating our own. Since we have full access to their minds, we can get to know them more deeply than a partner, perhaps even ourselves.

I think it’s a good thing that we fall in love with our characters, weird as it may seem to some. Most writing is more effective when the author’s emotions are engaged, and readers are more likely to adore our made-up people if we do.

Characters in stories aren’t a substitute for human connection. Our fictional love can never hold our hand or visit us in hospital or help us bring up our children. But they can be a compassionate presence in our lives, a solace in difficult times, an inspirational hero or heroine, and a route to self-knowledge and empathy.

 Such is the power of our imaginations.