On Being An Amateur

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… A violinist is performing a fiendishly difficult solo at Carnegie Hall. His bow arm is a blur; sweat is pouring down his brow. He finishes with a flourish and the crowd goes wild. “Encore! Encore!” they shout. So he plays the same piece again, and when he finishes the second time the crowd once again erupts into applause and demands more. They’re insatiable. So he plays the same piece again. When he finishes the third time, and the crowd again calls for an encore, he demures. “I really should finish now,” he says. Then a voice comes from out of the crowd: “No, you’ll play it til you get it right!”

I’m certainly no virtuoso violinist, but so often over the past few weeks I’ve felt like an absolute beginner, an amateur. I periodically used to feel this way as an editor. Someone would suggest a new angle to a story, another editor would add a deft touch to a piece, a designer would select a great picture I had overlooked—and I would think: Why didn’t I think of that? You would suppose that after practicing the same craft for nigh on 17 years, I would have perfected it by now. But there’s never nothing left to learn. And familiarity doesn’t breed contempt as much as complacency. You do something every day so you think you know how to do it. But sometimes a lot of experience just gets in the way. Nowadays I feel like a beginner because I’m at the beginning, of a new phase in my career at least. That long, lonely walk back to the drawing board concentrates the mind wonderfully. You have to face the possibility that you really don’t know much after all.There are black spots, for sure. The prospects, or lack thereof, often seem daunting. Sometimes, I think I’m too old for this shit. But in my better moments I know that’s not spoken in the spirit of a true amateur. Rudyard Kipling wrote:

As soon as you find you can do anything, do something you can’t.

That’s good advice if you want to be a perpetual beginner, a professional amateur. The job description has less to do with what you do than how you do it. The word amateur is derived from the Latin amator, or lover, and its original meaning is: to do something for the love of it rather than the money, the perks, the prestige, the distraction from other things you’d rather not think about, or whatever. To be an amateur is to be in love with what you do. It’s not bad work if you can get it. I find I’m doing more and more of something I love—writing. (Now I just need to figure out how to get paid for it.) And that’s why Kipling’s little admonition is always in the back of my mind. As soon as I’ve written anything, I want to write something I can’t—or at least, something I haven’t written yet. You gotta love that.