Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Amateur is NOT a Bad Word

Sarah here. I am thrilled to be guest posting for MaryAnn this week. Thanks for having me back, everyone! I am tempted to wave at the screen like you can see me. This must stop. On to the post...

I am constantly rearranging my living room. I can’t help myself. The furniture doesn’t fit. There’s no good place for a TV. A support post divides the room into odd shapes, with a fireplace on the wrong wall. And then there’s the Steinway grand piano.

My parents dipped into my college fund to buy this piano when I was 13. It was understood that I would take the piano someday, when I had a house of my own. (Also that I would go college in-state. Wahoowa!) My husband and I searched and searched for a house in our price range that could accommodate it. That turned out to be an impossible dream in 2007 Los Angeles, so we went all in on what we could afford and gave up on the grand.

Then my parents retired and sold my childhood home to move across the country, and the piano was homeless. My husband and I looked at our living room, measured a few things, looked some more, and agreed. We would fit it. Sort of. 

The Beast. I don't know if I picked the right spot, but I can't move it.
Family and friends all thought this was a bad idea, space-wise. They were right. The piano is lovely, but it is not helping my decorating problems. I fantasize about selling it, and how nice it would be to have a normal living room with an entertainment center along the piano wall and space to walk around the furniture.

I can’t sell it.

Music vs. Writing: Upping the Ante

I used to practice almost every day, until I decided to focus more on writing. As a mom of young children and a Netflix addict, I don’t have the time or discipline for two passions.

I discovered a huge difference between playing piano and writing novels, although I do think the former helps my typing. Novels come with expectations. People find out I write and ask, “Have you been published?” Then they tell me about a friend who has been trying to sell his novel for the last twenty-five years.

The grand piano is humble in its hobby-ness. No one ever asks me, “Where have you performed?” Or, “Do you have any recordings?” Because that would be idiotic.

99.99% chance of not being the next
Evgeny Kissin, but oh well.
In high school, I was stumbling over arpeggios at a lesson when my teacher took a phone call from a new student's parent. She hung up and shook her head. The parent had said something piano teachers hear a lot: “We aren’t training little Johnny to be a concert pianist.”

My teacher laughed and said to me, “Do you know how many concert pianists there are in the world? I can count them on my fingers. I can promise little Johnny is not going to be a concert pianist."

To my knowledge, she was right. But I bet he learned a lot from her, like how to study tone and rhythm and dynamics and follow them down a predictable path to unpredictable beauty. That's what I learned, anyway.

Writing is different. Writing is seductive in its accessibility. Who hasn’t read a mediocre book, even a best-seller, and thought, “I could have written that”? When we get bitten by the writing bug, it’s easy to decide we’re going to be professionals. We encourage each other to cultivate the dogged determination to get published. We complain that other writers who talk a big game should, ahem, make with the number two or vacate the lavatory. We have the optimism of knowing that success is something we might realistically achieve, but we bear the weight of that same knowledge. 

Do what you love and the money will... matter less.

Determination is good. Treating writing like a job is good… if it works. But all that pressure can backfire. If you’re feeling like you should have landed an agent by now or you should be writing faster or you should be improving faster, then I have a suggestion: Be an amateur. Be an amateur the way musicians who practice every day are amateurs. Be an amateur the way kids taking piano lessons get to be amateurs. 

The thing you have when you’re young and never, ever appreciate (aside from glowing skin and miracle metabolism) is the freedom to concentrate on whatever interests you and work at getting better. Once you have bills and kids and all those grown-up responsibilities, it’s hard to let yourself work at things that aren’t paid (or just plain necessary, if you’re an at-home parent).

It’s hard to justify hours at the piano bench when no one will ever make a direct deposit to hear your Chopin. It’s hard to justify hours at your computer when you don’t know if what you’re writing will sell or rot in a drawer. Meanwhile, a little voice is saying you wouldn’t feel guilty about the time if you just made some money at it.

Treating “amateur” like an insult can make us forget where the word comes from, which is love. Love is what turns work into play and play into work.

I think that’s why the piano continues to dominate my living room, and maybe why my husband is as attached to it as I am. It's more than sentimental; it’s a physical reminder that losing yourself in something you love has value beyond money. Or space for the TV.

As my writing goals evolve, the biggest one is to never stop being an amateur at heart, a person who does what she does because the reward is in the doing. I hope the same for everyone who is lucky enough to love something.



