Ay, madam, it is common.

I am not alone in this.

I have heard other writers express the same feelings time and again. Many writers battle these extremes.

Sometimes we feel our work is good, even great. Then we are either overcome with fear that it is trash, or we “know” it is trash.

I am at the low ebb of this, and have been for a few weeks. It is disheartening even though I know, in my mind, that it is a cycle. My heart knows nothing of the kind. I am never satisfied with my work, but this is something darker than dissatisfaction.

My muse is active enough. The little monster is happily chewing away at my surroundings and then latching onto me with its sharp little teeth until I write out the results of its feasting. I can only hope those results aren’t shit.

But how does one know? There are great writers, both from the past and the present. There is also a lot of mediocrity, and this has increased as the dissemination of information has proliferated. Yikes, that was verbose. I had a point in there somewhere… oh, yes. Some of those mediocre writers, at least, must have believed that their work was great.

If they could not fairly evaluate their own work, how can I?

Oh mother, I owe you so much for raising me on good literature, but it is a double-edged sword. I know greatness. I have stared at pages, retracing words again and again in wonder.  In order to even put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, I had to tell myself that it was enough to write, that I did not have to compare myself to Wodehouse, Solzhenitsyn, Austen or Shakespeare.

That sufficed when I wrote only for myself and for those who were curious to look over my shoulder. The creation of something to be let loose on the world requires more, doesn’t it?  The last thing I want to do is unleash more mediocrity.

There is pride tangled up in this as well. I don’t want to be mediocre.

Then again, perhaps the greats were in doubt, as well. Does anyone really know, truthfully, whether their creations are worth reading? The helplessness is depressing. Do I have to spit out what I can and trust humanity to sort out the rest?

…Yes. Perhaps I do. The only other option is to bury it.

In reply to that option, I will quote Tycho, from Penny Arcade. He is talking about reactions to offensive materials, but the same principle applies, I think, to mediocrity:

The answer is always more art; the corollary to that is the answer is never less art.  If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over.  That’s not the side you want to be on.  The problem isn’t that people create or enjoy offensive work.  The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring.  That even with a computer in your pocket connected to an instantaneous global network, no-one can hear you.  When you believe that, really believe it, the devil dances in hell.

A visualization of my muse. Watch your fingers.

A visualization of my muse. Watch your fingers.


About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

30 responses to “Ay, madam, it is common.

  • petunialu

    Sweet sister, the world as your stage would squelch anyone’s courage. Some of the greatest, most ubiquitously beloved stories have begun as a gift- a labor of love from one to another. The intimacy of writing for the amusement of a small audience is much less overwhelming, and a good story will most likely have a wider appeal. ::hugs::

    • jubilare

      *hugs* Oh my… I am so glad I posted this if only for receiving this comment. You are right, as you are so often. Thank you for your wisdom and your love. I am blessed!

  • Brenton Dickieson

    I typically cringe at the idea of seeing my book in a bargain bin, or a dollar store reject box. But then there are days that i would simply just like to see my book. And then there are days that my book seems so very far away.

    • jubilare

      I can relate, especially to the last two. I can’t rightly say how I would feel about a book of mine in a bargain bin. I suppose it depends on how I feel about the book itself when it is done. First things first. We must finish, and for now that is challenge enough! :P

  • emilykazakh

    I know exactly how you feel. I am terrified of just adding to the noise and not being heard.

    Sometimes I think I’ve read too much crap that I can’t write anything worth reading. Then I force myself to just read the classics, and they’re great, but they aren’t what I want to write. Because my fear with writing like the classics is that my writing won’t be me. It will be Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy, and Dostoevsky.

    I just spent the last 48 hours devouring a Christian historical romance novel that at times was well written and at other times made me so frustrated that I kept reading just so I could get it over with. However, I went on the author Francine Rivers’ website, and started poking around. She has a list of “writing tips,” and although they are the kind of writing tips that you would expect on a Christian author’s website, she did have one that stuck out to me:

    Ask questions.

    So I did.

    Other than reading through the first chapter of my recent rough draft, I haven’t done much writing this month, but yesterday I sat down and just started asking myself questions about my book. And not just, “Who is my audience?” but, “Why am I writing this book? What do I hope to achieve?” My answers–my honest answers–disturbed me and refreshed me. And suddenly I wasn’t afraid to write more.

    Of course, that was yesterday and this is today, but what I’m trying to say is that being faced with the fear of mediocrity can be a good thing. It can guide your writing so that you write the best that you can. And if it’s mediocre, then fine. Your next book will be better. If you think about all those great writers that we hold high, they weren’t all good. I mean, Titus Andronicus, anyone? But we also have Hamlet and other great plays.

