"Do You Call This A Coat?"

In conjunction with my post The Modern Novel, Suzannah Rowntree wrote Technical Excellence Is Good In Itself, and she made a number of points which, if other people have mentioned them, I have not read them, and I was relieved to see someone call the Emperor naked. 

Homeschoolers do not demand excellence of themselves.  The majority of the homeschooling community operates under a mentality of pride and elitism, generally used to out-performing their public school counterparts.  That may be true, but when it comes to art, you still must prove yourself: the fact that you are a homeschooler does not save your art from damnation.  Children with very little life experience, very little accumulated skill, and an obsession for Narnia, Middle Earth, Greek mythology, or various period romances, can write a story, call it a novel, and get it self-published.  And they are praised for this.  Nobody stops them and says, "You have a good thing going.  Keep working at it.  Eventually you will be ready to publish."

One argument I see against the notion of telling children (my own included) that their work is good but not great is that you may discourage them.  Certainly if grace and courtesy are not employed, and the artist's heart is not in the work, a permanent discouragement may set in.  You cannot make someone endure the race.  But sometimes encouragement does not look like blind accolades.  Sometimes it is constructive criticism both in regard to the work and in regard to the artist.

People do not demand excellence.  I am not sure why: fear, perhaps, of the time and sweat it will take to make excellence a reality, and possibly a confusion that to dismiss sub-par work is to dismiss the artist as a person as well.  But you do not owe it to the writer (you do not owe it to me) to like the book.  It is not a direct attack upon my character, it is your judgement (hopefully made with a sound mind and with reason) upon the art.  If you are not willing to cull the tares from the wheat, the only person that reflects badly upon is yourself, not the artist.  Demand excellence.

There is a fear of producing excellence - not that I am afraid of it, but that I am afraid I will not achieve it.  But I have noted that both Beowulf and Bilbo Baggins were put in the situation of going to confront a dragon, only in the former's case there was no fear, and in the latter's case there was profound fear - and yet a determination to go on in spite of trepidation.  Bilbo Baggins is the better of the two.  I am deeply, acutely afraid of falling short of excellence.  Occasionally I write something brilliant, oftentimes I just write passably.  But I go on, and I keep fighting, and I actually owe it to myself and to my readers to make sure what art I produce comes level with, or exceeds the level of, excellent art already created and established.  In this middle-class, plebeian society, there is a lack of an aristocratic demand for good products.  The homeschool community often seems to be a bastion of this laissez-faire attitude toward writing.  This is not universal, but it is common enough that I was glad when Suzannah Rowntree pointed it out by way of warning. 

When you commit to being a writer, you are no longer a homeschooler.  Homeschooling has nothing to do with writing.  Once you enter into the world of writing, you are entering a pantheon full of names that could easily crush you.  It is far better to enter it humbly and to work hard, and to strive to achieve the highest standard of excellence that you can, than to whip off a story, get a cover for it, and pop it on a Kindle so that the world can see the "achievements" of another "homeschool author." 
for inspiration, you can always watch "whisper of the heart"

17 ripostes:

  1. Very well put; and an excellent reminder for me (if I come out of my self-righteous I-told-you-so long enough to admit it.) I'm also slightly afraid of the books that will be produced by a generation that was brought up believing that you trying = winning. *shudder*

  2. It is never easy to tell someone that his work isn't good enough to be published yet, and it is very hard to be the person who is told such. I have been told such, and I have had to determine whether the criticism was founded, or if parts of my writing were sub-par and merely needed to be overhauled to do the rest justice. It isn't easy. But I think it needs to be said.

  3. Great post! I'm now mortified that every complement I've ever received is a lie. Thanks! lol

  4. You're welcome! I endeavour to instil paranoia in everyone. XD

  5. As an admin for a home school group, I deal with this a lot (for me it comes in the way of grade inflation) so I have thought about it a lot. I think one thing that befalls home school moms more that other parents is that when they begin home schooling, there really does need to be a lot of praise for each small accomplishment. (Think of James and the encouragement as he is learning to read . . . ) As the child continues to grow and move from grade to grade, the parent buys new curriculum each year but it doesn't always register that with the new year, the standards of excellence need to increase. I was just reviewing a transcript where the student had all 100s - every subject, every year. My first though was not "Wow what a smart kid" (in part because I also have the student's standardized test scores!); no my first thought was a bit sarcastic, "Look another perfect child! I wonder what that is like?" I think the other problem home school parents deal with is that they do not have a wide range of students to compare work from. Maybe to them, that really is outstanding writing, or history exam or whatever. I am glad that someone is calling the home school community out on this - it needs to be said.

