The plain fact is that there are no obvious moral consequences to how people entertain themselves in their leisure time. The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired for with our circuitry for status.
— Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
Mediocrity is kind of the best. Trying to be the best is a prison. Living in fear of mediocrity is like being ceaselessly chased by the monster from your nightmares. You will always be running and never be able to rest in your nature. It’s just not possible to be true to yourself without being middling or worse in some areas. And being true to yourself is what actually satisfies you– the best outcome.
One of the biggest wastes of life– miles and miles of running in circles trying to escape the mediocrity monster– is trying to have “good taste.” It’s worth exploring lots of things and investing effort into food, entertainment, decor, etc. that offer delayed gratification. That effort is ultimately grounded in your desirable experience. It is not worth giving a damn what is erudite or impressive to like. Just take the C in the court of public opinion and get back to actually enjoying yourself.
One of my 2020 resolutions was:
Embrace whatever makes my heart sing, even though loving and delighting in something makes me feel vulnerable. These are my genuine and beautiful feelings, and it’s always okay to be me.
In other words, if what I truly like is lame and the level of effort I’m comfortable with/skill I’m capable of when I’m happy is mediocre, then call me Mrs. Mediocrity!
Boy, has my intention manifested! Since I defended my dissertation and the lockdown started, I’ve been free to simply like what I like and do what I do. Not only have I had time, but, crucially, I’ve been free of the constant reminders of everyone else’s accomplishments and erudition. Which is necessary, because the things I really like don’t tend to be very highbrow or impressive.
I opened with the general point, but I do have a specific example in mind: I LOVE fan fiction. Fan fiction was always a guilty pleasure in high school and college. Writing a different ending than the original author… is this even allowed?! But until I defended I was too embarrassed as a grown-up graduate student (not to mention felt too guilty about doing anything besides writing my dissertation) to engage with fan fiction even in the privacy of my own home. I felt the eyes of more moral people who enjoyed quality things like wine and talking about diversity in STEM on me all of the time. The vulnerability of loving something public and being part of a community that shared their humble, sincere creative efforts was too much for me when I was worried about being good enough at Harvard. When I feel insecure, I am a snob about originality, and I sort of viewed people who loved someone else’s creation and let it capture their imagination as losers. What a sad, zero-sum way to view people enjoying the enthusiasm, creativity, and connection I so desperately needed.
It wasn’t just that it’s fan fiction or high art vs. low art. It was also that fan fiction is so unapologetically feminine in it’s preoccupations. The feminine themes are what I love, but that love makes me feel very bashful. Romance novel-style smut (but about characters that have been well-established in a non-romance novel plot canon!– truly the greatest form of free porn), angst, slow burn, being utterly adored by men because of who you are (while you are, of course, also beautiful to the rest of the world), men who are redeemed by the purity of their love for you, soul intimacy, negotiating unplanned pregnancy and young family life despite adversity, cavity-inducing moments of domestic cuteness, etc. Smart, empowered women are supposed to consider most of these regressive tropes. Being in male- and feminist-dominated professional and ideological spaces since college, and finding that unfemme psychology mostly agreeable in addition to being much higher status, I had lost touch with these more feminine primal themes that really enliven me. Just as I feel like I’m getting away with something when I fantasize positively about being pregnant, it seems too-good-to-be-true that I can just participate in comment discussions on Archive of Our Own about what if Rey and Kylo Ren had a baby? like I’m Sara Crew, unafraid to imagine the things that would make me happy.
Writing fan fiction is the purest artistic endeavor I have undertaken since my sister and I stopped playing our doll epic, Babytown. And that’s precisely because no one I know considers it real art. I write under a pseudonym, elaborating on the backstories and emotional lives of characters from an old videogame, for an audience of pseudonyms who simply want to read stories about their favorite characters and otps. There’s a kind of status in getting kudos and comments, but the real reward is writing it. For so many years I’ve felt that I had to validate my creativity by getting some kind of external approval. Tragically, being creative became a chore at best and a high-stakes test at worst. Fan fiction, though, is just for me. I needed something like this to feel safe letting loose creatively. Even in this no-stakes scenario– writing about a niche ship with few readers in a way that can never be traced to me– I’ve had to work through a lot of fear of expressing myself. I’m still mediocre even for a fan fiction writer (some of them are really talented). It’s humbling to put in a lot of time at writing, something I’m generally told I’m great at, and still see so much room for improvement. But it’s also awesome to want to improve for the sake of making something better instead of just seeing faults as a liability, like I did in my dissertation. More than skill of execution, though, it’s vulnerable to put out there what I really like, think is cool, find sexy, find romantic, and consider a happily ever after. Writing fan fiction showed me how afraid I was to look at these more feminine desires and gave me the means to reconnect with my chick lit side. I wouldn’t have pushed through all these fears to get to this awesome play space if I hadn’t been doing something so intrisically fun and rewarding.
I feel really creative again for the first time since high school. And I owe it all to this most popular of popular art forms, the kind you make as a fan of someone else’s intellectual property. I owe it to embracing the truth of my humanity– what actually, really elicits joy from me apart from external validation– and letting myself be mediocre. Mediocre and happy 😃