on writing, mediocrity, and feeling blue

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When I was small, I remember taking a series of tests. I remember sitting next to my mother as the results were read aloud. My math scores were unparalleled; I exhibited deftness in understanding numbers and how to manipulate them. As a child, I’d managed to ferret out the logic within stories that depicted scenarios involving distance and time. On the other hand, my reading comprehension and writing scores were unremarkable. This baffled us because I’d been reading and writing for as long as I’d been alive, and if you asked me now to calculate the tip on a bill divided three ways, I’d reach for my calculator. No one considered the binary nature of these exams, tests that were designed to measure one’s aptitude and predicted the sort of career for which a child might be suited. For years I endured advanced math classes and much of my days amounted to playing with protractors and scientific calculators, while the spaces in between were dominated by books and short stories I’d written on loose-leaf paper.

No one thought to understand that my relationship to words was mathematical. No one imagined that I’d solved these riddles not because I had an affinity for math, but because I was so drawn into the narrative. Out of all the things I could do in this world, writing is the one thing that gives me assurance. I know I’m good at it, and the question is always one of maths. How do I get better? How do I manage the distance between this word here and the better word over there? Because the mark of a good writer is in how they navigate the subtleties, how one could find the combination of words that make others see. How can I make this sentence leaner (subtraction)? How can I make this dialogue operate like a nesting doll, working on multiple levels (multiplication). How can I write about loss in a way that puts your heart on pause (division). And how do I get to all of this in the most efficient way possible (Pythagorean theorem, a2 + b2 = c2, Euclidean geometry).

Writing, for me, has always existed as a combination of exhausting surgery and constant maths. Often I think of an image of a nesting doll because whatever I intend is never what is, and a story of mine always operates on a multitude of planes (multiplication). There exists a difference between writing simply and being simple, and the work, for me, is about how to achieve the cleanest line possible while maintaining this whole textbook of equations.

Last week I read a post on Twitter where someone wrote that there is no good or bad when it comes to writing–there is only the best you can do.

I call bullshit on that.

Not everyone can be a writer, nor should they be. And I’m not talking about the person who pens posts about their outfits or their day, rather I’m speaking about those who don’t have it but fake it and call themselves a writer because it’s the vogue thing to do. Ironically enough, writers have never felt trendy because we’re always the fringe, we’re always told that nothing we ever write sells. People don’t want dark. People don’t want complicated. People spend their whole days dicking around on the internet to avoid thinking at work and when they come home the last thing they want to do is…think. People read cereal boxes and lists and they want their words fed to them. People don’t want advanced maths (hmm, this is middle/high school math of which I’ve written), they want their reconciliations–they want what they are missing.

Hmm, so they want addition?

I don’t care if people call my writing remarkable, incredible, amazing, or any such adjective. Ego strokes and pats on the head don’t interest me. I’m 38. I know I’m good–the question is how do I get to that next place, that next line, that new story. You’re good but you’re too smart, too dark, too obtuse. You make people do all this work.

Fuck you and your dumbed-down version of a life.

Maybe I’m feeling blue because I see so many people who call themselves writers rewarded for mediocrity. The motley lot laud these “writers” for their “brand-building” (look at all her Instagram followers! Imagine all the books she’ll sell!) as opposed to observing the architecture of what’s on their page (or screen, if you’ll have it). I see people who run a blog where they prattle on about just! how! hard! it! is! to photograph their outfits every day and suddenly they put on the hat of marketer, consulting “big brands” on how they can build their brand. I read a post on Facebook where a friend of mine bemoans the fact that her not-so-smart but ambitious assistant is now a Vice President of a company. I scroll Twitter and land on a full-time role as a Director of a Health + Wellness Brand, the first in two years that piques my interest, and then I read the requirements and apparently to be a director you only need four years of experience.

People say, ignore all that! You do you! Keep pushing along! Keep smiling, keep shining, to which I want to respond, Please. Shut. Up. I’m exhausted by all the mediocrity being rewarded when the necessary failures are what have pushed me to achieve. If I was always told that I was great, would have I ever read more, tried harder, revised more? Or would have I been complacent for having achieved a first draft?

I turn 39 this month and I look around and wonder what I’ve really achieved, and whether all of it matters. Does it matter that I’ve written the greatest book I can write to date when people who can’t string together a sentence get multiple book deals? Does it matter that I am offered projects to clean up rookie mistakes made by those who call themselves marketers but don’t have the experience? Does excelling matter when the great lights and applause shine brightest on the feeblest of attempts.