    This is an extremely long comment from someone who hasn’t published a book. Wow. But I totally agree with you. I have been writing for my job, and this is a fear that I’ve had for so long that I’ve struggled with letting people know about it. It’s not the type of writing I necessarily want to do, and I’m afraid of people judging me for it. At the same time, it makes me feel so good when customers tell me they’ve read my writing. It’s not great literature, but it’s still appreciated, and I think that–at the moment–is enough for me.

    • jubilare

      I am more worried about adding to the noise than not being heard. I wonder why that is.

      “Ask Questions”

      I like that. It is a good thing to do. Asking questions is actually what brought me to the point of writing this post. A few days ago a scene spilled out of my fingers. It is a scene that may very well be the hinge of its story. It forced me up against several questions. What is this story about? What is it saying to whom? How much do I even need to know about what it is saying in order to hone it? How do I feel about what it is saying?

      Those questions, which have yet to be answered, started an avalanche of questions. What sort of story is this? Am I simply writing pulp or does it go deeper? Who is my audience and why? and countless more. Fear of mediocrity can, indeed, be a good thing, but too much of it has a paralyzing effect. We must find the balance between not fearing enough, and fearing too much.

      And yes, Shakespeare had his off-days. That is a comfort. :)

      I think that any writing is better than no writing. Maybe your job isn’t the kind of writing that you long for, but in doing it, you are doing more than making paychecks.

  • harrywrites

    I think I would be chuffed to bits if I saw my book in a bargain bin. The fact I have a book worthy of printing on paper would be good enough for me. Besides, if one person enjoys the writing, that is enough for me. I understand your thought processes though…comparing and critiquing your own work is something we all suffer from, I think.

    • jubilare

      I am chuffed to bits that the phrase “chuffed to bits” has appeared in one of my comments!
      If I like my own (currently hypothetical) book enough, I would be thrilled to see it in a bargain-bin because that would mean some random person who might enjoy it could pick it up for a song.

      If I do not like my book, seeing it in the bargain bin might result in my buying and burning it. I like fire almost as much as I like books.

      What troubles me, at present, is how inadequate I am when it comes to evaluating my own work. I can’t tell the quality of the tree because I have my nose mashed against its bark.

  • Colleen

    Daughter of mine, you left mediocrity in the weeds a long time ago.

  • mjschneider

    I have a few reactions for you, not in any particular order.

    1. Empathy. Total empathy. I’m reading Bleak House for the first time. By the end of the first chapter, my utter, relative inadequacy was placed in stark contrast, and, for a brief moment, I considered never trying to write fiction again. Then I recalled that Twilight got published and read by zillions of people, and I thought that even if I can never match Dickens, I can sure as hell do better than Stephanie Meyer. Mediocrity terrifies me. What’s even more terrifying is the thought that talented, visionary writers would be so fearful of creating mediocrity that they forego writing Bleak House.

    2. If the quality of your blog or your comments elsewhere is any indication, you really shouldn’t be afraid of mediocrity, because it’s not something I associate with your writing.

    3a. Even if you create something mediocre, consider it a merit badge earned on the journey toward becoming a master. When you started writing, you wrote crap. Soon it elevated to drivel, followed by a sudden, meteoric rise to the level of balderdash. Attaining mediocrity is, all things considered, not so bad. Once you push past that stage, you can reach levels unheard of by most aspiring writers, such as serviceable, readable, interesting, solid, or memorable! To aim higher would mean acquiring the skills necessary to become vital, exhilarating, or even (dare I say?) unique. (Awed hush!)

    3b. Consider how many failures so many of the greats created on their way to becoming greats. Failure, in other words, is the yardstick of greatness. When a bad (or mediocre) writer creates mediocrity, she either stops writing or simply accepts the mediocrity as “the best I can do.” When a great writer creates mediocrity, s/he guts it with a hatchet (if it’s even salvageable) and redoubles her efforts to fashion it into something worthy of her efforts and her readers’ time.

    4. Trust the judgment of others. Oh, sure, you should trust yourself, too. If you’re not true to your own vision, your work will be soulless tripe. But seeing one’s work in the bargain bin (either literally or metaphorically) doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s work is unworthy. That’s not a judgment. You have taste and an appreciation for the craft of great literature, both of which establish the standards you hold for yourself. You have people in your circle (at least, I hope you do; the other comments here are, to me, evidence of it) that you can trust, because they hold those standards as well. That is, you know who your audience is, even if you can’t articulate it precisely. Write for the standards of *your* audience, so to speak, if not their preferences. Trust their judgment. Choosing who to trust and why is a mark of the trust you have in your own vision. Not even everyone you trust will give you great or useful advice all the time, but developing the instincts to know the difference is yet another stepping stone in your progress.

