Turning Amateur

November 9, 2007

Part of my daily routine is going to the gym at the local university and riding a stationary bike for three quarters of an hour.  While I ride, I listen to music on my MP3 and read the NEW YORKER.  In the issue I was reading today was a profile of Jacques Barzun, the French-born historian and cultural commentator, who is about to turn 100.  He is one of the most celebrated thinkers in the world, the recipient of countless awards and degrees, both honorary and earned.  Still, as Arthur Krystal, the author of the profile, points out, Barzun refers to himself as “an amateur.”  He means this in the most literal way.  The word amateur comes from the Latin word amator, meaning “lover” and it implies that Barzun’s academic and cultural pursuits are born of his love of learning, his passion for intellectual discovery.

Often when I describe what I do I refer to myself as a professional writer.  Indeed those very words are perched above this entry in the subtitle of my blog.  In our society, of course, “professional” and “amateur” are often used as opposites.  When Tiger Woods turned pro, he left behind his status as a golfing amateur.  But having read about Barzun, I find myself wondering if this isn’t a false dichotomy.  Yes, I’m a professional.  I get paid for the work I publish, and in today’s world, it’s payment that distinguishes the pro from the amateur.  (It’s been that way for a long time.  Jim Thorpe, the legendary Native American athlete of the early twentieth century, was forced to relinquish the medals he earned in the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 after it was discovered that he had been paid to play semi-pro baseball in 1909 and 1910.)  But while I’m paid for my stories, it’s not money that keeps me writing — trust me on this:  I don’t make that much….

I write because I have to; because I have stories inside me that are screaming to be told, characters in my mind who are clamoring to get out; because if I didn’t write I’d be miserable and grumpy and generally unpleasant to be around.  I write because I love it.  And while I’m not ready to introduce myself to the world as an amateur, either on my business cards or on my blog, I do believe that it’s time I embraced that amateur spirit a bit more.  Why can’t those of us who do what we love for a living be professionals AND amateurs?  More to the point, does our love of the art diminish as the business end of things intrudes upon it?  Does being a professional make it more difficult to maintain the passion of the amateur?  Certainly there are times when I find my concern with royalties and sell-throughs and print-runs dampening my enthusiasm for whatever I happen to be writing at the time.

At times I also dream of turning my passion for photography into a second profession.  But in addition to doubting that my pictures are good enough, I also wonder if my romanticization of such a career isn’t the product of my ignorance about the photography business.  I truly am an amateur photographer, free to pursue my love of the medium without any of the  frustrations and hassels faced by the picture-taking professional.

I’m rambling a bit, so I’ll bring this to a close.  But it’s funny how a single quote from a long feature article, read on a stationary bike while listening to some kickass bluegrass tune, can set one’s mind in motion….

Today’s music:  Bela Fleck

(And by the way, thanks to Stephen Leigh for the “Today’s music” idea.)

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9 Responses to “Turning Amateur”

  1. David:

    Thank you so much for the etymology. It lifted my spirits. Connections fascinate me, whether among words, works, or people. You’d enjoy Kim Nagy’s interview of Alain de Botton.

    I’ll check back in the future for posts illustrated with your photos.

  2. davidbcoe said

    Thanks for visiting my blog, Robin. And thanks for the comment and the link. I’ll look forward to chatting with you more in the future.

  3. I’d agree that nearly all ‘professional’ writers are actually ‘amateurs’ in the original sense of the word. Heck, we generally don’t get paid enough to want to do this if we didn’t actually do it for the love of it…

  4. davidbcoe said

    “Heck, we generally don’t get paid enough to want to do this if we didn’t actually do it for the love of it…”

    So true. And yet, like most writers, I’m continually amazed by the fact that I actually get paid anything to write stories. What a great life!

  5. El Volgero said

    We have a saying: “Turn your favorite hobby into a 9-to-5 job, and you’ll destroy the fun of it”. It might sound quite a bit cynical, but I find it in no contradiction to your post, especially the part about the royalties and the sell-throughs.

    I’ve written some things, too. Years ago, I dreamed of becoming a professional writer. Now, I’ve decided to post my short stories on my blog. If you like science-fiction or fantasy, you could check them out. But I’m not writing this to promote my blog. I was intrigued by your post, and also by Stephen Leigh’s comment.

    I don’t know if you (the professional writers) get paid enough — I never got to this stage. But I do know that the problem does not come from money. And the difference between the professional and the amateur, according to me, is hidden in the details. When people think about the job they’d love to do, they usually have a general idea about how it should be done — just because they’re amateurs, and they’ve never done it. When they start actually doing it, it is then, when they find out all the details they have to take care of. Typing the words of a novel is fine, but one has also to think about the above-mentioned royalties. And there’s probably thousands of other details that I’m unaware of. If you want to have the job done properly, you have to take care of them all. In the end, it turns out that the fun thing you could do all your life is just another daily job, like the rest.

  6. davidbcoe said

    I think “El Volgero” raises an interesting point. I’m a professional writer, but that also means that I’m the owner of a small business. I have to promote myself, network at conventions, arrange signings and other appearances, deal with the financial ins and outs of the publishing industry, etc. To make writing work as a career, I either a) have to enjoy the business end of things, or b) love writing and seeing my books in print enough to overcome my distaste for the rest.

    I have to admit that it’s a bit of both. At times, I like the business stuff. It exercises a part of my brain, and perhaps of my personality as well, that is often dormant. And I also have to admit that there’s a bit of ego involved. I want to see my books in print. I want to see them on bookstore shelves and know that other people are reading them.

    Interesting stuff to think about. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I chanced on this site using the word ‘amature’ in connection with a poem I used on my blog. You are now included with “My Favorites”. I notice Turning Amateur was posted back in Nov. 0/7 I’d like to read more of what you have written.

  8. did I spell that … amature the first time?

  9. davidbcoe said

    Many thanks for the kind comment, Mary. I’ll look forward to checking out your blog as well. And yeah, I type amateur the wrong way all the time. I also spell you “yoiu” and before “befroe” constantly. Funny the way certain words lend themselves to typos.

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