Friday, October 17, 2008

Greatness vs. Mediocrity

When I was 17 years old, I had my wisdom teeth removed over a long weekend from school and my parents rented the movie, "Amadeus." Imagine me bawling my guts out with a swollen face as they dump Mozart's body into a common grave and then poor that guck all over it to make it decompose faster.

Yeah. Nice wisdom teeth memory.

But what has stuck with me from that movie is the whole concept of Greatness vs. Mediocrity. Here we have Salieri, a nice enough composer, who is forever coming in second, (or third, or fourth), to Mozart, who was lecherous and scandalous. Salieri was a God-fearing man who couldn't comprehend that God would put such incredible talent into what he perceives as such a sinful vessel.

At the end of the movie, we are led to assume that Salieri poisoned Mozart and Salieri is in an "insane assylum" for trying to end his own life. He is wheeled down the hallway with his throat all bandaged and is basically calling himself the king of mediocrity as all of the other unfortunate inmates are running around half-crazed.

For YEARS that scene has haunted me as a writer. At times I have found it almost paralyzing as I try to write stories knowing full well that there are so many works of genius in the world that the best I can ever hope for is to be someday wandering around with a bandaged throat and calling myself the Queen of Mediocrity.

Somehow I've managed to stumble through this funky mind block and produce a few books. Some have been well received by readers, others have not appreciated my efforts so much. I've reached the point where my skin has thickened a bit and I'm able to try to focus my attention on all of the people who have said positive things about what I've tried to do.

But still! I'm no Chaim Potok. I'm no Dickens or Austen or Bronte. I'm no Barbara Kingsolver or Kaye Gibbons or Sandra Dallas. I'm no Tom Clancy or Stephen King or my personal hero, Frederick Douglass. So where does that leave me? What am I to do with that?

I'll tell you what.

I had an incredible epiphany a couple of years ago. I was thinking about classical music and how much of it leaves me in a real downer. I've played piano since the age of 8 and had a mother who loved classical music, so I'm no stranger to a lot of it. But man, some of it depresses me so much. Mozart is rarely an exception to this, for me. So as I was loading some music onto an iPod a while back, I loaded Vivaldi, some Handel and three select pieces of Grieg for their sentimental value, having grown up with a Norwegian mother who was often homesick.


I realized that as brilliant as he was, and as much of a genius as he was, I didn't want him on my iPod. Other than his Queen of the Night Aria, he depresses the blazes out of me!

And I started to realize something else. If I had only a few reading choices left to me in this life, as much as I admire Dickens, I don't think I'd pick him. Don't even know that I'd pick Potok, whom I love. I'd pick some fun, escape fiction.


Genre fiction? That's my choice if stranded on a desert island? Yes. (Aside from the scriptures, which is a given. I mean, come on). I would choose something that would lift my mood and spirits, and for me, genre fiction- romance, thrillers, mystery- that does it for me.

So while Mozart is indeed a genius and beloved by so many, and he deserves to be, he's not my favorite. And it's ok. And it's ok that I'm not a writing genius. I've received a few emails and letters here and there from people who say I've given them some reading enjoyment and it warms my heart like no other. I've been able to give people a few hours of reading pleasure and provide for them the same kind of experience I love to have as a reader. I am at peace with my talents and my limitations. I hope to live another 40 or 50 years and continue to improve my craft. I absolutely love what I do and that is such a blessing.

I guess, in the end, even if I am wheeled around in a crappy old wheelchair and moving my hand in circles like the queen at my mediocrity subjcts, I can die happy knowing that for a little bit, I helped someone escape and have a fun reading experience. I lifted a mood for a bit.

Like Vivaldi. :-)


Amanda said...

I've got to admit, for me, I aspire more to the "greatness" side of things. Not because I want to be great, or to be famous, or remembered, but because I want to address the human condition and reach out and touch someone deep down. I want them to remember my characters, my words, to learn from them, to hold them to their hearts. So, okay, I admit, that's a lofty goal I'll probably never achieve - I'm just not that good of a writer - but that's what I strive for. Those classics - Faulkner, Nabokov, Austen, Maugham, Hemingway, Heller, Plath, Steinbeck, etc - are what I love. They'd be my desert island comfort. They are the group I'd like to hobnob with (too bad they're all dead...). They are my role models in the world of writing. I want to capture just a little part of what they captured, to create something timeless.

This is just me, and I want to state that I have no issues with genre fiction (I don't want anyone to misunderstand me), but when I read something genre, I generally don't remember a word of it a month later. I can't recall the scenes, the character's names, anything. A book has to touch me on a very deep level before I will remember it. My sister, when she was about 13, read Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire for the first time, several years before the movie came out. She told me it was the first book she'd read since she was really little where she remembered every character, every plot twist, every scene. She ended up reading every book in Rice's Vampire series, and they stuck with her. I doubt she's read any of them in a decade, but she probably remembers them just as clearly. While I personally never read Anne Rice and I wouldn't classify her as classic literature, I admire the effect that she had on my sister, and I knew, even back then, that THAT was what I was striving for - the ability to touch and change lives with my writing.

David G. Woolley said...

Chaim Potok. Dickens. Austen. Bronte. Kingsolver. Gibbons. Sandra Dallas.

Who are all these people and what do they do for a living?

Wonderful post.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Amanda- isn't the beauty of the literary world that we can all find something we love? I really enjoyed your response, and I, too, love those books that make you think for days after you finish them. There's such a beauty to the classics in terms of the craft- I am in awe, sometimes, at the turn of a phrase.

Also, I expect to see greatness from you. We aren't given the desire without the talent.

And Dave: bless you. :-)

Amanda said...

"isn't the beauty of the literary world that we can all find something we love?"

Yes, it's wonderful! :)