Don’t let self-doubt turn you into a toxic mediocrity
We all have our demons; we struggle with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy about our craft, so why compound these with toxic resentment — and worse, outright discrimination? By Mark Cantrell
THERE’S rarely a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with impostor syndrome.
Like many an author (or journalist), my demons are legion and they often plague me with doubts, or they hurl cajolery about my inadequacies. You’re pathetic, they chorus; you’re no good, you’re a joke, not a writer.
Ignore them, says I, whispering through the veil of tears; trying as I might not to silently agree with these haunting uncertainties.
Despite efforts to stick my fingers in my ears and chant ‘yadda yadda yadda’, I find it profoundly difficult to actually do this and to type at the same time. Damn my lack of impossible dexterity. But somehow I persevere.
Self-doubt nags authors at every level, from those taking their first steps, to those that appear to have conquered the heights of success, but for me there’s another aspect to contend with: I’m stalked by a fear that I’m just another white male mediocrity. Yes, I just shuddered.
Talk about a bleak outlook. As we know from seeing it manifested so often on social media, or just the plain old trad kind, the male mediocrity is not a pretty sight. But there’s mediocrity and then there’s what we can only call toxic mediocrity. There seems to be an awful lot of the latter kind about these days.
Laurence Fox is a case in point. But let’s not dwell over-much on this actor turned pound-shop Katie Hopkins, other than to admit that he helped inspire (say rather provoked) this little thought stream. Frankly, the less said about this man and his odious views the better.
But even here, ‘poor’ Fox must stand as third rate and second fiddle when it come to prompting this particular blog; understudy, you might say, to the Irish author John Banville, whose recent grumpy ‘woe is me’ in relation to the Booker Prize did far more to fire up the old grey matter.
As a quick aside, congratulations to Douglas Stuart, who won the 2020 Booker Prize for fiction with his debut work, Shuggie Bain. The novel is described as a “searing account” of a young boy growing up in Glasgow during the Thatcher years of the 1980s. The gritty tale is based on the author’s own childhood: apt for these difficult times. Read more about it HERE, but now let’s return to the narrative flow…
To recap, 74-year-old Banville, who won the Booker in 2005, has bemoaned efforts to diversify the awards in recent years. The put upon fellow has revealed that as a straight, white, male he feels he’d have little chance of making the shortlist, let alone win it these days. Life can be so jolly unfair, can’t it?
Satire is one thing, sarcasm another, but both pale against the audacity in claiming victimhood of a discrimination long-borne by under-represented groups. Oh, the irony; more like the bare faced cheek.
The literary world (in its widest sense, I include genre in this) is not — or should not — be some privileged club for straight, white, middle class, middle aged males. That’s not to say they have no place — of course they do — but their presence must not be a preserve. That way lays stagnation, not to mention unbecoming displays of slighted privilege.
Mediocrity and a sense of entitlement tend to be bedfellows, the sheets rank with unwashed resentment, but they are no excuse for prejudice. Succeed or fail on your own merits and effort; don’t seek to deny the same opportunity to others. The right to stand among our peers as equals, and be judged on our works, regardless of our race, gender, sexuality and all the rest, is no injustice.
As authors, we might fail. We might not be quite good enough to get where we want to be (at least not just yet, tomorrow is another day). We might lose the struggle with our demons. We might even plunge into bitter despair and be tempted by a loathing projected onto others, but that last one is a toxic brew that will pickle our souls in sour resentment.
If that becomes so, if we turn on others, if we give vent to prejudice then let’s be absolutely clear — we have not simply failed as an author, we have failed as a human being. And that’s a damn sight worse.
Personally, I’d rather slip into obscurity than attempt to court attention by inflaming bigotry and inhumanity. No, let’s rephrase that. As an indie author, I should be realistic: so, let’s say I’d rather fail to climb out of obscurity’s gravity well than make a name for myself with a toxic spew of bile.
No matter how low we get, turning on others — rather than turning to them — is a choice we don’t have to make, not to mention it’s an excuse for our failings (or else a denial).
Self-doubt is natural, impostor syndrome is a common feeling, but prejudice and resentment is both a failing and a choice. Here, it is essential to emphasise that these two strands do not need to be common bedfellows. Prejudice stands on its own two feet, regardless of how we feel about ourselves, after all.
Quite how this relates to Fox and Banville is neither here or there, really. The link is necessarily tenuous. Indeed, whether they are simply giving vent to long-held views, or seeking to assuage feelings of inadequacy by pouring contempt on others, is moot. Prejudice is prejudice. In any case, I can’t claim to have any insight into their characters, or an understanding of how their minds work — nor do I — beyond what ends up published on record.
But we’ve dwelt on the dark side long enough. Let’s turn to the light and take a breath of fresh air. There’s a world of difference out there, an uplifting variety that nevertheless offers an opportunity to connect with our commonality and share fresh perspectives. Surely that’s something to celebrate and explore?
None of us are alone in facing the ups and downs of the creative life, so why make ourselves unnecessarily lonely in the midst of so many shared experiences?
Writers of colour, women authors, LGBT+ authors, writers with a disability, those who are working class, we all share the same misgivings about our abilities and craft. Why, then, pile on extra burdens, and present them with added hurdles, simply because they are not cishet, white middle class males? We are all fellow travellers; we don’t need to walk alone.
Reach out and make connections, that’s the way to grow together; celebrate each other’s successes, commiserate our mutual failings, applaud lucky breaks and take satisfaction in hard work that’s paid off. Let’s all offer support and understanding, shoulders to cry on, and a chin up in the face of adversity. These are lights against the darkness of despair.
They may not necessarily make it easier to cope with our nagging demons on any given day, but they’ll help us keep our spirits up and preserve our sense of humanity.
As for me, hell, maybe I am an impostor; or worse, just another mediocre straight, white male. Better that, though, than become a spewing crater of noxious white privilege. Truth be told, I’d rather keep fighting my demons and strive to be a better writer (and human), rather than give in and sulk about it.
Far from being downhearted or threatened by greater representation and diversity, I find it encouraging. It’s a huge source of inspiration: exciting, challenging, and enervating. What’s not to like?