The importance of mediocrity in artistic endeavor

A friend recommended an article recently (here, if anyone’s interested), and it basically broke down why getting comfortable with feeling stupid is an absolute necessity for doing science.

But it hit me, as I was reading it, that most of what he was saying is absolutely true for writing, too.

You spend most of your formative years being rewarded for, let’s face it, fairly pedestrian, rule-following work.  The smart money’s on not taking big risks; you might not get an A for your solid-but-forgettable short story or essay, but you definitely won’t fail the assignment.  Most teachers and most professors, especially if you went to a large school with a high student to instructor ratio, are not out there encouraging students to go wild with graded assignments, and they don’t have the time to talk about what worked and what didn’t with all hundred and fifty of you even if they do encourage it.  At best, you’re discussing it in peer groups full of young writers just as in the weeds about this stuff as you are.

In this environment, there’s a point at which you’re done with the piece, at which it’s no longer your problem, at which some authority will look at it and assign it a concrete score and tell you how well or how poorly you’ve done on it.  These points are usually marked on a calendar, predictable and rational.  There can be a certain amount of comfort in that at the same time that it can be suffocating or restricting.  Even if you don’t like the outcome, you know where you stand.  You can argue with a bad grade or resolve to do better next time.

When you’re writing for yourself and an actual audience–people who aren’t earning class-participation points for this–the rules are very different.  Case in point, there aren’t really “rules.” There aren’t any directions.  Nobody’s getting paid to read what you write from start to finish.  You can do whatever you want, but nobody has to come up with a cogent reason for why they didn’t like it, or where you lost them.  The only criteria is whether or not it works, which you’re only going to figure out by trying and succeeding or failing.  And if you fail, you’re going to have to muddle through why that happened if you want to fix it.

Not to say that every writer’s an island, and we’re all in this alone.  Of course we’re not.  If you can get an audience, sometimes they’ll be kind enough to talk to you about how they felt about the piece in a coherent, helpful way.  Critique groups and long-suffering friends and reading buddies are life-savers who can frequently tell you where your project stopped working, and sometimes even why.  But the only person who can really fix your piece is you.

And, as with anything else worth doing, there’s never going to be a point where you can stop growing and go “I have reached the pinnacle of my potential and am now free to rest on my laurels forever.” You’ve figured out how to achieve various moods and communicate exactly what you want and do dialogue and nail plot structure and suck an audience in and subvert genre conventions satisfyingly instead of with great irritation?  Great!  There’s always going to be something else you want to try and some other thing that you always get hung up on.  Always.  You’re never going to look at your own work and just be happy.

Some of that’s because developing an eye for what’s good and what you want out of your own work is far, far easier and faster than developing the chops to put it into practice.  It’s like building something: it’s simple to look at an off-kilter, unsound structure and go “Pretty sure that’s not supposed to be happening” but complicated to pick out on the blueprints exactly where the architect went wrong.  We know our stories have gone off the rails before we develop the skills to keep it from happening, and that’s discouraging, to put it mildly.

But another big part of it is that you’re evolving as a person at the same time that you’re evolving as a writer.  The questions you’re asking yourself at twenty aren’t the same questions you’re asking yourself at forty or seventy.  The genres you’re working in or interested in or influenced by will be evolving, too.  So will the world around you.

The sooner a writer can get comfortable with the idea that not everything has to be good, or great, or consistent, or effective, or any number of five million other things that our writing can frustratingly resist being, the sooner we can get comfortable with the process of working toward eventual success.

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