On Amateurs

One of the things I say to my students is: The difference between a professional writer and an amateur is the number of drafts you’re prepared to do. This is true.  If you want to be published, you need to learn to draft and redraft, to be radical and ruthless in your editing, and to be prepared to do as many drafts as it takes to get the story to a publishable state.

But you don’t have to do this if all you want to do is have fun with writing.

I respect amateur writers.  I respect anyone who does creative work for the love of it, which is what ‘amateur’ means.  In our culture, somehow it’s okay to be an amateur musician, and play at home for the love of it.  It’s okay to be an amateur photographer, and to share your photos on Pinterest or Tumblr.  It’s okay to be an amateur painter, and to hang your watercolours in your hallway.  But somehow, it’s not okay to be an amateur writer.  Every writer is supposed to be desperately seeking publication.

I teach at the Australian Writers Centre, and I teach everyone from absolute beginners who have never written anything in their lives to people who’ve written several novels and are now trying to find out if they’re any good before they submit them to a publisher.

Mixed in among them are people who, when asked at the beginning of a course, ‘What are you hoping for from this course?’ look embarrassed and apologise because really, they’re there for fun.

Or they want to write their family history for their grandchildren.  Or they want to be better at blogging, just for their friends.  Or they have a yearning to write their own life story, but they don’t necessarily want anyone else to read it.  Or they just simply like playing with words and stories and want to increase their skills, the way an amateur golfer might take a lesson from the golf course pro.

I hate that those people think they should apologise.  I hate an attitude that says that having fun isn’t a good enough reason to play with words, or that private achievement (like writing a family history) isn’t real achievement.

The reason I hate it is that it equates value with being a commodity.  That unless someone else, some stranger, puts money down for something, it’s worthless.  That being without a price tag equals valueless, instead of priceless.

No writer worth their salt – particularly fiction writers – actually write for money.  If they did… well, God help them is all I can say.  The average income from writing around the world is low (well under the poverty line) and falling.

Writers write for all sorts of reasons, but in the end, if love of the process, the storytelling, the struggling with words and the momentary brief euphoria that struggle sometimes brings – if that’s not one of your reasons, you won’t keep writing for long.  There are many easier ways to earn money.

So we’re all amateurs, all the writers, really.  Even JK Rowling, who, if she wrote for money, could have stopped after the fourth Harry Potter – and who certainly didn’t have to become Robert Galbraith to earn a living.  Even EL James, who really didn’t need to write Grey – not only was she a multi-millionaire from the books, but she’s parleyed that into a brand for lingerie, sex toys, you name it.  So why keep writing?

Because nothing else is quite what we’re looking for. Because we’re addicted.

For the love of it..

6 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this . I have written stories for many years without seeking publication because I didn't have the time in a busy ' other ' career to give them the revisions required to bring them to a standard ready for commercial publication . I enjoyed entertaining friends and colleagues. I am entering the next stage now of seeking publication and starting to understand how determined one must be to see projects through . This article was both inspiring and reassuring .
  2. Next year for sure, Colleen!
  3. Well said, Pamella - a great reflection.
  4. Pamela, love this post! And it's so true about the process of writing being viewed only for the value of its end product ... 'that unless someone else, some stranger, puts money down for something, it’s worthless. That being without a price tag equals valueless, instead of priceless.' So true!! When I teach kids to write stories, I want them to get the message that it's also for the joy of a great tale for their own enjoyment and not just for others. And that all their seemingly endless editing and writing is not necessarily about getting their work published in whatever form (the idea of an end product seems to be becoming more important to schools and parents) but for the joy of working with words and becoming another human engaging in the ancient craft of storytelling. My aim is to turn them into storytelling addicts as well.
  5. Sheryl, you're so right. Particularly with kids. To tell a story for the sheer fun of it is all they need; it's hard to convince them that editing is fun, but the satisfaction can be great. Are you sure you're doing them a favour by addicting them to storytelling, though? You know how it takes over your life!
  6. Yours is a clever way of thninikg about it.

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