  6. Yes. I'm tired of the homeschool assumption that since we happen to be pretty good at school that means we've no room for improvement in our writing. Hrm. Nope! Especially if that means their school assignments become self-publishing a novel that is good, but not ready to be published. One of the best (and most difficult) things I've learned through doing school alongside my personal writing aspirations is that life will not wait for you to finish one project before springing on the next one."If you want something done, ask a busy person." Homeschooling and writing a book are not the same, and part of maturing as an author is learning to handle both at once, and to distinguish. Just like you don't turn in the first draft of an essay, you don't publish a book that only you have approved. Quality over quantity (and wow am I spitting out epigrams today)! But you said it much better in the post - so thumbs up!

  7. Well. If your aim is to instill paranoia, gee whiz, you're doing a good job. :)

    But yes, you're completely right. Though I'm deeply thankful that I was homeschooled and not a bit ashamed of it, it makes no more sense to use "homeschooled" as a genre label or a pass-key than it does to use "Christian" that way. Each writer has to stand or fall on their own merits.

    If I were to make any comment on the connection between homeschooling and writing (acknowledging that that's not what you set out to do, but...), I'd suggest that we should hold ourselves to an even higher standard of excellence and professionalism, so as not to cast poor reflections on a life choice that is still stigmatized quite often. But of course there's no reason not to hold ourselves to such a standard in the first place.

  8. Gosh, your posts and way of thinking are really a step above the typical blogosphere.. I completely agree. I haven't written anything I consider good enough to self-publish yet, and this is not because I lack confidence, but rather that I have the confidence that I will someday be able to achieve excellence that WILL be worthy of sharing. I think having an accurate perception of your skill set and potential is more important than false glory.

  9. That's one of the reasons I have chosen not to go the self publishing route. I'm afraid of not pushing myself for excellence. I know that there are plenty of self published authors out there worth their salt but I think it would be too easy to slip into the "slap on a cover and publish on kindle" thing. Great post Jenny! Sometimes we homeschoolers do forget that homeschooling doesn't automatically make us wonderful.

  10. Another paranoid writer here! Wow, what a thought provoking post for me. I certainly have seen examples of this, and I do not want to be one of them! I was on the fence about self publishing versus finding a publisher that would accept my novel (that doesn't even have a completed first draft yet... oh dear), but to have a standard of excellence, no matter how long it takes me, is so much better then putting something out there just because I can. Thanks for this post!

  11. Well said, Jennifer!

    I should probably comment that I, too, feel paranoid when I read my own post, and this one! I know that it's easier to spot when someone else's art is bad, than produce good art one's self. But we have to demand excellence of ourselves, the more so because no one else will.

    (I would have enjoyed Whisper of the Heart, if it had not been so painfully close to my own experience. I think there's a moment when the heroine finishes her book and is lying on the floor of her room, absolutely drained, and I knew. I'd been there. It's a wonderful movie, but it will harrow all your writing hells.)

  12. Okey, thanks for this post. I don't feel so weird anymore. I always thought there was something odd about me that made my brain tear my friends' (and... practically everyone else's) books to pieces like a literary lion pack and then feel like I'd found a lost love when I read my first Dostoyevsky. The same people who said 'Crime and Punishment' was good also said that these other books were good, just the same. But – like – arg. No. It's different. And I feel so weird for trying to write more like Dostoyevsky (and the other old beauties) instead of just settling for being mildly coherent and injecting some formula to 'hook' people.

    And I'm not saying I am doing better than your average homeschool self-publisher... but I'm trying anyway. :P We'll see how I do.

  13. Love this. I am not a writer, but I loathe seeing the low standards in writing (music and writing seem to be what everyone wants to do lately and the standards seem to often be lower than it other fields of art). I really like the point about homeschooling. I have noticed that often home-schoolers, formerly home-schooled, anyone with a high degree of education rest on the laurels of factual accumulation, good grades, a degree, etc. without actually examining the standards, and more importantly putting any of the education to good use. I mean it is nice that we can conjugate Latin verbs, read Shakespeare for fun, and know all these interesting historical facts, but can we think critically? And what are we doing with the knowledge?

