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.



Holding onto the faith that your audience is out there


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.

Making peace with self-promotion

_mg_7435For a couple of decades, I hated the idea of self-promotion. Not just because I’m an introvert with anxiety, although that didn’t help. To me, the phrase had so many negative connotations.

I associated ‘selling yourself’ with narcissism. With aggressive sales techniques, or celebrities showing off about their successes, accompanied with an incessant stream of hashtags and selfies.

The prospect of networking made me think of people who’d approach me at conferences, a croissant in one hand and a business card in the other, and pretend to be interested in my life, until the exact moment they established I was no one of any importance, and moved off to make a more useful contact.

Every time I heard that authors were expected to do their own marketing for their books, a sense of dread came over me. Writers aren’t typically skilled self-publicists. Shouldn’t someone else take care of all that while we composed our masterpieces in solitude?

I have to admit over the last year or so, I’ve radically changed my attitude.

I still believe egocentrism is widespread in society. But I’ve also learned that communicating what you’ve got to offer the world doesn’t mean that you have to be pushy, or fake, or boastful, or any of the things people of my personality type fear so much.

It sounds obvious in retrospect, but I realised that all the people I follow and chat to online, whose writing or art or business I’m interested in, are promoting their stuff all the time. And sometimes it’s led to me buying something from them.

But the sale felt natural. I discovered them, or they found me, because we shared a common interest. I got to know them a little and I liked their style and world view. They made me aware that they had a new book out. I suspected I’d enjoy it based on what I knew, and I was right.

In other words, we connected. That’s what good marketing is: not hard-selling, but building lasting relationships. Of course we want to make money. Our time and skills are valuable, and we have bills to pay. But people who are truly passionate about their art or their products don’t want to pressure a customer into buying something that isn’t for them.

If the idea of promoting yourself makes you cringe, the trick in my experience is to do as much of it as you can in a way that feels right for you. Through a medium you already feel comfortable in. For writers and introverts, that will most likely be blogging and posting on social media.

It’s normal to worry about what people will think. I still do all the time. But I also remind myself that everyone has a choice in what they consume online. If someone isn’t interested in what we do or doesn’t relate to us, they’re free to unfollow our account.

For published authors, there are face-to-face obligations such as book signings and events, which are challenging for people who avoid the limelight. I haven’t had to deal with that yet. I hope that I’d try and talk about things that interest me, and reach out to like-minded readers, and be kind to myself if it made me nervous.

Self-promotion is necessary to build a career, but I don’t think it has to be a necessary evil. I’m starting to realise it can even be fun. If we love creating whatever it is we create, we should be proud to share that love around, not keep it to ourselves. Even if that forces us out of our comfort zone for a while.

Finally, I don’t believe the network of relationships you form while promoting yourself has to be in any way cynical. I feel I’ve made a lot of new friends through having an online presence. And I value your companionship and support, whether you ever buy a book from me or not.


Dealing with writing disappointments


Last week, I failed to win an award in a writing competition. It didn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s a popular contest, which I’ve entered for the past four years without success.

Yet still, I’d marked the date of the awards ceremony in my diary.

You know, just in case.

I enter a lot of competitions. I believe the reputable ones have real benefits for unpublished writers. The cash prizes, the affirmation of your talent, and the chance to get noticed by literary agents.

There’s the motivation to finish your work to a deadline and practise putting it out there to  be read. And the comradeship of other writers online. I’ve met some lovely people through entering contests.

But for those of us who tend towards the obsessive, there’s a downside. We submit our work with a mixture of optimism and trepidation. We wait impatiently for the results, refreshing the website over and over as the date draws near.

The longlist appears and we scan it, heart-stoppingly nervous, hoping against hope to see our name or story title.

And it’s not there.

We check to make sure. Nope, definitely not on the list. The adrenalin rush fades, replaced by a sinking emptiness. Despite all the truth and the passion we poured into our story, it failed to capture the reader’s imagination.

Like most rejections, it feels personal. And it’s not the first time we’ve been overlooked this way.

Anyone with any measure of self-doubt knows that this is when your inner critical voice speaks up. “You see? I told you your writing was crap, and this proves it.”

Or another voice shifts the blame outwards. “The judges obviously didn’t ‘get’ your story.” It’s easy to feel envious of the winners, or that it’s somehow unfair.

The truth is that in the absence of feedback, we’ll never know why we didn’t make the list, or how close we came. So we can’t treat it as evidence that our work lacked merit, or that it was misunderstood.