I don’t know. The only solace I have this week are books written by women from whom I can still learn. Women who are artisans with the English language. The blacksmiths of literature, a dying breed.

11 thoughts on “on writing, mediocrity, and feeling blue

  1. I’ve read this a couple of times today. First, with the mindset of, “Why are people so damn lazy? Yes, Felicia is dead on about those folks and how quick we are to praise b.s.!” Then the second time I thought, “Shit, I can be one of those lazy, mediocre folks at times…”
    I appreciate the wake-up call. Sometimes, it is not just about other folks whose actions are frustrating and I have no control of. Sometimes, I just need to check myself…

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  2. Applicable, understandable, and deep. Thank you for your words, as they have me speechless. I agree with what you have said, completely. Sometimes, the greatest books are not the ones that receive the greatest “praise” and “views”. They are the ones filled with an innermost thought, a deeper connection, and a heart ready to spill itself onto the pages. Thank you

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  3. This, as you already know, is excellently written.

    And this struggle of what’s beautiful, what’s quality, what’s delicately and painstakingly crafted vs. what’s popular is one that spans creative genres and the test of time.

    It’s frustrating definitely. As a writer, you have a need to express yourself but it’s also about a connection. Writers also need to be heard and understood. They need appreciation.

    But as you said, the hard stuff is hard. What you do takes courage but it requires it of the reader as well. And a lot of people aren’t ready to step into consciousness for several reasons, but mostly because they are human and scared.

    You could measure your success using the same metrics as everyone else — publishing deals, traffic to your blog, money made. But I don’t think that those would satisfy you at the end of the day, even if you got them.

    I think instead, you should measure by other things… Not the validation of others but maybe that rare moment when someone who gets it finds you and says: YES! I see it too! To understand the miracle of the one, instead of the herd mentality of the crowd. There what’s special — the unique soul that comes into contact with your work and says: that’s exactly what I was looking for. Thank everything on this earth that I found this. I’m not the only one.

    Popularity can seem to be alluring, but touching a small portion of the population is holy, sacred. It’s an honor, a gift, something not many people have but YOU do. And that is meaningful and powerful. You matter.

    p.s. I feel like based on this, I would be interested to know your thoughts on Allison Vesterfelt’s free ebook: Writing to Find Yourself. In it, she discusses how she finally published a book but it didn’t satisfy her. She goes into the journey of how she finds meaning in writing for herself. I wonder if that will resonate? It’s available at allisonvesterfelt.com if you are interested. 🙂 I just was reading it the other day and similar themes popped out to me in this.

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    1. Erika,

      Thank you. This was so lovely and eloquent and needed.

      You know, popularity is not something I actively seek, although it would be absurd to deny that as a writer I want my work to have been read, understood, enjoyed and shared. The size of the audience doesn’t need to be large, but, for me, it needs to exist. The act of writing is so solitary and it kind of reminds me of The Ouroboros (I’ve been seeing a lot of this myth and image lately, and I think it’s deliberate) where I constantly return to something, feed it, feed off of it, and then see how it mutates, feeds and grows. But much like the myth, the reality is sometimes suffocating, and as much as I want to be alone and create, there is an equal and balanced need to connect and share.

      I had so much ambition for my first book, and I was kind of let down by it all. And I think it was because I went after all the wrong things (reviews, accolades, some kind of minor fame) rather than something more tactile and real, namely, people who read and connect with your work on a substantial level. So I will look at your recommendation, as it rings true of my experience.

      I think what bothers me so much is that I hear the constant refrain of we want simple! we want light! we don’t want smart! that it wears on me, and it takes everything in me to keep going in spite of, because of, etc.

      Hope that gibberish made sense.

      Warmly, f.

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  4. All you can do is be you and write. You are so lucky to have the soul of a writer. You’re real. People have a hard time dealing with real!

    For years I did a zine, got a lot of attention, had all the reviews and things “needed” to get a book deal. Got the book deal, then nothing. They (the pub. industry) told me “it’s because no one knows who you are.” (Said by famous editor who had famous client — who was interested in me until famous client became WAY famous with his big long-titled book that I don’t even like. But I bitterly digress.) Like, you can’t have a story or be a good writer, like, that’s not enough. But the act of writing and being me and staying true to myself was enough. Would I like to not be in remainders and available on amazon.com for one penny (really)? YES. But what can you do? You go on. You be you.

    Felicia, I don’t even know you but felt compelled to email you after I read your book. It impacted me. I still remember reading it — all in one day, in my suburban backyard while the babysitter had my girl inside. I couldn’t put down your book; your voice. You got to me. Keep on — you have something.

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