  14. Bree - I know not every homeschooler thinks this way, but I've noticed over the years, as a graduate from homeschooling, that too many writers cling to their homeschooling roots as a defining aspect of their work. Certainly being homeschooled will shape you critically, but an artist is not a homeschooler. Other things define the artist, such as his philosophy, his personality, his passion.

    Elisabeth Grace Foley - I don't try to instill paranoia: it seems to come naturally to me. XD

    Pinterest is full of sappy lines that I brush off or scoff at, but while scrolling through the board of someone otherwise unknown to me, I came across a quote attributed to Neil Gaiman: "Trust your dreams, trust your heart, and trust your story." For what it is worth, I trust my stories. As much as I fret over how different Talldogs is to Plenilune, and whether or not I will be able to do Ampersand justice, I trust my stories. Too many times I have discovered myself wandering down good paths and shaping good stories for me to really doubt my abilities. And that is where the paranoia fades away.

    Laura Mizvaria - I have long considered that true humility is not so much diminishing yourself as opposed to elevating yourself, but knowing clearly where you truly stand in relation to your fellow men and your God. Once the feet are put right, the rest of him will follow.

    Anne-girl - You're right, homeschooling does not automatically make us wonderful. On the contrary, it often sets us at a disadvantage: we are instantly pigeon-holed as bigoted know-it-alls, and who is going to listen to that sort of people? We must be better than homeschoolers, and as I mentioned to Laura Mizvaria, humble as well, know our strengths and our weaknesses, and always do our best.

  15. Bethany - Whether you publish traditionally or go the self-publishing road, an increasing standard of excellence will stand you and your writing in good stead. Certainly no one can argue with that. :)

    Suzannah - Yes, here is where I do feel the paranoia: what if I can spot a bad gerund in another writer's eye, but totally miss the gaping plot hole in my own? I appreciate the blogosphere because it allows me to interact with other writers and see what is going on in the writing world, but in the end I am the only one who can ask excellence of myself, and the importance of other people's opinions becomes negligible in comparison. If you do poorly, people with either somehow miss that, or ridicule you, but very few people will stop to offer your constructive criticism. The bulk of the whip's lash must come from ourselves, because in the end, we are the only ones who really care about our art.

    Juliet Lauser - I completely understand you. When I got my hands on Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, it was like a good stiff drink after I had been choking down sand. The writing was good. But when I see people see people proclaim a well-formed book to be excellent, and then put princess-mail-order-bride fiction in as the main filler of their literary intake, I don't know what to think. I don't choke down sand for my own amusement: I want that stiff, jolting, blood-tingling prose that defies my best attempts at achieving. And I want to see other people demand the best and only the best as well, not fill up their bookshelves with writing that does not do their own intelligences justice. Their tastes will differ - often widely - from my own, but that is beside the point. Good literature, in whatever age it is found, is worth our attention, and the rest can fade.

    Livia Rachelle - A homeschool education can be a fine thing, and when we are tutored by people who guide us into excellence, it can turn us out of the mould better than the average graduate. But one of the greatest things I learned in school was the simple ability to learn - indeed, I have been operating under the quixotic delusion that school is meant to teach you how to learn - and coupling that with grace and passion, which are things public, private, and home schools do not necessarily teach, we can become artists worthy of our name.

  16. I'm a relatively new reader of your blog, but I really enjoy the points you make here.
    So often I think we find our self-worth in being better than the competition. But it isn't the point; being the best in the field does not necessarily mean a thing, except that the rest of the people may be in kindergarten and we just made it to first grade. Life is not a comparison game, no matter what our humanistic present society may try to convince us.
    Excellence is a goal we may never reach. But it's the very trying to attain that makes us grow and become better. If we're trying to outdistance peers, we are constantly looking around and behind and not on the goal. But as Christians we have a goal...whatever is good, lovely, of good report, etc. If we are called to write we must put everything into crafting a beautiful story and doing it well.
    So thank you very much for prodding us out of our complacency and reminding us that we have a worthy goal!

  17. Just a very quick comment to thank you for writing this post and the points it contains. I am now encouraged to push for excellence in my writing. And Nine Coaches Waiting? After reading that I went on a Mary Stewart splurge ... my poor, poor bank account :)