Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ordinary

Last spring, I remember feeling pangs of guilt during Linda Sue Park’s speech at the NE SCBWI conference. Her speech was lovely, challenging authors to “raise the bar” and to publish and strive for works only of exception and excellence. However, instead of feeling inspired, I began to feel a bit like a worm. I began to worry that my work was too self-indulgent and not of the quality she suggested. That instead of achieving excellence, perhaps I was excellent at achieving mediocrity.

This caused a freezing reaction. Suddenly, every book idea, every sentence written was weighed and measured and coming up short. Was it deep enough? Was it important enough? Was it crafted enough?

And suddenly, my writing became terribly boring.

But the rediscovery of one of the books I read as a child, The Ordinary Princess thawed me out. In the book, Princess Amethyst is cursed/blessed by her fairy godmother to be “ordinary.” Her golden hair turns mousy brown, her nose upturns and she bawls and burps in a manner most unbecoming to a royal highness. But in the end, she finds her happy ending and everyone—including the reader—is grateful and delighted at her ordinariness.

Even though this book was well-written, it never won any awards or was considered a work of great literature. And it didn’t bring me to tears or change my life. In fact, there were even other books out there that had similar themes and storylines.

But as a child, that didn’t matter to me. All that mattered was that I enjoyed this book and it satisfied me. Enough so that over 20 years later, I still remember it.

As book creators, I think there are many times that we are too hard on ourselves. How often have I reread my writing and been disgusted? How often do we decide not to write or draw something because we don’t think it will be “good enough?”

Because the truth is there is room in a child’s reading world for all kinds of books, with varying degrees of quality. In fact, their world would be quite bare without them. And that is what relaxes me when I feel the pressure of my ambitions. So while I will continue to strive to create extraordinary literature, I can be content with making an ordinary good book, too.

18 comments:

debbi michiko florence said...

I could kiss you. (And I don't even know which Blue Rose Girl to personally thank!) Bless you!

Anonymous said...

YES!
I was also at the NEscbwi, and I thought the same thing. My artwork is for young children.
For books that I hope to one day entertain.

Thanks for putting my feelings into words!

Laura
www.lauraludwighamor.com

Liz said...

That princess book DID change your life. Not all influences are revelations, most are far more subtle. I just picked a book up on eBay: Here Comes Peter Cottontail, a very random Random House book from 1961. I loved it when I was 6. I took it out of the school library so often, that my name was the only one on the card. Why? Despite being a very unremarkable book, it captured my fancy. You can't second guess children, they like what they like. "Good" is very subjective- so we can only do our best, and let children gravitate towards what they like.

alissa imre geis said...

i love the ordinary princess. i love how unassuming it is. it gives it a sort of grace.

(i also love that the author was also the illustrator. when i first read it as a girl who like to draw and to write stories, it opened up such possiblities to me.)

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh. How did you know I needed to hear that?

Thanks, Grace.

Linda Sue Park said...

Hi Grace,

Fascinating post! I was dismayed to read that my speech had a paralyzing effect on you; on the other hand, I think a true artist often finds herself questioning the work, the process, the self, and for the most part, this is a good thing.

I have also learned over the years that the things I say are sometimes perceived by folks in ways that I did not intend, and this took some getting used to. After reading your post, I felt compelled to look at text of my presentation to confirm what I already knew: I never once used the words 'deep' or 'important.' And I certainly believe that books for young people should be entertaining; otherwise they'd never get read!

But I also believe that here in the U.S. (and some other places), we're suffering from a serious overdose of throwaway culture: Too much stuff that is being produced for a quick buck, regardless of its intrinsic value. I think the attitude "let's make it because people will buy it and like it for five minutes before they move on to the next thing"--devalues both time and the planet, and the effect of this devaluation is alarming for anyone who cares to see it.

I want children's books to draw a 'line in the sand'--not here, not now. I realize it's in some ways a futile stand: There are plenty of people creating and publishing who evidently don't believe that books for young people should be immune to something that has infected nearly every other area of life. But I believe that a child's relationship to a book can be special, can last a lifetime. This possibility is worth a lot of thought and care and yes, doubt, on my part as I write. (Doubt is a good thing! Doubt is my friend: It pushes me to try to do better!)

