In Praise of Amateur Writing

Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.

~ Alfred Eisenstaedt

One of the high points in my reading career was a book I found in my high school library when I was 16. It was an anthology of poems written by American high school students, and the poems were so authentic, so inspired, and at times so hypnotically beautiful that I regret having returned it. I don’t even remember the name of the book now, but I’ll never forget how the poems spoke to me and for me, opening up new ways of seeing to my budding mind.

Jump ahead a few years and I find an anthology of poems, art, and short stories by men in a Canadian prison. There’s a story in which a First Nations man describes meeting and marrying the woman he loves. The story still haunts me; it was like a string of jewels, each description more beautiful than the last and ending in hints of loss and regret the more poignant because their causes were shrouded in mystery.

I couldn’t stand to think of writers like these joining writers’ workshops, taking degrees in creative writing, or even seeking out famous authors to tell them how to improve. And the very existence of such literary outsiders made me resent the publishing and academic worlds even more than I already did.

A bit of context: Studying for an English degree had been taking an unfortunate toll on my love of literature, i.e. it was flushing it down the gutter and taking the autumn leaves with it. The more I studied the Medievals, the Romantics, and the Moderns the less I was able to be blown away by them as I had been before I’d decided to study them full time.

The other English majors agreed with me, which may be why so many of us sought escape in the raw aesthetic energy of punk rock, science fiction flicks, and comic books.

During this period William Blake was the only writer whose work I could embrace, and I attribute this mainly to the fact that this rough, unschooled genius stood outside the literary establishment of his time, remaining an amateur– at least in conventional terms– to the end of his days.

This rogue poet status gave Blake a moral, intellectual, and artistic freedom that the established writers of his time couldn’t imagine. He openly criticised British imperialism, the church, slavery, and the oppression of women. His poetry, wildly imaginative though it was, was firmly grounded in social concern. He printed his own work, producing several great tomes, full of gorgeous poem paintings and now worth millions. Why did he do it himself? No publisher would print his work, which was considered too unconventional and amateurish. Even today critics concede that Blake’s style was simple and childlike, hardly what one would expect of a literary titan.

He wasn’t the only one. We’ve all heard about those experiments in which people add their names to the works of famous authors, submitting said works to literary competitions with the aim of making the judges look like boobs when the works get rejected. But we shouldn’t place all the blame for these kinds of errors on a judge’s literary ignorance, and here’s why:

If you read the work of writers like Twain, Dickens, or the Brontës and compare it to the latest fiction in today’s most reputable literary journals, the older authors come off sounding naive. The literary establishment for some reason tends to steer clear of work that appears to come from an open, curious mind, and so works brimming with wonder and imagination are rejected in favour of writing with more polish and dignity, writing that conforms either to literary conventions or to the latest trends. New authors determined to be published tend to nudge their work in these directions, not as a compromise but under the illusion that their writing will be “better” the more it resembles the work of “professional” writers.

But what is a professional writer, really? The government doesn’t license writers the way it does doctors and teachers, so you won’t encounter specific criteria until you find yourself applying for grants to bodies that have their own yardsticks for limiting who gets to go on the carnival ride. In order to apply for a Canada Council grant, for example, as a professional writer you must cite a certain number of print publications. You have to have been recognised by your peers. It helps if you’ve studied at a university, taken workshops, and even taught a little.

These are the things that matter to funding organisations. Have you changed someone’s life? Big deal. Have you written lines that draw sighs from sad hearts? Whatever. Have you spun metaphors into pure gold? Bravo, but you’re not getting a grant.

So let’s ‘fess up and acknowledge that the distinction between amateur writers and professional writers is a false construct, failing to accurately measure the quality of the writing itself. Publication by traditional means is no firm indicator of writing quality. There rests, subjective as it is, the far more salient distinction between writing that blesses readers and writing that leaves them cold. And both types of writing can be found on both sides of the amateur-professional divide.

There were other great writers like Blake who were never published in their lifetimes because their work was considered amateur. Most certainly they would have wanted it to be read, but they didn’t invest a lot of time or energy promoting their work or “improving” it to resemble the work of people who did get published. Why should they have? They were too busy writing from their souls. And if they were alive today they may still have trouble getting published, but they’d have no problem getting their work read, because they’d have cyberspace.

Just think of the Internet as a huge park where you can place your writing on a bench and walk away. As if by magic, the rain won’t ruin it, the wind won’t blow it away, and except under extreme circumstances no one can remove it but you. You can drop by now and then to edit it, if you like. You can move it to another park bench if you think that will bring it more attention. You can just pick it up and hand it to someone and say, “Here, read this.” People who read your writing can comment on it. They can share it with their friends. And they can leave their own writing for you to read. Amateur writing has never known a finer moment.

To be clear, there’s no shame for those who’ve achieved professional status via traditional publication as long as their aspiration is to write ever more honestly, clearly, and beautifully. And there’s no glory in being an amateur writer whose sole raison d’etre is producing something that will be considered worthy of publication. Every writer must remain an amateur; yes, in the end we have to be doing it for love.

Childlike wonder is the very vibrancy of creative life, and it’s so easily dulled by efforts to prune, correct, smooth, deconstruct, and critique. What could your writing possibly gain by letting someone stuff it into a corset so tight it can’t breathe? Or chlorophorming and dissecting it? Or packing it up in a stylish jacket and making people pay through the nose to read it?

Alfred Eisenstaedt ‘s words about photograpy can easily be generalised to writers: “Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.”


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