Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”
I came upon that quote and it was exactly the inspiration I needed for creating a character in a new book, LADY LIBERATOR. I couldn’t decide if I wanted a brilliant villain going up against a brilliant protagonist, or if she should be slightly disadvantaged. Which would make for the most compelling fiction?
That, of course, led me to think about people in general, which led me to wonder who aspires to mediocrity?
I’ve had the good fortune to meet people from all walks of life. Some have been well educated, some have been street smart but couldn’t read a word. Some have been gentle and quietly brilliant and others have been gruff and flamboyant with it. Children, who have been filled with wonder and say something that arrows straight through the clutter to the wisest truths.
Once I met a woman who’d had to leave high school six weeks before graduating first in her class. Her mother had run away with another man, leaving her father and six children to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the father was an alcoholic. He didn’t work, didn’t contribute to the family, and this woman was the eldest child. All responsibility for caring for the family fell to her.
So she left school, got a job in a factory, and became a surrogate mother to the children. Some were still quite young–elementary school aged. She housed and fed them, bought the food they ate and the clothes they wore. She took on full responsibility for these children and raised them all. Down to the last one.
When I came to know her, those days were in the past. She had fulfilled her responsibility to these siblings, was married and had children of her own. In looking back on these years, she said the hardest thing she’d had to do was ban her father from being around the kids. He was drunk and a bad influence, and while she couldn’t do anything about that as his daughter, as the guardian of her siblings, she had no choice but to shield them from him. And so she did, and forfeited him, too.
One would expect that this woman would have been bitter. That she’d been robbed of her life being forced to take on the responsibilities of those who should have been responsible for her. She was first in her class at school, and dreamed of being a teacher. But there was no time or money for college, not with all these mouths to feed. But she wasn’t bitter. She was grateful she’d been old enough to get a job and keep her siblings together.
They grew up and ventured out on their own, and she watched them go with all the fears a mother feels on seeing her babies leave the nest. They had opportunities to choose the type of life they would live. They had choices, whereas she hadn’t. One would think she would have been at least a little bitter. But she was not. She was grateful that she’d been able to provide for them until they could provide for themselves, and they could do so in a way they wanted.
The woman lived a simple life. She’d married a simple man who worked hard and came home tired. He had a similar personality to Archie Bunker, the character, not the man who played him. And in a sense she was a lot like Edith: every bit as lovable, but not quite as ditzy. For fun, she’d read encyclopedias and study different subjects, like Ancient Greece or Mythology, and she confessed in hushed tones that much of what she learned about life, she’d learned from reading novels and other books.
The more I listened, the more I admired this woman’s resourcefulness. The way she’d made her income stretch to serve a large family, the creative resolutions to conflicts, the positive attitude and innate way she found lemonade in every lemon that was tossed her way.
From the outside, she seemed a simple woman with a simple life. One the world would have judged to not have accomplished much. And yet she was anything but simple. She was a genius who quoted everyone from Edgar Cayce to Albert Einstein and put them on even footing. When I asked why she did that, she said, “Life is tricky, and you can’t afford to be snooty. You’ve got to take the good from everybody, everywhere because nobody is smart about everything. Sometimes we just can’t tell the difference.”
“What do you do, then?” I asked her.
“Silly girl,” she said with a smile. “You ask your heart. Even smart people are wrong a lot of the time. But if you ask your heart, you take a lot less licks.”
She made it so clear, this simple woman blessed with wisdom. And I realized that for the character in LIBERATOR, strong villains and protagonists are essential, yes, but brilliance is a matter of form. There is no mediocrity in wisdom. And there is no genius without it.
And so the novel will have characters who are not geniuses but wise ones who recognize talent and enjoy moments of genius. I doubt they’ll be as full of heart as the woman above–few are that noble and self-sacrificing, though she’d give me hell for considering what she’d done for her family either one. No, she was no martyr. She was no sacrificial lamb. She was a sister who loved her brothers and sisters.
Because I was too curious not to, I asked if she and her siblings remained close. “Oh, yes,” she said. At times over the years, they’d banned together to help whomever among them needed it. They got together on Sundays for dinner. They helped care for each other’s children. I’d expected that they would home in to her as kids do a mother. After all, especially for the younger kids, she had been the only mother they’d known.
But the part that shocked me was that her mother had returned to their lives. After the children were grown. And while she’d not reclaimed her role–too much time and life had passed for that–they did all welcome her into their circle.
I must admit, as an outsider, I imagined myself in that position and doubted I could do that, and I said so. This woman told me, “Remember what she left.” I did. Six kids and drunken husband who did nothing to support the family. That had to be hell. I got that, but I couldn’t get past the fact that she’d left the kids in hell with him while she’d gotten out.
But that wasn’t exactly what had happened. And maybe she’d known it wouldn’t. The kids were raised away from him. Her daughter had been stronger than the mother and had banned him from the kids when drunk. That meant, he saw them very little. Still, the daughter hadn’t had the children. She wasn’t the mother.
But she had been. And a very loving mother. I guess the woman saw that I was torn, and boy was I. One minute, I understood and the next I was outraged for the kids, for the daughter, mired in hopelessness for the mother. And the woman took me out of my agony. “Nobody’s perfect or imperfect, either. We just do the best we can.”
I stared at this simple woman, realizing she’d forgiven her mother and her father and was totally at peace with her life. And I realized that there was nothing simple about her. Not her, not her life, not her wisdom.
I’d found the perfect mix of character traits for my story–and I thanked the woman who shared the insights I needed to get to them–and for sharing a little of her wisdom with me.
“Trust is earned, one book at a time.”
–Vicki Hinze https://vickihinze.com
Note: I edit books and professional correspondence. But I do NOT edit email or this blog. This is chat time for me, so if the grammar is goofed or a word’s spelled wrong, please just breeze on past it. I’d appreciate it–and salute you with my coffee cup. 🙂
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Copyright 2005. Vicki Hinze
Vicki Hinze is a multi-published author, who has a free library of her articles on writing–the craft, business and life–at https://www.vickihinze.com.