    6. Keep writing. The more time you spend worrying about how mediocre you may or may not be, the less time you’re spending doing the hard work of actually doing battle with mediocrity’s slithering tentacles. Worried that your characters are too cliche? Keep writing. Concerned that this plot point has been done a thousand times? Keep writing. The last paragraph felt like unforgivable crap even as you wrote it? Keep writing. You can look mediocrity in the eye once you’ve finished your draft. Then you can drive a harpoon through its brain. That’s what revisions are for.

    7. My advice is worth what you pay for it. In the end, all I can do is offer my simple encouragement, which is hopefully worth a bit more than all my advice combined. Keep calm and carry on writing. You owe it to your (future) readers, but you mostly owe it to yourself. You can do it!

    • jubilare

      Kind friend, you give me courage. Thank you. I hope, some day, I can return the favor. :)

      1. I guess, in a way, the amazing pieces of writing and the mediocre ones are both useful and dangerous. On one hand, the greats can inspire and teach us, but they can also overwhelm and discourage us. While the mediocre writing can encourage us in the “I can do better than that” kind of way, and teach us what not to do, but they can also fill our brains with mediocrity. I grew up absolutely surrounded by wonderful literature, which is a great advantage that has given me a serious inferiority complex. ;)

      2. aw… thank you. Likewise. I hope you are right. I have a fair amount of confidence in certain areas. I know I can put words together well. What scares me are the monsters of plot, pace, coherence and their fellows. *shudders*

      3a. Ach, that is a good way to look at it! It doesn’t quite banish my fear, but it certainly helps. I am one who, like many, wants to run before she learns to walk.

      3b. this is true.

      4. This is also true, but difficult. It is no easy thing to get enough input from others to be useful without posting something online… and if I mean to try and publish it, I have to hold back from doing that. Bleh.

      5. What happened to 5? :P

      6. Damn good advice. You are correct. Whatever else we do, we must carry on or be defeated. I will not be defeated!

      7. Your advice and encouragement, both, are worth far more than I pay for it. I thank you, truly.

  • Rob

    You are absolutely correct. This feeling you have is part of a cycle. Not to trivialize your feelings, but think of it this way. I used to play a lot of darts in my rowdier days and some nights I could hit that triple 20 or double 16 after five beers and with my eyes closed. No problem. And then there were the nights when standing two feet from the board I’d hit the guy behind me. But as my doubles partner always told me, you have to keep throwing the darts. So I did, and eventually I was at least hitting the board again.

    My trouble these days is throwing the darts. I’ll have a topic in mind for the blog so I sit and write three or four sentences. And I dry up. Can’t think of a thing else to write. And I look at writers like yourself who can whip out 1000, 1200, even 1500 words without working up a sweat and I wonder what the heck I’m doing this for. But I know that eventually I’ll hit the board again.

    Keep throwing the darts.

    • jubilare

      You know, I once hit my brother in the head with a dart? No joke. It was an accident and he was ok, thank heaven, but I don’t think he ever played darts with me again. >_<

      I've run this same cycle so many times now, and it still throws me for a loop. I have to wonder if it ever goes away. Maybe not. You are right, though. The only good solution is to keep going.

      Oh, and I am working up a sweat, believe me! The internet does a good job at hiding it. I have a fair number of drafts where my inspiration has dried up as well, and at least one post that is long overdue and untouched. Don't despair! I don't think this is easy for any of us. ;)

  • palecorbie

    This too shall pass, honest. Being great’s like being crazy – if you think you are, it’s a sign you aren’t – Neil Gaiman rings his publisher 2/3rds through his novel to say he’s giving up because it’s crap every damn time and look how much he’s put out and had adored. Michelangelo died wishing he’d “made something beautiful”. What can we hope for, in terms of art, if we’re not striving for the sun? (even sacred larches never reach it, you know.)

    I badly want you to get your stuff out there. I want to buy your book. I want to explain to my mother that Kethe is actually said Keth’ and reccomend the thing to my friends/younger relatives/adopted gay flamingo kids to feed their little brains with that colour and quirkiness of imagination.

    • jubilare

      “Being great’s like being crazy – if you think you are, it’s a sign you aren’t” Ah, my friend, so true. I’m not worried about being worried, if that makes sense. I know this feeling is part of the job. It’s the fact that my concerns may be justified, and then what to do about it? I guess, for now, the only thing to be done is to keep bloody-well writing until I have a whole something… then set it down for a little while and then return to it with what kith and kin are willing to help me refine it.

