The new academic year has started at De Montfort University, and I’m teaching a course on Professional Writing Skills. It’s good to be back in the swing of teaching, and a pleasure to see my students from last year once again.
This is a course that I love teaching, because of the way that it directly mixes philosophical, technical and practical issues. But the longer I go on, the more I’m a little worried by the notion of a professional writer. In my lecture today, I said that I’d like to teach another course alongside this one called amateur writing skills. It got a muted laugh, but it was not really a joke.
The trouble with many widespread notions of professionalism (what I would call faux-professionalism), is that they can be so very narrow and restrictive. They conjure up drab images of suits, ties, boardrooms smelling of stale coffee, and that awful bureaucratic-speak that is properly categorised as bullshit (or bullshit going forward). In this context, ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’ (or ‘amateur’) are often terms that are used to maintain a very restrictive range of behaviours, and to limit what can and cannot be thought about and talked about. None of this seems to encapsulate a state of being towards which anybody, writer or otherwise, should aspire.
So what I’m interested in are some deeper notions of amateurism and professionalism that, when taken together, get much closer to the core of what really matters in writing. Here, a couple of definitions will help. These are adapted from the wonderful online etymology dictionary. We can start with ‘amateur’.[quote]amateur (n.) 1784, “one who has a taste for (something),” from French amateur “lover of,” from Latin amatorem “lover.” Meaning “dabbler” (as opposed to professional) is from 1786. As an adjective, by 1838…[/quote]
Amateurism is often used as a term of abuse (particularly when the term is wielded by those who are fond of engaging in bullshit going forward). To be an amateur is to be inept, incompetent, unworldly, a dabbler—in short, unprofessional.
But I’d like to rescue the idea of the amateur as lover, and to maintain a positive spin on the word. Because there are few things that are more antithetical to bullshit going forward than enthusiasm, love, intoxication, joy and passion. If you want to write, you need to love what writing can do. You need to feed this enthusiasm, intoxication, joy and passion. You need to have a taste for writing. Writers need to be amateurs if they are going to write anything worth writing (the same, as I have argued elsewhere, goes for philosophers).
But what about professionalism? Let’s go back to the etymological dictionary, for the following…[quote]professional (n.) c.1200, from Old French profession, “vows taken upon entering a religious order,” from Latin professionem “public declaration,” from past participle stem of profiteri “declare openly”. Meaning “any solemn declaration” is from mid-14c. Meaning “occupation one professes to be skilled in” is from early 15c.; meaning “body of persons engaged in some occupation” is from 1610…[/quote]
What I love about this (yes, I love it, because I’m an incorrigible amateur) is that if you strip away bullshit going forwards, if you forget about suits and ties and stale-coffee boardrooms, you get to something much more existentially meaty: vows or commitments that are taken upon entering an order. In making such vows, you are not just saying “Oh, I’ll do x, y, or z” but you are making a much bigger commitment, a commitment that is public, one that marks the fact you are joining a community (albeit a loose-knit one), and one that may change the direction of your life. In other words, you are making a commitment with a degree of existential heft to it.
This deeper notion of ‘profession’ has two aspects: the making of an existential commitment, and the public declaration of this commitment, the willingness to say, “Yes, I have committed myself to this, and I’ll see it through.”
It is in this sense, I think, that it can be of use to writers to be not just amateurs, not just lovers, but also professionals. Love is a more personal affair. And love comes and goes. But as a writer, you may find that your writing really starts to bite, really starts to go deeper and further, when you decide that you are going to commit yourself to the act of writing, and when you make this commitment known to others, be they writers (i.e., members of the loose-knit order of writers), or non-writers.
The public aspect of commitment is important, I think. When I started out as a writer, I found it hard to say, “I am a writer”. I had only a couple of scrappy publications to my name, and no more. I wrote all the time, I loved writing (I was an amateur), and I had made a private commitment to writing… but I was reluctant to profess this commitment more broadly. I was, simply put, too shy. Looking back, I think that this reluctance was a mistake. It was a mistake because in the long run it made life harder for me. It created a split between the things that motivated me personally, that drove me existentially, and the things that I talked about in relationship with others. It stopped me from being able to relate to others, whether those who wrote and those who didn’t, as a writer. And this held me back.
So this is what I’ll be trying to explore about during the coming year. Of course we will talk about practical issues: publishers, submissions, formatting manuscripts, reading contracts, self-publishing and so on. But along the way I’ll also be trying to keep the course rooted in questions about what it means to write (or do anything else) as an amateur, as one who acts out of love, and what it means to write (or, again, do anything else) as a professional, as one who has made certain commitments, and who has made these commitments public.
Deep amateurism, then, and deep professionalism. Taken together these things are not opposed to each other, but instead support each other. And to engage in them is to perform a service not only to oneself, but also to others.
There is too much faux-professionalism in the world. There is too much bullshit going forwards. But deep professionalism, this ability to make commitments, and to be honest about the commitments that we have made, and deep amateurism, this ability to love, and the willingness to pursue what we love, seem to me to be powerful ways of pushing back against the tide, and of doing things, whether in writing or elsewhere, that are of lasting value.