Embracing your inner amateur

I’m a writer and a filmmaker. I can say that now without visibly cringing and with only a minor internal flareup of the old imposter syndrome. Because, like many who devote a major chunk of their existence to the creative pursuits, I’ve always wondered what makes a real artist. Somehow along the way, maybe because of the social pressure of living in a capitalist society or even just a working class sense of pragmatism, I arrived at the notion that real artists are those who earn enough money to at least pay the mortgage, groceries and health insurance through their work.

I’ve earned a bit of money for my creative work over the years, but not nearly enough to pay more than a month or two of the rent, and that doesn’t include the water bill and tucking anything away for the kiddo’s college fund. I once spent an advance check on a family vacation. I used the money left over after selling a screenplay option (and after legal fees) to buy a video camera. But I’ve never paid my bills with my art. Does that make me a fraud?

This bothered me for a long time. Even after a few publications, awards, film festivals and international distribution for some of my films, this sense that I was not as serious about my work as real artists would not go away. After all, I still have a day job as a media producer. It’s creative work that I even enjoy most days. But for some reason, I always suspected that my personal work was just some quaint hobby. I feared that people wouldn’t think I was serious. Or worse yet, I was a “dabbler” or its slightly more elegant French counterpart: the “dilettante.”

“This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s actually the ideal.”

I eventually learned that all those writers whom I so admired as they were paraded across the stage on book tours or in my MFA program mostly had day jobs, too (that that they rarely, if ever, spoke about), primarily teaching. I learned that the author bios on most novels are selectively edited: “Abigail is a copyeditor who lives on a farm in New England with her husband, children and three lamas and she drives forty minutes round trip to the office in New Haven where she spends most of her day editing a medical journal after waking at four a.m. to get some of her creative work finished before getting the kids ready for school.”

The more artists, writers and filmmakers I’ve met, the more examples I have collected of people doing amazing creative work in the margins of their lives, and the more it has challenged the self-imposed notion that amateurism is an inferior form of creativity. I’ve even interviewed several accomplished, full-time artists, musicians and writers who achieved the all the financial and critical success you could hope for, and then promptly plunged into other creative disciplines to start from scratch. There’s the Emmy winning musician who started painting, a romance novelist who went into politics or a poet laureate who starts doing watercolors. Specialization is indeed dull when compared with the freedom to dabble in whatever calls you at that moment.

This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s the ideal. If you look up the word amateur, you’ll find the word passion in the definition. The same is not true of the word professional. Do artists and writers with day jobs, on the main, possess any less talented than the bestsellers interviewed by Terry Gross? Not in any way that I can see. I’ve met a lot of other filmmakers at festivals who shoot weddings to pay rent or do corporate work as their bread and butter. I learned that the Maysels Brothers, who created some of the greatest documentary films of American direct cinema movement, ran a business making “industrials” to pay the bills for the entirety of their filmmaking careers.

“I’ve become less impressed by how much money a very few artists make from their work than I am by how little most of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.”

I’ve tried to stop sweating the definitions of amateur and professional. I’ve tried to eliminate the fear of being labeled a dilettante and instead embrace the idea. I’ve done a lot of research, read books on creativity, interviewed artists and writers, both unknown and world famous, and I’ve come to understand that economics are a poor judge of talent, and that the systems established to monetize the creative arts–galleries, Hollywood, the publishing industry–are uneven, imperfect, random (though hardly malign or evil) and certainly not the best arbiters of creative merit.

With this blog I hope to dive into all of these issues: what makes an artist, how does the money work, where do you find creative energy, how to focus on your own process rather than judging yourself or others, what is the definition of success, how do you balance your creative work with your day job and can you (or should you) make them one in the same? Because the vast majority of artists in this world deal with these issues every day, some better than others. This is my attempt to flip the script as I find that I’ve become less impressed by how much money a very few artists make from their work than I am by how little most of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.

After putting my stake in the ground at the age of eight with the fearlessness of a child and declaring myself a writer, promptly scribbling a knockoff of the first seven pages of The Hobbit with a fat pencil, and then working diligently on the craft for the next thirty-some odd years with only occasional recognition through publication and infrequent remuneration before finally publishing something with one of the “big five,” I still, like many artists, don’t quite feel like I’ve earned that title. But this blog is my ongoing effort to convince myself (and maybe a few others) that I have.


Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive an email every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.

Cover Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash.

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