      When I do publish something, I will give you a signed copy even if I have to buy the thing myself.

      • palecorbie

        Good. [kicks broken internets for half an hour until they sort of work] Get better, is what, though first one has to get. Yes!

        I’m not that poor…I would offer you the like in exchange, but I have not a true word to my name nor sight of a future at present. I almost miss this feeling, soul-grinding as it is.

        • jubilare

          It is so!

          Oh, ‘ly, it’s nothing to do with money. There are a few people who will be given books once books exist because, truth be told, they all had a hand in the making. You are one of these. You indirectly helped me overcome my fear of Kethe, and Rosa only came to me after you pointed out the prejudice faced by people with albinism.
          *offers hand* I still think you will write again.

  • David

    Would you mind sending me that story o yours you wanted me to read in the fall? I’d live to read it now, if you still want me to. +)

    I’ve been running from these questions for at least a year and only yesterday picked up a too-long-gestating short story that’s already had 4 almost-workable drafts. I whiffled and whaffled for an hour or so before accepting that it was time for Draft 5, then banged my head on my desk some more before suddenly finding the perfect outline for it. That last bang must’ve done it. I was thrilled. I wrote for an hour or so, gotten of a page, looked it over a few times and thought “Man, that is boooring.” And I was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of inability to write interesting sentences or worthwhile dialogue. But tonight I shall persist again. Please do the same yourself, okay? We’ll persist together. +)

    • jubilare

      Please live, whether you read it or not! ;) You ask when I am most afraid of showing it to anyone. Arrgh! But I shall send it, even so.

      I feel like we need a song… something marshal to raise the blood and help carry our resolve to battle with the demons of authors’ minds! Fight on, my brother. We shall prevail.

  • robstroud

    Yikes. That’s one scary Muse!

  • Liss

    Common? It’s practically ubiquitous XD

    On a separate but equally applicable subject, a very wise person once told me that the first step towards confidence is trust in others, and I was quite surprised at how much this seemingly irrelevant remark rang true when I thought it through. As people we are constantly evaluating not just what is said to us, but the source of the information and the motive behind it. The more careful and critical a thinker you are, the more time you devote to wondering WHY a person is saying something.

    Is (s)he just saying that because (s)he’s family? Is (s)he just saying that because (s)he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings? Is (s)he just saying that because (s)he doesn’t know anything about it/isn’t discerning enough?

    To me these are important (VITAL) questions and they MUST always be asked in all spheres of life. But after you have considered them, the trick is to then decide what your hypothesised response is, rather than flap constantly back and forth between yes/no theories.

    Is it only your mother telling you how wonderful you are? Sure, give her a hug and reserve some judgement until you have more feedback. ;)

    Are your best friends telling you they enjoy something? Okay, keep searching for your nebulous validation, but remember that friendship doesn’t automatically disqualify their opinions.

    Are most or all of the people reading something telling you they enjoy it? Well … what’s the statistical likelihood of multiple people all having an ulterior motive for telling you that? Is it not possible that it might actually be … good?

    Of course the Counterargument of Doom looms here – yeah, but X million people like ‘Twilight’, too – but even then there’s a logical response. Step away from the subjective quality of your work (because no good writer is EVER going to be happy with that, in my opinion). Do you enjoy the writing of it? No? Then if X people liking it even though it’s not what you want to write doesn’t matter to you, why are you writing it?

    And if the answer is yes, then if you like writing it and X people like it as well … remind me how that’s a bad thing?

    I think the second step towards writer satisfaction is a touch of humility. The drive to always improve yourself is critical, but you don’t hold off becoming a scientist until you’ve got a better theory than Einstein’s. You cannot be the best at anything when you begin. You must never accept that you cannot be better … but likewise you must always accept that someone else will be. (You don’t have to like it, but you need to accept it ;D)

    So yeah. I’ll let you know when I make it to Step One. ;P

    • jubilare

      Mm… that’s a lot to absorb. I think I agree, though. A little doubt is good, but mistrusting others means constantly second-guessing oneself.

      Related is something I’ve been told by multiple people, including my mother, about writing. “Trust your reader.” It goes for any form of storytelling, I think, and maybe any form of art. As a consumer of art and stories, I loathe not being trusted, or worse, being talked down to. Therefore, I have to put some trust in my readers. This is also a little liberating because it helps me realize that writing is only half of a collaborative effort. The other half is the reading. It’s a scary thought, but freeing, too. At some point, one has to let go.

      And yeah, a little humility almost never, if ever, goes amiss. That’s why the top of this cycle is as dangerous to an author as the bottom, eh? Beware the “I am the greatest!” ^_^ It’s all so much easier said than done. Alas!

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