“The second-handedness of the learned world is the
secret of its mediocrity.” - Alfred North Whitehead
The spirit of creativity conveys a sense that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that the achievement of excellence requires something more than a passing interest. Superficial observation wedded to a passive acceptance of conventional jargon and the uncriticised assumptions and prejudices that accompany reductive thought and its crystallisation into simplistic information systems may be enough to earn you a PhD from Oxford or Harvard, but they will not guarantee either the agility or connectedness that produces works of remarkable insight and originality.
“Happiness resides in swiftness of thought and feeling.”(1) A swift sureness inspires joy - the deft touch that is eternally fresh. Far from being bestowed by the Academy, these qualities are distrusted and feared by those who would exploit the scarcity of talent for their own reward.
If audience is the stubborn, creative adversary of the selective blindness that bedevils every assumption, prejudice, and choice made by a besieged screenwriter, then mediocrity is the besieged writer's most welcome companion, the secure and comforting reminder that one’s feet have never left the ground.
Where audience and tribe cajole great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness, mediocrity is that sense of decorum and chauvinistic control that elevates mere effort above wonder, and makes a virtue of the obvious and insignificant at the expense of substance, passion, and inspiration.
Mediocrity is symptomatic of that pervasive human tendency to manipulate and subdue whatever forces or exigencies one imagines might threaten one’s security and comfort, the drive to serve one’s self at the expense of everything that is admirable. It manifests as a knee-jerk reflex founded upon the assumption that the writer is in control, that the screenwriter alone decides – the masterful puppeteer whose inveterate string-pulling invariably hangs him in the end. In seeking the apparent safety that such control seems to offer, the writer runs the risk of robbing the dramatic experience of its authenticity by employing strategies that rely almost exclusively on avoidance and denial.
Mediocrity is not a cause; it’s an effect - a virulent psychic cancer that opportunistically thrives whenever the dialogical relationships that vitalise and invigorate the creative odyssey are not present or have been abandoned or left to atrophy. In short, mediocrity is a manifestation of the writer/character’s inability or unwillingness to manage fear.
Fear accompanies every creative act; it is an essential ingredient of the dramatic experience. It is never a question of “how do I rid myself of it?” – for fear can never finally be banished from the creative quest – but rather, what is its proper function within the context of finding the story?
Interestingly, the word, ”mediocre”, has its origins in the world of mountains, and – one assumes – mountain climbing, as the Latin, mediocris, is derived from medius “middle” + ocris “jagged mountain”, thus suggesting someone or something that is halfway up or halfway down. The word, “mediocrity” first appears in 1531 in the Middle French, mediocrite, from the Latin (nom. Mediocritas), meaning “a middling condition” (e.g.: neither here nor there).
Growing up in the American public school system of the 1950s and 1960s, I was continually taught the value and importance of dedication, hard work, and good sportsmanship – qualities that proclaimed and defined the American way of life and those underlying ideals that had shaped and would continue to make the country great. Part of me always wondered what people in other places thought and felt, and whether they, too, had the same or similar beliefs. My parents rarely spoke about them, or if they did, it was done in a vague, unfocused kind of way. that made me imagine that As a kid growing up in the States after World War II, it was difficult imagining that America wasn’t the centre of the universe – and that those “others” couldn’t possibly be as “real” or as favoured as we were – or, at least, no more real than those naked tribal people marginalised in the pages of National Geographic, whose presence in the reading rack next to the toilet mutely validated the manifest destiny and pre-eminence of that “sweet land of Liberty”. Paul Goodman characterised the inculcation of such notions as “growing up absurd”. And it was so easy to do! At a very early age, without being aware of it, I had been informally enrolled in the school of mediocrity.
When considered in relation to mediumistic, dramatic screen storytelling, mediocrity is symptomatic of the writer’s inability or unwillingness to form intimate, workable relationships with the characters that are necessary for finding the story, including the writer’s relationship with him/herself. The usual cause of this inability or failure of will is the uncriticised belief – on the part of the screenwriter/character – that he/she is in charge of the drama. In this way, mediocrity masks a pervasive chauvinism that makes it impossible for the characters to operate freely and openly and to forge authentic relationships with one another.
The underlying wisdom of all dramatic action is founded in the characters and their relationship to one another, as expressed through what they do and say, both inside and “outside” the script. The problem with mediocrity is: it doesn’t take anything seriously except itself, certainly not the characters who, when they are in its thrall, little more than markers whose actions serve only to express the obvious.
Mediocre writing, as Faulkner rightly characterised it, is writing “not of the heart but of the glands”.(2) It involves the seduction of the writer into the delusion of discovery accompanied by the unpaid-for satisfaction one commonly derives from believing one has engaged with the characters when all one has really done is encountered one’s own inertia fuelled by laziness, boredom, fear or whatever need is peculiar to one’s temperament. There is security in inertia and its steady predictability, as well as a semblance of control - an irony to be sure, seeing as how its source is the avoidance and denial of authentic emotion.
What one must finally understand is that we are not the masters of drama or dramatic screen storytelling – we are its characters: dramatis personae, audience, tribe and screenwriter. If character-driven drama is to mean anything at all it must take all these “players” into account, and find the means to liberate them, to allow them to do the work (read: action) that is their story, that is their meaning.
The quest to free drama from the grip of ignorance and unacted fear and desire is the quest for the heart of one’s own true story – “the dreaming” that is one’s own true character and the forging of one’s truest and most authentic relationship with every other character that in concert wit oneself enacts the story of one’s becoming.
(1) Rainer Maria Rilke. The Duino Elegies, Faber. (Stephen Spender translation)
(2) From William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, December, 1950.