Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Insecure Writers Group: Shades of Mediocrity

There's a particular line from the song "Homeward Bound" by Simon and Garfunkel that has always resonated with me:

But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity

This is something that I always feel very keenly when I write. There are days when I have to sit there and force myself to put words on the paper because the whole time I'm writing there's a voice in my head saying, "God, this is so dull. Why on earth do you think anyone would want to read this? Your use of language is appallingly simple and coarse. Would you please stop? I can't take it anymore."

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think I'm a bad writer (even though that's what I say to my husband every time I ask him to read a scene for me). I do actually think I'm a far better writer than many, many people on the planet. Of course, the majority of those people never claimed to be writers and are perfectly happy with their lives in other lines of work. I also think I'm significantly better than many authors of certain *cough* fanfictions *cough* I've read. But that's not really a source of pride. I am, I think, a decent writer.

Then I read books that make me marvel at their ideas and images and prose. Then I look at my own and think "Dull, dull, dull. Irrepressibly drab and awful." All my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity.

And I think that most writers (especially we who aren't published yet) suffer from this to some extent. That's why writers tend to rewrite, revise, edit, and polish over and over again until they think their manuscript is as close to "perfect" as it can get. Our prose is almost never good enough for us as it is. Have you ever had someone read your work and tell you how good, how compelling it was and how strong the voice was? And then you look at them at if they're deranged and begin to suspect that they're just outright lying to you because how could they possibly think any of that pile of steaming crap had any merit at all? 

Well, there's a reason for that. Here's how author Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains it:

When you’re telling the same plot as someone else, you differentiate that plot from the other person’s only by making that story personal, making it something you care about.  You write honestly, without stylistic flourishes at all.

If you do it right, that story will be compelling—and here’s the weird thing. Everyone will mention how strong your voice is.  You won’t see your voice in that piece at all.  In fact, you’ll think that story’s prose is colorless, unoriginal, and rather mundane.
Ever since you learned the language around your first year, you’ve been thinking precisely that way.  That’s how you think. That’s how you talk.  That’s your perspective.  It’s old news to you.  In fact, it’s normal.  But to everyone else—especially people who’ve never met you—that perspective is new and vivid and memorable.

 Remember that folks: you can't hear your own voice in your writing because it's been yours since you learned to talk and to you it's just the same old song. But to other people your voice is different, unique, fresh, interesting.

And we as writers need to just learn to trust our voice without attempting to polish it into oblivion. We need to trust the unique perspective that we write from to make our writing personal and thus more compelling.

I've known this for some time but I still hear those evil negative voices in my head. Most of the time I just need to block them out and keep going. Trust doesn't come naturally to me, I have to practice it. We all do, to an extent. We need to just keep writing and we need to not get stuck in endless revision cycles. We need to write and then go ahead and put our writing out there, whether that's submitting it to traditional houses, or publishing it yourself. Take chances and trust your voice. It's the only way your voice will be allowed to develop.

Believe in yourself as a writer.


  1. Great post, I never thought about this before but you are so right. I ma definaetly bored with listening to!

  2. A lovely post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. If only my voices whispered such genocide-free advice.

  4. Siv, I'm glad it was useful to you!

    MJ, thank you.

    Brian, keep your voices away from my blog.

  5. Great post! I never thought of it that way. Thank you.

  6. We're used to our own voice? That is so hopeful! Hey, my stuff is bland the first time around because I'm just trying to get the stupid idea on paper. Then I'll go back and dress it up a bit.

  7. Thanks, Tyrean.

    Christine, I think only the experienced writers figure this out. Good thing they can pass on their wisdom to us!

    Alex, I find my stuff bland too. But maybe it's just me.

  8. Seems to be the theme coursing through posts today - believe in yourself as a writer. I'm working on it. Thank you.

  9. Excellent post! There is something I've learned here and I thank you for it.
    Believe in yourself is the key. :)

  10. Karen, I think it's one of the most important lessons that writers need to learn and it's very hard to get it to sink in!

    Joanne, so glad I could help.

