A question about mediocrity (from someone who clearly isn't)
Below, in these comments, Milton mentioned a foreword I wrote for "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." Here is is, for anyone who's interested:
Hi Depressed (hopefully not for too long) Writer,
I don't know if it will help, but here in my seventies, I think of writing, and other endeavors, as ongoing learning processes. Opportunities to evolve, to learn, to explore. Of course if you are trying to make a living writing, then you are dealing with the marketing aspect, and the opinion of editors, readers, and fellow writers. But apart from that, as a writer, you are creating something that is uniquely yours. It's important. It doesn't need to be graded or judged by the world, and you have endless opportunities to revise, or put in a drawer and create something new again. I find it selfishly exciting to see what comes from my mind and onto the paper (computer). But still, I procrastinate and think I will hate to write. And that I'm not good at it. But then I sit down and do it, and it feels okay and necessary. It also helps to have a snack I enjoy to get me to actually get writing-lol.
I take Tai Chi; learning that form is never a finished thing. It's an ongoing practice. I get better at understanding the form and the body. But when doing it with others, I am thinking, 'I'm better at this than them.' Or 'that person is better at Tai Chi than me.' So I try to get past those thoughts and stick with my own experience. And observe others without judgment. A student once asked "Who does the best Tai Chi?" A teacher answered "The person who gets the most benefit from it."
Hello Depressed Writer (I’m on the same ((blank)) page) and George.
I apologise for linking to something I made- but I wrote this very short film when I felt like you do now. I’d like to say it changed my life and suddenly everyone realised I was a genius.
But it might make you feel less alone.
The Stick (The Screenwriter's Revenge)
A screenwriter sets out to write a story so boring it has the power to kill.
Huge thanks to you George for Story Club. It’s the best.
Thank you, Depressed Writer, for expressing my Give Up Because What's the Point When You Hate the Whole Idea of Story Not to Mention Novel And You're Too Old To Outwit Those Demons You've Only Ouwitted Once on Not A Novel and Briefly Fell in Love With Yourself Just to Wind Up Back Where You Started. And George, I'm about to read your advice again. Thank you.
When I was in school I had a job in the print shop. My job was to do a survey for Xerox, find out how many copies people were making. But when no one was Xeroxing, I could do other things. One day the print shop lady saw me practicing italic calligraphy, like this:
She must have liked it because, unbeknownst to me, she went to the bookstore and bought herself some ink and a nib holder, but she bought the wrong kind of nib, like this:
With the tools she had, it was *impossible* for her to make italic letters. And when she asked me what was wrong, I told her, oh, you need a different kind of pen nib. But for however many days she was *trying* to make letters with the wrong nib, she was probably thinking, Wow, I am really bad at this.
So: thanks, George, for giving us a hint about maybe seeing if our mindset or method need a change, and thanks, Depressed Writer, for daring to ask your question, which as you can see, many of us identify with!
Hey, "Depressed Writer" -- I see you! I am you? (I'm not you, but boy oh wow does this all resonate with me.)
Here is my pep talk for you: I have been writing a lot the past two years, and none of it has felt quite good enough ("mediocre"). I did a lot of thinking, and realized it was because I was leveling up. I was in that strange beginner space again from that famous Ira Glass quote, where I knew what I wanted to do, but wasn't good enough yet. Might this be the same for you? You've had some success, you know you can write, and now you want to write better things, and it's not quite what's coming out on the page.
Here's what has been working for me: playing around, writing stories I have no intention of sending out. Any of the exercises/constraints George mentioned work, but the key is, go into it thinking, "this isn't going to turn into anything submittable." Sometimes I try to write in the style of someone else. Sometimes I try to write something that is far, far from something I'd normally write, or even in a genre I don't read much. Just to play. Try to write something mediocre on purpose. Write something truly terrible on purpose. Write something that is so ridiculous and nonsensical that it would never, ever get published. (And then, keep writing, keep going, and at some point look back and see if there's some gold in all that play stuff.)
Cheering you on!
I just rewatched one of my favorite movies, Amadeus. At the end, Salieri rides through the asylum, intoning: "Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you. I absolve you. I absolve you all."
