So the Holmes mug I picked up a while ago is covered with quotes from the Great Detective. So I thought where they seemed relevant or interesting, I’d take an occasional post to discuss them. This time, it’s “mediocrity know nothing higher than itself. Talent instantly recognizes genius.”
When I was younger and doing community theater, I’d look at every role I might conceivably have been cast in and think how I’d do it. I could usually see how to do it better. Or so I thought. But sometimes I’d see a performance so good I’d realize no, I couldn’t have done it that way. Couldn’t come close. Not necessarily genius-level performance, but definitely very good. Definitely better than me.
Humbling, but this is part of the process for improving our craft. As Fred Clark points out in looking at Kirk Cameron’s career, if you can’t see that other people are better, if you can’t imagine a higher level of craft to shoot for, you can’t get there. The same applies to writing.
In a parallel to the Dunning-Kruger effect (where the less you know, the more you overestimate how much you know), mediocrity doesn’t see quality. Recognizing genius, or at least quality, is essential to talent, or even competence. If you don’t imagine “better” is possible, it’s hard to achieve. Or if you’re already convinced you’re absolutely awesome!!!!, like that one author who bragged about his amazing strong woman protagonist. Or Scott Bergstrom, who bragged about how his book The Crueltywould show all the other Y/A authors how to do it (Bergstrom’s book at least got decent reviews). Or pretty much anyone who announces their book transcends the genre.
Surprisingly I’ve had less problem with this as a writer than as an amateur actor. My parents were both into theatre so I was involved in amateur theatrics from childhood. By contrast, I was reading for years before I decided to try writing. I already knew there were better writers than me. Like many writers, I tried copying HP Lovecraft; it’s not as easy as I imagined. Heck, it’s impossible; Lovecraft’s prose is overwrought and purple but Lovecraft could make it work. I couldn’t (I’ve had much better success with reworking Lovecraftian ideas).
Of course, we can be inspired by mediocrity too. Lots of writers have told stories of seeing something crappy in print and deciding “Well if that can get published, I should be able to do it!” I don’t think there’s a contradiction.
And comparing ourselves to the best can be crippling too. Veteran mystery writer Lawrence Block in one of his old Writer’s Digest columns wrote about authors who define “great writing” as “whatever I can’t do.” For example, the successful action author who feels inadequate because he doesn’t have sensitive, complex characters, the talented wordsmith who berates their inability to write suspense, etc., etc. I’ve had attacks of that sometimes, but I’ve learned to ignore them, focus on what I do well, and keep going. Comparing ourselves to others is bad if it cripples our self-confidence; as Samuel Johnson said, anyone who works as a writer must have the wit of a courtier, the assurance of a duke and the guts of a burglar.
A little humility doesn’t hurt though.
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