Your affection for THE ORDINARY PRINCESS is a perfect example. The *plot* may have been about being ordinary, but the *writing* is not: M.M. Kaye is a fine wordcrafter and storyteller. I also never said in my speech that 'award-winning' is or should be the standard for which we strive; in fact, I'm always incredulous when people tell me that their goal is to win a major award. (How can a goal be something that is completely out of your hands??) I completely agree with you that we need all kinds of books for all kinds of readers--including books that would not be considered 'great literature.'

But even those books--or maybe, *especially* those books--must be created with care. For me, that's the bottom line: Not 'deep' or 'important' or 'award-winning' or 'extraordinary', but *the best we can possibly do.* This is what I said in my speech.

And it's clear to me that this is what YOU do in your work. I look forward to seeing and reading more of it! All best, Linda Sue

Anonymous said...

Oooooo! Throw-away attitudes within children's publishing...quickly published, quickly hyped/sold, quickly OOP. Great topic.

I think it's true that this modern affliction (throw-away culture) is present in children's publishing, though perhaps not to the extent it is elsewhere. I'd love to hear how others experience this.

I assume it all comes down to money, and Everyone's dogged pursuit of it. Can anyone envision a shift away from this?

I remember Meghan (I think) mentioning the compormises authors/illustrators make on projects in order to appease the marketing/sales team members. If Everyone compromises, does anyone get what s/he wants? Do projects suffer from trying to be too many things to too many people? Is potential never realized because a project is always compromised?

I know we talk about the joint efforts making projects stronger, but is that really the case all the time?

Have I wandered off my own topic?!

Anna Alter said...

Great post, and great comments Linda! I am repulsed by big business throw-away culture, and am a fan of anything well crafted, carefully made, lovingly created. I think that books should be true and held to our own highest standards- whether they are for entertainment or education.

It is interesting to ponder this in light of the direction of modern publishing, as more and more the publishing model imitates that of other big businesses. Books simply do not stay in print for more than a few years unless they win those big awards, get on the big lists, or the author promotes the heck out of it.

So this idea of longevity, of a life long relationship with a book, it seems to me its really changing. How many of the books in stores now will be in print in 50 years? Not so many its sad to say, and it has nothing to do with how carefully we craft them, or our creative process.

So I guess I can see how people strive to get recognition and awards, not because they are an end goal unto themselves, but because they save books from obscurity that would otherwise sit on a shelf unread.

Its a complicated game, and ever challenging to create something that is lasting and to our highest creative standards, while at the same time making a real living at this career.

2readornot said...

Thank you for this post...the thing is, sometimes people seem to get so caught up in writing something 'worthwhile', which usually means something that is 'deep' and has 'meaning.' Well...that's fine, but I also would simply like to write books that teens will love -- period. it doesn't need to be deep or meaningful -- except that they like it.

Libby Koponen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Libby Koponen said...

To me, depth means that a book can be read at many levels or has real depth of feeling ...and that it makes readers think. Nothing wrong with that! But if deep means that the book is heavy-handed when it comes to its politically-correct theme, then I'm against it-- and I think that many earnest, well-meaning people use the word as a kind of synonym for "about something serious and depressing, with a message that's clearly spelled out at the end." That's not deep -- that's didactic!

I agree that ANY children's book should represent the best the author can do....and I believe that books for children should be well-written. I actually think that if the book isn't well-written it shouldn't be published in the first place....and there doesn't have to be any contradiction between a book being well-written and well-loved. Most of the books I love ARE well-written and that was the case when I was a child, too, though then I didn't think of it that way.

Anonymous said...

As the creative folks, doing our best is all well and good, but ultimately it's up to the gatekeepers what gets published and how long it remains in print.

The gatekeepers, it seems, are being guided (yes, sometimes hindered, I believe) more and more by marketing folks, sales, and money. In the end, I think it's up to publishers whether or not they contribute to the throw-away culture. Much as we may want to participate in that decision, we're not voting members of the board.

There are great books being published, but there are also plenty of stinkers that don't deserve long shelf lives. Every time I read a stinker-book, I wonder what better book didn't get published as a result.

alvina said...