Of course the movie (and the play it was based on) was a fiction, loosely based on some rivalry between Salieri and Mozart. The fact is that Salieri was hugely successful and influential in his time, though over time he was overshadowed by Mozart's work. The kicker is that Amadeus sparked a renewed interest in Salieri's work.
So, who's a mediocrity, and who's a genius? Absolve yourself! And do your thing.
Wonderfully warm and generous advice, as always!
I'd definitely echo the 'most of us feel mediocre at some point' (or even many points) sentiment. For me, I've managed to see this as a desire to keep improving, which feels a lot healthier.
For me, one of the first signs I might have an affinity for playwriting was the resonance of other people's work. There's clearly something inside me that responds - quite directly, and without being taught to do so - to dramatic writing of real quality. So much so that connecting with such work is often a huge boost to my own levels of inspiration. Not in an imitative sense - really good live music can have the same effect, for example, even if there are no words.
Are you having enough experiences that refill or boost your own levels of inspiration?
I also wonder how long Depressed Writer has been writing. Whilst we may spontaneously recognise real quality in other people's work, one of the first things we recognise in our own work is just how far it is from that standard. We're measuring a gap, rather than the quality of our own writing. It takes a while - perhaps a long while - to significantly close the gap. For me, it's worth the investment of time and effort.
It is also important to remember that we tend to compare our own early efforts to the mature efforts of great writers at their peak. Of course our own work feels relatively weak; how could it not?
When I read about my favourite writers, I often find that they too had writers to look up to. Not only that - many also feel like they haven't reached the standards their own heroes did.
If you've been writing for more than a couple of years, you may well have some more recent work you can compare to your earlier efforts. Something should have improved; if not, are you accessing the right sort of help?
If you're lucky, you might also find sparks of stuff in your earlier work you've lost sight of, and can take inspiration from.
I'd also say it can be important to find non-writing activities that help. This could be any one (or more) of many things - meditation / mindfulness / yoga / tai chi, going for walks, learning to play a musical instrument, etc, etc. There's freedom in doing such things without the aim of attaining a certain standard (in contrast to how it sometimes feels to write).
Be kind to yourself. This stuff ain't easy.
Thank you, depressed writer. Many people I know (including myself here) can be a bit depressed and anxious, wondering why they bother, or if their work is any good. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful question, a question that helps a lot of Story Clubbers. Such a fabulous answer, too!
My english teacher in high school pulled me aside and said, "remember, the cream rises to the top." Decades later, I realized, boy, that isn't always true in the way she meant it. I love that she said it with such passion, and that she believed it so deeply. I like to think that self-aware people will one day prevail at whatever they're working on––art or whatever, maybe opening a food co-op. I'd like to think that people filled with self-doubt are more interesting, perhaps better guests at a dinner party, more compassionate, kinder. Many of my friends are artists. Not famous artists, not even ones that make gobs of money, but they all (at times) have felt as you do, depressed writer. Don't you think writing has made you a better reader, a better person, a better listener? Just sayin'. Probably saying that to myself, too.
Hi Depressed Writer, I have totally been you in the past. I often still am. I have a whole shelf behind my desk of books on my subject (transgender non-fiction) that are 'better' than anything I think I could write, but once when I mentioned my fears of being a mediocre writer to a well-published friend, he said 'Remember, you're not writing *the* book on your subject, you're writing *a* book on your subject.' I told myself this every time I worried about being mediocre, and now I have my first book being published next week. Is it as good as Females by Andrea Long Chu? No. Does it have to be? No. It's just a book, and hopefully somebody will read it and get something out of it, and then I'll write another book, and that will be just another book too. I also remind myself of something Ocean Vuong once wrote about comparing a finished book to a photo of a tree. "It’s never done. If I had a chance now with every book I wrote, every page would be a little different. Commas would be moved, words. And I think that’s beautiful, actually. That’s a good thing. It reminds us that the artist and the mind and the poem still grow. The poem is like a tree, and the book is a photograph of the tree. You take a photograph of the tree, but the next day, the tree has new cells. The next year, it has new branches.... So I just make peace with it. I say, Well, maybe I have to take another photo of this tree in another book." Perhaps it might help to say to yourself, "It's just a book. It's just a photo of a tree." That's my inner Depressed Writer mantra, and it seems to work for me.
