I'm an AMATEUR author. Are You?

Alfred Wallis used enamel paint from Woolworths and painted onto the back of cereal boxes. His works are now worth very many thousands

I’m very happily an amateur author. Quite a keen amateur photographer too. Are you happy to be an amateur – or do you strive to cross the line and become, I suppose the word is, ‘professional’?

As writers today there is immense pressure not to be seen as amateur. A random page from Google, from one of the very many service industries for writers, is headed How To Avoid Looking Like An Amateur Author. (I would suggest the writer of this headline acquaint themselves with the misuse of capitalised prepositions in headings). The (presumably professional) author of this piece states:

It’s vital for writers in this day and age to fully make the mindset shift from ‘amateur writer’ to ‘professional’. Even if that’s on a part-time basis, it’s crucial to apply the strictest levels of quality control in order to be taken seriously.

I think this article, which I’m not going to link to, is fairly typical of the advice to budding writers. (That such advice is often a taster that leads to many layers of professional services – editing, formatting, cover design, and the biggest of all, marketing, need not concern us here.)

The word ‘amateur’ contains many meanings, some of which are derogatory as in ‘They’re a bunch of amateurs’ (something akin to ‘cowboy builders’). The lovely Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary says of amateurs, “AMATEUR, n. A public nuisance who mistakes taste for skill, and confounds his ambition with his ability.” Amusing but somewhat contrived – as are all witticisms, aphorisms and put-downs.

Traditionally, according to most dictionaries, an amateur is someone who engages in a practice out of love, not money. That’s getting nearer to what I understand by amateurism. Truly, there are some dreadful amateur dramatic or choral performances, but there are some brilliant ones as well. The same goes for professionalism: a paid symphony orchestra and conductor may mangle a composer’s work or lift it to the sublime.

The problems with this emphasis on professionalism and ‘quality control’ are several. While it’s true that writers who sell a lot of self-published or traditionally books have usually availed themselves of the most efficient marketing strategies (via third parties), it’s also true that a lot (most?) are writing for a readership, not themselves. They want to make a profit. They will keep producing the formulaic structures of genre for marketable reader audiences. Nothing wrong with that. If you succeed, you do so on the basis of that approach. Your aim is to make money.

But there are others who write for the love of writing, happy if their work is only read by a few appreciative readers. Free of the need to be ‘professional’, they are often the truly creative contributors to the world. Van Gogh must be presumed an amateur as he didn’t sell a painting in his lifetime. Presumably too, all the great authors before the internet and print-to-order put writing before publishing services.

Writing, like reading, at its best is a life-giving, soul-forming activity. An amateur is a lover – that’s what amateur means. If your love finds even a single reader-lover who connects, you are blessed.