  1. SARAH!!!

    Ahem... hello Sarah, welcome back.

    I love this.

    Because not only is the pressure to be publishable and good enough agonizing and soul crushing, it also make my writing WORSE! All of that pressure destroys my creativity. I have this story idea that I know is really publishable, and every time I try to work on it, the pressure that it might work out scares me out of the safe creative space. I have to talk myself out of panicking. This is a good reminder to just breathe, and write because I love it.

  2. Yay Sarah! Welcome back! I've missed you.

    You have impeccable timing too. I'm right at the point in writing where I think I've got a novel good enough to publish, and so I stop being a writer, because I can't bear the next step. I'm pushing through it this time, but it's so nice to have you put it all into perspective. I write because I love it, and because I love the friends I make when I do it (all of you!).


  3. Good to see you Sarah!

    And yes, I'll just agree with Sheena and Melanie. This is so timely. I've taken to writing 'this ending is mine and I don't have to show it to anybody - ever' at the top of every page just so I can fool myself into plowing through the final scenes of my novel.

    And I agree with Melanie, too, that I love the friendship and comraderie I've found in writing - it's definitely not a solitary pursuit.

    Thanks for posting again!

  4. Great post Sarah!

    The original meaning of the word amateur means "lover", so amateur is not a bad word at all! :)

  5. Wonderful to have you back for a visit, Sarah. We miss you! <3

    I have a story - it's the one about the house that rises from the ground. It more imagery than action, more inner thought than dialogue. It might be unpublishable. But its image holds very strong in my mind, and I refuse to write it any other than how I envision it now. If being a professional means I have to give up on that feeling... well, I don't want to be a professional.

  6. @Sheena, I know exactly what you are talking about, and sometimes I just need to breathe and "write with the door closed," as Stephen King says. What really gets to me is the pressure to accomplish more, writing-wise, which often paralyzes me into accomplishing nothing. Ah, psychology.

    @Melanie, if the publishable novel you're talking about is the one that I am (finally) reading, then you are not allowed to chicken out :) But you are allowed to request pep talks whenever you need one!

    @Susan, I never anticipated that writing would lead me to such wonderful people, but the community is fantastic and it keeps me going when I get discouraged and would rather watch tv. Okay, sometimes I still just watch tv.

    @Stefan, thanks for reading! Yes, amateur should be positive or at least neutral but sadly people often don't use it that way.

    @Sabrina, you have to write that story. I remember the picture you posted. I don't think worrying about what's publishable before you write it does much for anyone's chances of success, anyway. I happen to love imagery and inner thought, so there's one person who'd read it! But I think you should always write for yourself first. It's one of the few places where selfishness can turn into virtue :)

    1. Thanks Sarah! Pep talks are always welcome. :D

  7. Thanks for covering me while I was out in that strange no-wifi land. Your post was beautiful and funny and poignant like always. Anytime you want to write a post, I'll gladly give you my spot. :)

    I think it is funny how everyone does expect more from an amateur writer than an amateur pianist or a painter or insert artistic hobby here.

    I also struggle with the idea that if you don't treat writing like a job, you will never get published. I get that it takes a lot of work to get to a professional level, but to me that is the exact reason you have to love it. If you aren't enjoying the process to some extent, then what is the point? If I'm not solving plot problems while doing dishes, or trying to sneak a way from my kids to write on line of dialogue, or feeling bummed every night that I didn't get to write more, if I wasn't loving the writing process even when it is hard and I feel like pulling my hair out, I wouldn't be doing it. Until I'm actually making money at this writing thing, it is a hobby, a passion, and I am an amateur.

    But that doesn't mean I'm not serious, that I'm not going to pour all the time I have and all my passion into it, that I'm not going to try to get published.

    But it is easy to get so focused on the publishing goal/dream and forget why I want to be a writer in the first place. Thanks Sarah for the reminder and for subbing for me. You are awesome. :)

    1. Thanks for giving me the chance to post again! I miss you guys <3

      There are days when I don't love the writing process as much as I used to, and I read a blog post a while ago that basically said if you don't love it maybe you ought to quit. I didn't like that idea. Which would I rather do: stop writing or start loving it again? That's a no-brainer. So I started to think about what it would take to love it and I realized that it was just a matter of letting myself be an amateur without guilt or judgment. And voila! Cue love hormones.

      Whether you choose to think of yourself as professional or amateur or somewhere in between, I think the end goal is the same: Doing what you love, and loving what you do :)


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