I agree that there is a lot of throwaway publishing, although I do think that to SOMEONE it's important. Either the author, or the editor, or the child reading it, no matter how bad some people think it is. I think in the ideal world, every book published would be well-written, whether it's literary or commercial. Some people may disagree, but for example, I think the Gossip Girl books are very well written (and I'm not just saying that because I work at the publisher), whereas I think there are other commercial fiction books that are most definitely not.

As we all know, publishing is a business, and people will argue that selling the "crap", and not very lasting books, but make-us-a-lot-of-money books allow us to publish the quieter books. I'm lucky to be able to have the freedom to work only on books that I love, but I would not have the opportunity if other people in my company didn't work on the wildly commercial, bestselling books.

Anyway, I do think that there's a place for (almost) every book, and there's a child out there who will love each book. In the ideal world, we should take care with each book, every CD, every movie, every product, but as long as there is a market, the gamut will be produced.

Agyw said...

I've been scarce lately, so I'm glad I didn't miss this discussion completely. I think this is similar to some of the old conversations when Yellowboard was a twisty, windy, sometimes snarky road. I always wondered if what I was doing was an exercise in belly-lint gazing. Partially because to even pursue this entails a certain amount of self awareness and absorption. To make a project RELEVENT, one has to care about it, another layer of self. It becomes a tightrope finding the balance of within and without, bringing anything to fruitition.

It is odd what we hear, what we say and what we mean. For someone who mispeaks frequently, when it's important to me, I try to be very specific. It would be nice to have all those recognitions from our peers, but truly, what I hope for from what I do: it MATTERS.

Whether it be a silly, smart-alecky piece of something historical with a point to it, I want it to matter to my reader. I know if it matters to enough people, albeit YOUNG people, then my books will survive. Or at least that's been my reasoning from the beginning. But finding some way to quantify that can be very elusive, unless you're blessed with feedback from your readers, editors and even reviewers.

Grace, I'm happy you struggle with this question, but I have to tell you, I put you in that category I hope to join. Mattering. I have a seven year old absolutely in love with Okey Dokie Artichoke. And I adore Ugly Vegetables and love your art. I so enjoy turning kids I know onto friend's books, and I know that all the children I've shared yours with, read and reread them.

My seriously discounted two cents worth.

Anonymous said...

It is a balancing act, isn't it? Balancing the striving for expression that is personal while addressing that which is universal. Balancing time and care with the concerns of making a living. Balancing an awareness of the marketplace with a striving to find a unique vision.

I think having a forum like this to express the frustrations and rewards is a critical part of helping to find that balance.

Katherine Tillotson

Anonymous said...

All great points, Alvina, and it's good to read them. I wonder, though, while "throw-aways" (gross generalization since many best-sellers are not throw-aways) may support the publication of "quiet books," they also use the limited resources (production $$, shelf space, advertising $$ and space, buyer $$, hype, discussion). Are we sure they are using less than they are contributing? I mean, a book with a huge advance, tons of hype and advertising may sell, but so might another best-seller with a more normal advance and less hype. The latter isn't using the resources of the former, and these may be the best-sellers supporting the quiet books. Is it possible? Is there any way to know?

What about market saturation? I live in an area where regional book sales are HOT. In the 1980s, the few children's books that were on the market sold 10,000 copies per year. Now, there are tons of books (some good, some not-so-good) for visitors to choose from, and books selling well sell just 4,000-5,000 a year.

What does increased book production do to the publishing/creating scene as a whole? More opportunities or more competition? Less income per book, but more income overall?

Grace Lin said...

wow, thanks for everyone's comments. I was going to respond more in depth, but I think I'll wait until my next entry (after the holidays) so I can get my thoughts more fully formed.

BTW--Linda Sue, I thought your speech was great--it was more of a reaction to personal demons than it was the actual words you said. I can only hope to be as poised and as eloquent a speaker as you!

Rita said...

I absolutely adore The Ordinary Princess. And this post, too.(!!)

My copy of The Ordinary Princess is sitting right here on my shelf (in mint condition), and I still reread it from time to time. For inspiration. For joy. The writing and drawings just lift off the page.

For some reason the dialogue between Amy's royal parents has always particularly tickled me. But all of it does, really.

r

(My comment seems slight after reading all the wonderful comments above! But, this is what I came here to say.)