Many of my favorite writers could perhaps be described as mediocre. At least in terms of the quality of their prose. ("Which quality??" is a good question I'll step around in the interests of focus and brevity). To list a few to give you a clearer image of my point here: George MacDonald - wretched prose, transcendent imaginings. Isaac Asimov - mountains of output, the prose simple and bland and gobbleable (not a word I don't think) but beloved by millions for his clear, rather one-dimensional yet jewel-bright ideas. Clearly the fantasy and sci-fi genres encompass many, many interesting writers with questionable technique. So I'll haul out my shocker here: Wuthering Heights is not that well written IM(perhaps not so)HO. Yet this Emily Bronte novel is to me, in my personal canon of the greatest novels I've read - perhaps the greatest novel I've read. An avid reader of age 70 with a love of both the classics and the middlebrow ranges of literature, please believe me when I say I've read a lot of lit. In my case, being a musician singer-songwriter multi-instrumental sort, I know my technique is mediocre pretty much across the board. So what? McCartney is just an adequate piano player and a moderately good guitar player. In all works of art, some things carry other things. Art critics can't seem to agree on whether Cezanne was a good draughtsman or not. Either way, he's great, really great. Art is a multi-task sort of composite creation. We all major in some tasks, minor in others. So major in your majors and minor in your minors. Keep on keepin' on!
I have to tell y'all--I'm crying, reading the responses. I've avoided George's Substack for a while now because, well, I feel like my writing is ... mediocre, at best. George's advice is great, and I'm going to try out some of his strategies, but your comments--about writing for joy, to learn and explore, because we're compelled to--have brought me to tears. I don't feel so lonely right now. Thank you, George, and thank you, group!
I asked a version of this question months ago .. I can't even get a depressed writer question published!
jk ; )
I actually did ask a version of this question though.
The thing with me is, no matter how down I sometimes can feel about writing and about my writing, I always end up going back to it. Therefore I have to conclude that I have little to zero choice in the matter of whether I write or not. What I feel about what I have written is another question.
Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don't. That is just par for the course anyway. What I would say to Depressed Writer, in addition to all the lovely things George said, is, give yourself a break. My hunch is that you are better than you think. Depression makes everything look worse than it is. Be gentle and kind to yourself and .. keep writing. You probably have no choice anyway, so it might as well be as pleasurable as possible!
Iris Dement has a wonderful song, "Sweet Is the Melody," which has these lines:
"Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by, it's so hard to make every note blend just right. You lay down the hours and leave not one trace, and a tune for the dancing is there in its place."
I think those lines apply to writing equally well. (Songs and stories resonate in similar ways, and listening carefully to music is one of the good ways to get better as a writer.) "leave not one trace" is my favorite part. In writing stories that resonate, we work at it until all traces of "me, the author" are gone. What's left is the story telling itself, in a way that makes a reader feel it can't be told any other way. To do that, you have to "lay down the hours."
Hello all, I'm a poet and new subscriber who is delighted to read my first Story Club re the Depressed Writer. Yes, your mindset can change.
Stage 1 for me was to declare I'm going to write a poem about this horrible thunderstorm, my love for you, blah blah. I have progressed to Stage 2 where I start with my heart, what I feel. Lately that is loneliness, and this has led me to words I have never written before. I love my new writing.
Wonderful post, I really enjoyed it. It does a nice job of building on concepts discussed in this newsletter.
It's funny how many people golf and don't expect to be pro golfers. Yet it seems like everyone who writes wants to be a pro writer. If mediocrity is understood to be average, then yes most people are mediocre. Because that's how averages work! Also being exceptional is no guarantee of success (see: many talented writers with several publications still waiting for their big breakthrough), to be successful requires luck as well. We all want to be exceptional but if were that true than exceptional would just be the new normal.
George's substack has over 80,000 subscribers, we can't all be exceptional pro writers. There simply isn't enough demand for people who pay for books / newsletters / magazines. Embrace mediocrity and accept that writing is a hobby. It's good enough to do something because you enjoy it and think it's good for you. I would guess 90% of writers have a job other than writing because traditional publishing is a slow process and the majority of the revenue is in the first year. It's simply not a good way to make a consistent salary, which is kind of required in the US (if you want healthcare). Let go of your expectations and just enjoy the ride because you're not gonna make any money!