Evil Scores and Other Competitions

She was a secretary but I tell everyone she was an artist. Well, she was even if art never paid a bill.

mom's art show way back when
mom's art show way back when

“Don’t be someone’s wife. Don’t be someone’s secretary,” she said. “Or at least don’t get married until after you have your college degree and never tell them you can type.” I hope now her ashes are resting calmly wherever they have scattered to and that I’ve done well enough.

In high school I took AP Art. At the end of the school year, we had to make slides of all our work and send them off to ETS in Princeton. A 5 meant you were remarkable. 0 meant you might as well have sent an empty envelope. Two classmates got 5s. Two more got 4s. A few got 3s. I got a 2. A horrible, talentless 2.

I’d already sent in my college application and checked the English major box. I wanted to be a writer and an artist, and had gone back and forth between those boxes–tick art or English? English or art? In the end I knew I didn’t want to compete with my mother. She’d win, and 2 proved me write.

“You’re different than me,” she said. “I have technical skill but you have more imagination.”

I sighed and shoved the score report in my bag. That was no more believable than when she said I was pretty. Parents said things like that. “It’s fine. One of the girls who got a 5 traced everything anyway,” I said.

“Places like that don’t look at imagination and originality.”

“I know,” I said. I didn’t see what good an imagination was if you couldn’t put what was in your head on the paper. “It’s not like I was ever going to be an artist anyway.”

“I don’t want you to compare yourself to me,” she said.

“And I don’t,” I said. “You don’t need to worry about it.”

She always worried about it. We took the GRE on the same day and she said we shouldn’t share our scores. One month after we took that GRE, she died. I found her score in her things and I almost threw the envelop away without looking. Of course her score blew mine away.

When you write, do you compare yourself to anyone? Is this particular person someone you know or someone you just read? Does such a comparison hinder or encourage you? Do you think there is anyone comparing themselves to you? What would you say to them?

9 thoughts on “Evil Scores and Other Competitions

  1. Can’t resist. Yes, I compare myself to more popular writers, but not when I’m writing. When I’m not writing, because comparing makes the writing stop. Comparisons always hinder. There is nothing encouraging to me about the process of judging myself. I’m sure someone is comparing themselves to me, only because that is what we all do, and it is making them stop writing or at least stop writing to me. And to them I say, “Speak!”

  2. Sometimes, after it is done for the day, I look at the work and compare it to some of the me I used to be, and I wonder if I have learned anything from them or missed any Post It notes from them. It is largely encouraging, particularly when it the results seem unlike anyone but the me of now.

  3. My dad was an artist. Do I compare. Well, yeah, I guess I do. I have more technical facility, I used to think my dad was better at the meaning and creativity.

    But in the years since I studied art in HS (I was an art major at the HS of Music and Art) I’ve discovered my own meaning and creativity.

    Although a few years ago, my dad did call my art “pretty” and the kind of thing people put over their couches. I was mortally offended, because I know what that means to him. I do “couch art.”

    Was it his own jealousy peaking through? Was he comparing his stuff to mine?

    Also, I avoided all music and singing because my sister was a singer.

  4. I’m hyper-competitive, so one of the reasons I’ve never attempted a novel is that I can’t be Charles Dickens. But then again whenever I read something really crappy, I think, “I could kick this writer’s ass!” And I get a little resentful that I never tried when trash like that can get published. Sigh!

  5. I always felt torn among writing, art and, if you can believe it, biology. I’ve ended with all three in one way or another. But comparing myself? There are artists and poets in my family history whose work never survived for others to see, so I always felt a loyalty to give them voice. And theirs is a story I still feel loyalty to voice. But competition? I’ve had a few writer friends, not nice people at all, very competitive and demeaning, so they made me feel terrible but not competitive. Reading established writers I love just puts me in a state of awe and I try to learn something, knowing I will never reach their level but feeling that’s OK. It’s in the scientific arena that people were envious of my creativity in art and writing oddly. Life is so odd that competition can come out of anywhere from or to anyone, completely irrational, often later regretted. Your story is ironic and sad, that a number score on a grade could still have that kind of power after that. But there is also an undercurrent here: who was competing with whom? Why would a mother be applying to the same kind of program at the same time as her daughter unless there was some competition in the way? Or unless she sensed her imminent mortality, that she didn’t have the time to wait for the right time.

  6. What a nice photo. Only thing missing is that none of the photos in her show, as far as I can tell, are photos we’ve seen here (yet).

    Comparisons aside, have you ever wondered, y’know, if you’re “channeling” her on one project or another? (My dad wasn’t a writer but I’m frequently caught up short by the familiarity of some of my verbal mannerisms, in writing as well as in speech.)

    I did a double-take when you said your art projects were evaluated by ETS. I mean, I knew they scored writing samples, but even creative writing can be appraised semi-objectively. But paintings, sculpture, photography? I guess some superficial aspects of those works can be “scored” (say, photographic composition, or mastery of the craft of pottery or whatever). But they seem like they’d be the least significant measures.

  7. Karen, yes it gets in the way. I know well.

    Shelly, I compare my own work, but second guess my conclusions about that all the time.

    rowena, I’m sure some parents compare themselves to their children–you’ve still got all these choices ahead and many of his are in the past. You’re unique and not a couch artist at all! Although depending on whose couch we’re talking about that may not be a bad thing!

    MPJ, would you let your kids get away with that? Go write if that is what you want to do.

    Querulous, well, mom and weren’t trying for the same programs, we were just in different colleges at the same time. She offered to take her GRE another day if it would make me feel better. And since my mom isn’t here, I want everyone to know her art and it will forever bother me that she died just as she was getting somewhere close to where she wanted to be. I don’t want to compete, but then again I want to live up to her talent. I’d like to draw more attention to her through my own work–as crazy as that may sound.

    JES, I don’t know if ETS still does these portfolios. I’ve never met anyone outside my school who’s done the same thing. And I do feel sometimes I’m “channeling” my mom in one way or another, but I still don’t know if I’m living up to the potential she wanted for me. But hey, I’ve got a show coming up too, so that’s got to be something.

  8. I love your mother. What a beautiful, strong, talented woman who paved the way for me to be an artist and MAKE money at it.

    I never scored well on standardized tests either, but at last I realize it doesn’t matter.

  9. I second D’Arcy. I love your mom.

    And, I don’t compare my writing with anyone else’s. I learn from others. I watch, I critique, and I study their writing, but I don’t compare. I’m incredibly NON-competitive. I just think everyone writes their own truth. How in the hell do I compare myself to that? I do compare my own work, usually in a measure of progress context.

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