What we can do is look back over the piece we sent in, and with outside help if necessary, see if we can improve it. Or put it to one side and start on something new, and try again.

With more writers than ever entering contests, the competition is fierce. Even if we’re at the top of our game, so are a lot of other people. A well-known contest might attract a thousand entries from around the world. Maybe five percent will make the longlist.

That’s 950 not-longlisted writers, heading out to the shops to buy wine or chocolate or whatever numbs the sting. Some of those will be amazing authors who’ll go on to succeed in other contests and/or be published.

Of course no book, however beautifully written, attracts universal acclaim. The judging panel may be professionals, but they still read our work through the lens of their values, tastes and life experiences. Which is why it’s often so hard for them to agree on a winner.

Knowing all this, it’s still okay to feel upset about not making the list. We invested money and time, not to mention hopes and dreams, into the outcome. It’s natural to be disappointed.

When it becomes damaging is if we allow the hurt of rejection to destroy our faith in our writing, or to inhibit our creativity.

Exciting as they may be, contests aren’t the reason why we write. We create art to express ourselves: to share and connect. Not to seek prizes or compete against other artists.

My book may never win awards. But if it strikes a chord with even one reader, if it entertains or inspires or heals, if I feel the emotion as I write it and I’m proud of my work, then it has value.

And no one else’s judgement can take that away.

The joy of finding a writing mentor


Some years ago, I reached a low point with my writing. I’d been practising a long time and I still felt I was no good. I was working on a novel that was truer and more self-revealing than anything I’d attempted before. And nobody seemed to like it.

In retrospect, I did some unwise things which contributed to my sense of failure. I entered the story into big contests before it was ready. I shared an unfinished draft with someone I ought to have known was completely the wrong person to read my style of writing.

What they said about it still haunts me.

Self-publishing my book or starting a blog would have been unthinkable then. I was so ashamed of not being a better writer. I rarely told my friends that I wrote at all. If I did, I’d add at once, ‘but it’s only a hobby.’

I never really believed that. Inside I was certain this was what I wanted to do more than anything else. Only I was scared to say it out loud.

I knew what needed to happen if I was to have any chance of being an author. You don’t get far in the business before someone advises you to toughen up. To grow a thicker skin. And when you read the one-star reviews of some published books, you understand why.

But the more I pretended I didn’t care what people thought, the worse I felt. I had to admit that I wasn’t a naturally hard-shelled creature. And I didn’t see how that could change.

I thought about giving up on my goals. Instead, I decided to seek out one more opinion from someone who didn’t know me. That was when I came across Lauren Sapala’s website.

Lauren is a writing coach based in San Francisco. She specialises in working with writers who are afraid, stuck, or battling with self-doubt. She’s interested in creative personalities and how they can work with, rather than fighting against, their temperament.

Reading her articles, I sensed she was someone positive and compassionate who I could trust. So I contacted her, we had a discussion about my situation, and I sent over my first few chapters.

Lauren connected emotionally with my story in every way I’d hoped a reader would. She gave me some very thorough feedback on why that was the case. It was the biggest relief and the most amazing feeling.

Somebody understood what I was trying to achieve. I was no longer alone on the island.

I sent her the whole manuscript, and she returned it with more encouraging comments and suggestions for improvement. As well as being a fantastic motivator, Lauren has a sharp eye for detail and an intuitive grasp of how your characters would speak and behave. The changes she proposed helped me to make the book much stronger.

As a coach, Lauren did so much more than make me feel better about my novel by praising it. Because if she’d done only that, it would have left me still reliant on an external opinion. And I’d be immediately crushed again when someone else disagreed.

By reflecting back with such clarity her reactions to what I’d written, she taught me to see for myself what the strengths of my writing were.

She helped me internalise the belief that my story was worthwhile and important, whatever anyone said. So in future I’d be better equipped to use any constructive criticism to improve the work, while discarding the negativity of people who weren’t its audience.

The change didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still in progress. But it slowly led to where I am today: feeling brave enough to post this in public, and preparing to publish my latest book next year.

As an artist, you can be both strong and vulnerable. If you’re sensitive, and you express yourself freely and authentically in your writing, then the harshly critical responses will probably always hurt.

But an inner core of self-belief and a sense of purpose can help you embrace the pain. To let it flow through you and leave again, without assigning it any permanent power. It can help you find the courage to share your gifts again, accepting you’ll never be universally loved.

If you’re isolated and struggling with self-doubt or fear of criticism, I recommend finding a mentor (whether a coach or a writer friend) who can help you learn to trust your voice. It’ll be amongst the most valuable training you could undertake.