For almost half of my writing and painting life, I was an amateur. I used to tremble in the presence of those who were truly great. You know, the ones who’d had a letter printed in the local paper.
I remember what it was like to stand in the presence of such greatness. The Authors. Say that in whispered voices. Bend the knee. Tug the forelock. I really thought these people had some sort of mystical connection to the Universe, to God.
Some of them were charming, supportive, encouraging. Some were arses.
There was a writers’ workshop I attended many years ago, before I’d published my first piece. I approached one of the panel in terror and asked her how she maintained the discipline to write every day. “Well,” she said with a condescending sniff, “A real professional doesn’t have to worry about that.”
That wasn’t just bitchy, it was also a lie. I am a professional and I do sometimes have to force myself to work. Maybe I’m just not ‘real’ yet.
This past weekend I spent some time with a group of artists who had gathered to exhibit their pictures. At the risk of sounding like my sniffy friend, I’d describe them as talented amateurs. Most of the work was pretty accomplished if fairly conventional; one or two pieces were excellent. The artists were charming and hospitable but they gave off this vibe that I’ve been trying to decipher ever since.
The only way I can describe it is ‘Attitude’. With a capital A.
Perhaps they were expecting criticism. Perhaps they were afraid of someone stealing their thunder or challenging their right to show their work. Whatever it was, it served to exclude the uninitiated. Which goes to show, I suppose, that you don’t need to be a professional to be a bit up yourself about your muse and what not.
I’ve been pondering this difference between the amateur and the professional ever since. Perhaps ‘Amateur’ is the wrong word. Maybe I should say ‘aspiring’? Or what about that other loaded term, ‘rank’?
We would say a ‘rank amateur’ is someone with no experience whatever.
On the other hand, the word ‘rank’ can suggest something that stinks. And many so-called amateurs don’t stink at all. In fact, many of them are far superior to their professional colleagues.
So to return to my question: what is the difference between a professional and an amateur?
The free dictionary defines an amateur as:
One who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a
pastime rather than as a profession, or One lacking the skill of a professional, as in an art.
In sport, a professional is someone who is paid to perform.
The first clause, pastime vs profession, seems to be determined by the writer or artist himself. But if I have another job, say I work in SuperValu 36-hours a week, and I spent another 10 hours a week working on a novel, how do I describe my job? Do I say I’m a supermarket worker and an amateur novelist, or do I say I’m a novelist who is depending on the supermarket job to pay the bills?
Does it matter?
Yes, it does. It helps determine your attitude (small ‘a’). If you see writing, painting, or whatever as your primary job you’ll treat it that way. On the other hand, if it’s just a hobby – and I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that – then you’re less likely to face the canvas or the laptop after a long day’s work at your ‘real’ job.
But who determines the second part, the bit about lacking the skill of the professional?
Artists can be extraordinarily lacking in self-awareness.
Recently, someone on one of my Linkedin boards posted that he had written and self-published an ‘outstanding’ book and wanted an editor or traditional publisher to contact him because he wasn’t selling any copies on his own. His description of this ‘work of genius’ (his words) was equal parts execrable grammar, spelling and communication, and effusive self-praise. The thing is, this guy obviously believes he’s the greatest thing to happen to fiction since William Shakespeare put down his quill.
This guy is his own worst enemy. If he’d focus his energy on improving his craft rather than trying to bludgeon the world into acknowledging his greatness, he might get somewhere. But he believes he’s fabulous, has nothing to learn, and the rest of us need to WAKE UP! and recognise that.
That’s an extreme example of course. Most of us, amateur and professional alike, realise that we can improve. We are always learning.
A friend of mine asked me to look at her niece’s work. I did and saw it was a decent first draft but needed a lot of work. Niece’s response? “It’s perfect as it is. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Second, third, fourth drafts are for old fogies, apparently. A ‘real artist’ gets it right on the first try.
Nowadays anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves an artist, a writer, or whatever. You can start a blog and post all your work there. You can. That’s not to say that you should.
Then there’s the third criteria which applies primarily to sports people: Getting paid for your work. These days, you can self-publish and maybe sell a book or two. I’m not being snide; obviously some people do exceedingly well by this route. But my question is this: If you write and self-publish a story and sell one copy to your mother are you a professional?
By the same token, if you spend six hours a day, every day, working at your art but never even try to get published, are you an amateur?
Sorry if you’re looking for answers here; I don’t have them. I am just as confused as you are.
Nowadays the line between professional and amateur has blurred. In some places it’s vanished altogether. Time was you wrote short stories and you sent them out. You got rejected. You wrote some more, you still got rejected but you got encouraging notes. Eventually you got your work accepted. Then you started the same process with a novel.
Editors and publishers aren’t oracles. They make mistakes and sometimes reject the wrong things. But this process: try, fail, try harder, fail better, succeed, ensured that we learned our craft.
Now we have writers who have never been rejected. They just post their work on the internet. Some of it is excellent but, let’s be honest, most of it is drek.
At this art show I mentioned, I found myself talking to one of the artists. She said she has been working on writing the same novel for ten years and has written 30,000 words and “a lot of notes.”
Now, as many of you know, I’ve spent years working on my Richard III play, so I get that there are reasons why a work doesn’t come to fruition as quickly as you might wish. But there are dangerous signals that suggest you are an amateur and probably will never be more than that. Do any of these sound familiar:
You have to wait for the muse in order to work.
Rather than work on the book / play / story collection you produce an endless stream of notes. You’ll put them all together “some day.”
You can offer half a dozen good reasons why you haven’t finished your project yet. Ten years is nothing…
You assume successful authors must be lucky. Your lack of success has to do with bad luck rather than bad or misdirected effort.
Your writing or art is low on your priority list. There are other things: children, house, work, the car, the boss, the wife, the dog… You’ll get to it one day.
I’m not judging. I get it. I, too, was an amateur and I know how hard it is to succeed. But success begins with the right mindset. Here are some ways to develop a professional attitude:
1. Know what your goals are. Write them down. Review them regularly. Change them if you must. Meet them if you can.
2. Share them with others. Be accountable.
3. Commit to them.
4. Break down the components into smaller, more easily achievable goals.
5. Set deadlines.
6. Prioritise your creative work. The universe, your family, your friends, your boss, your dog won’t do it for you.
7. Be honest with yourself: if you can’t commit; if the writing or painting are not priorities then accept you’ll never be more than a talented amateur. There’s no shame in that. Just stop lying to yourself. You’ll be a lot happier if you stop thinking of yourself as a failed novelist rather than a successful insurance salesman or whatever.
8. Make your art your priority and treat it with the same commitment as your paying job.
9. Stop making excuses.
Excuses are the big clue that you’re an amateur and not a professional. See if any of these seem familiar:
1. I don’t have time
2. I’m waiting for my muse.
3. I’m busy with work / kids / house…
4. I’m waiting for my mother to die, my ship to come in, my retirement…
5. Second drafts are for wimps. I am talented and get it right straight away every time.
6. Editors don’t know everything.
There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur so long as you see it as an opportunity to learn and develop your craft. Isn’t your art worth your best effort, after all?