  11. That's interesting. I've thought that before when someone tells me they like something I've written. I wonder what it is they see that I'm not, because I wasn't that crazy about it. :P

  12. I needed that quote by Kristine Kathryn Rusch! Thank you so much for sharing it!
    I had never thought of it like that before, that I'm used to my own voice and so don't know its own power and merit.
    Wonderful post!

  13. New follower here. That is a great quote and my insecurities often hit the surface after reading a really great book too.

  14. Thanks for this, it's such great advice. I don't know why I never thought of it before- it seems obvious now. Oh and I love your Monty Python reference: "Dull, dull, dull. Irrepressibly drab and awful." Had to chuckle at that.

  15. LG, I feel that way all the time.

    Kathleen, I'm glad you found it helpful.

    Nancy, thanks for following.

    Tizzy, you got the reference! I didn't think anyone but my husband would. :D

  16. I love Simon and Garfunkel! They wrote the best song ever written!

    I'm not much for the polishing and revising. I tend to spend a lot of time punching it into shape as I go and the edits are (generally) just about grammar.

    I also (try) to choose the voice I'm using going in, but I'm not perfect at this, because it's just modifying my own voice, and sometimes I slip.

  17. Great advice. I have yet to find my voice as a writer, but I suspect when I do I'll go through the same feelings you've described. Now I have a heads up I can curb that before it happens. Thanks!

  18. Wow. Really thought-provoking post. My own inner critique doesn't hear my own voice very well also, I'm quick to take on board criticisms, no matter who they come from, but much to slow to accept positive responses, especially when re-reading my own work.

  19. Andrew, not sure about the best, but Paul Simon is surely one of the great songwriters of modern times. I'm not much for polishing either. I write longhand and then do some revising as I type it up. So far that's enough for me. (Other than editing for grammar, of course.) I don't think authors should modify their voice. If they do, it's not genuinely their voice anymore.

    Jamie, I think the idea of "finding your voice" is a fallacy. Your voice is just how you naturally write. The point is that we're so used to our own voices that we think we need to change it or discover it because we don't realize it's already unique.

    Hunter, a lot of aspiring writers seem all too eager to take all criticism to heart. I think that's often something we need to grow out of.

  20. what a greaaat post love your blog =) follow

  21. True, true and true, Sarah. All of it. Giving in to the insecurity is the easiest thing in the world to do, for all of the reasons you explained. Saying something in way that hasn't been done before is key, not necessarily saying something that HASN'T been said before.


  22. This is a really good point, Sarah. It's kind of like listening to yourself on audio or video never sound the same as you do to yourself.

    Love the new blog header, too!

  23. I have to go with "The Sound of Silence" all the way as the best song ever written. Not that it's my favorite song, but I think it's the best written.

    It sounds like you write very much how I write.

  24. Say it with me, now: "I am a great writer!" :)

    That's very true about voice. I've done exercises trying to describe my voice, but it's very true that I have a hard time really noticing it or seeing it because I've been drowning in it all my life.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

  25. Thank you, Damon.

    EJ, it's not just saying things in a new way, but saying them in our own way that is important.

    Nicole, good analogy.

    Andrew, The Sound of Silence is actually one of my least favorites of theirs. I'm partial to Kathy's Song as brilliant writing.

    Kelworth, I can't even imagine trying to describe my own voice. I think I would have to go with "It's just... blah."

  26. "But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity."

    Oh my gosh, I have never heard that line before, but it PERFECTLY describes how I feel when I read my own work!

    All that stuff about not being able to recognize your own voice in your own writing is very comforting. I've always found the "voice" concept to be quite elusive!

  27. Eek! That voice in the head sounds familiar - are you sure you're not listening to *my* internal editor? Either way, tell that meanie to be quiet!

  28. I do think Kathy's Song is a beautiful song, but a lot of it's in the music.

    Lyrically, The Sound of Silence just surpasses... well, everything. Which is why I think it's the greatest song ever written.

  29. Wow, Sarah, what a thought-provoking post! The idea that voice is something we have all along, we just need to learn how to refine it and feel comfortable writing in it--that's a major perspective shift. And in all reality, it takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders. It's one of those intangibles, like bravery, that you don't realize you have until you need it.

    Thank you for sharing this. And I love that you talk with your husband about all your world building issues. I try talking to my dog, but he's not a good brainstormer. :)


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