There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur writer when you write because you love it.

Let me talk about amateur writers and why I think that’s a fine thing. I’ve seen the idea tossed around that people who only write once a year aren’t writers. While I do agree that it is easier to have a long-term and sustainable professional career if one writes every day, that’s not an actual requirement for being a writer.

Allow me to point out a few writers have only written one novel, ever.

  • Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
  • Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago
  • Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  • Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
  • J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • Anna Sewell, Black Beauty
  • John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

To be fair, some of them died young, some wrote other things. Then there are writers like Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) who writes a novel about every fifteen to twenty years.

My point is that I don’t think it’s the quantity of your output or the frequency with which you write that determines the value of the words or even if one should be “allowed” to call oneself a writer.  No one is going to tell an amateur musician that she’s not really a musician. So why do think that a person can’t write for fun and still call herself a writer?

I fall into this trap too.  The number of times I’ve hit a milestone and thought “Finally! I’m a real writer” is just ridiculous.  I’ve been a writer for a long time. What I actually mean is “Awesome! Someone paid me!” or “Woot! I love this magazine!” or “OMG! I can haz novel!”

Those are all external indicators of something that I should have already known ie I’m a writer.

Granted, before I made a sale, I was an amateur writer but all that meant was that I wrote because I loved it.  That is, after all, what it means. Amateur does not mean poor quality, it means for the love, specifically, “a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.”

Why, in heavens name, would anyone stigmatize writing for the love of writing?

All that does is make people hide their work. Are we really interested in creating an in environment where people are ashamed of the fact that they enjoy writing?  These are people who love the written word!

Now, I do think it’s fair to annoyed by people who want to be professional writers but don’t want to put in the time. But that’s an entirely different thing from someone who wants to write, loves it, and just isn’t very good at it. Yet.

Put in the time. Enjoy being an amateur. Write.

9 Responses

  1. Corry Lee

    Yay! I think this is a great sentiment to hold and spread. It’s hard to internalize, I think, because it’s tough to get to that “I have a writing career” that so many of us want. When we’re so caught up in the desire/psycological need to hit those professional milestones, it can really make us forget the fundamental fact that we all started writing because we love it.

  2. Marc @ Angry Robot

    How very true. I’ve long made it a habit, whenever I talk to writing groups or individuals who are typically somewhere between “I want to write something that long” and “I just finished a first draft and boy are my arms tired”, of using that metaphor of music practice.

    In our society, we all know what it takes to play a guitar or any other musical instrument, and the stages of commitment one has to go through to be thought of as good or great at it. Kranging away in your garage/bedroom; maybe practicing so hard that eventually you get a gig in the local bar; with only the very, very talented and committed putting in the thousands of hours needed to sign to a major and get famous. We get that, cos we see it in action.

    Most people who play any music are people who krang away, quite happy, knowing they’ll never play the Budokan. And there’s nothing at all wrong with writing for pleasure, for the simple craic of sharing it with some writing group pals or just because it’s pleasurable, or at least therapeutic. The game that gives pleasure is the one of doing it at all, not doing it well. Frankly, that should and can be enough for many, many folks. But for whatever reason, writing remains something that is regarded as being done for others, an art done for explicit performance for the enjoyment of other people.

    NaNoWriMo should be a celebration of the act of writing and creation, not of public reaction and response. It encourages the sheer act of writing as a thing in itself. That might mean someone should tone down the “Look at the list of NaNoWriMo winners who got published” stuff.

    PS Hate to correct you, but John Kennedy Toole wrote two novels – check out The Neon Bible (a lesser work, as the phrase goes). Arundhati Roy is reported to be working on a second too, but it’s only been three years so a ways to go yet.

  3. shirk

    For me, the trap is precisely the attention given to the label of whether one is or is not “a writer,” instead of whether one… writes.

    I started my undergraduate career as a music theory and composition major, without a clue as to how to actually compose anything, but with tons of youthful angst about wanting to Be A Composer who wrote Great Works. This was fertile ground for a vicious inner critic, and I wrote virtually nothing. I decided that creativity was some inspirational thunderbolt that struck only the lucky or talented, and that I just must not have been cut out for it. I’m only now trying to return to it thirty years later as a craft to be learned and developed for its own sake.

    The question I ask my twelve-year-old daughter is not, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but, “What do you want to *do*?” Do you get satisfaction from putting words on (real or virtual) paper, telling a story, working out plot and characterization details, editing and rewriting? Then write, and hang the labels.

    Alas, the usual life demands have taken me away from literature for some time, and I was completely unaware of NaNoWriMo until John Scalzi’s plug brought me over here two days ago. NaNoWriMo is a brilliant thing, and I’m going to arrange my life to enjoy churning out one next November, inner critic be damned.

    Thanks from a new fan.

  4. Amity Thompson

    I really appreciated this post. One of the things that struck me at WFC was the number of published authors who, when I told them I was an aspiring writer, said, “Aspiring? Do you write? Yes? Then you ARE a writer.” Their insistence really touched me. Of course, I found that editors usually wanted some distinction ;)

    But it is a trap I fall into ALL THE TIME. Real writer = published. But that’s so not true — I. Am. Writing. It just frustrates me to no end, though, how we need labels. I tell someone outside the publishing business I’m a writer — they ask what I’ve published and when I say nothing yet, they get “ah, hobby and dreamer” looks in their eyes. Sort of, ‘how cute’ which transforms into ‘how insane’ or ‘what a waste’ when I say I write, at home, full-time without pay (Ok, that is rare, but it’s a life choice, not a waste of my college degree). Plus, I have run into published authors who get the dismissive look when they don’t at least hear an agent’s name. Therefore, it’s easy to understand how so many amateur writers fall into the trap of thinking that what they do doesn’t count.

    I never had this problem in my teens. I wrote and told everyone I was a Novelist. Somewhere in college that was whittled down until now I have to stop and remind myself that writing=writer. And that makes me sad.

  5. Craig Johns

    I’ve always liked a quote by a little known film director named James Cameron.

    “Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.”

    While it specifically applies to film directing, the sentiment can be applied to any of the creative arts. For example, a slightly modified version pertaining to science fiction or fantasy writing.

    Pick up a pen. Write something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your opus is riddled with Tolkien-esque cliches, has pea-brained space marines in it, or is teetering on the brink of being classified pornographic fan fiction. Put your name on it as the author. Now you’re a writer. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your advance and your royalty.

    “Why, in heavens name, would anyone stigmatize writing for the love of writing?

    All that does is make people hide their work. Are we really interested in creating an in environment where people are ashamed of the fact that they enjoy writing? These are people who love the written word!”

    Unfortunately, there are people like that in the world. The official non-profane term for this type of individual is PARTY POOPER.

  6. Jeff P

    I know you can’t name names, but with this post and the recent NaNoWriMo post, it sounds like a number of successful writers have recently been vociferous about looking down their noses at “amateurs”. Is this the case?

  7. Jackie Gamber

    This is such an evocative topic. There’s definitely an unspoken (and therefore unattainable) guidepost between being someone who wants to write and someone becoming a “real” writer. When does one jump the shark, so to speak?

    I’m keenly aware of the stigma of dewey-eyed hopefuls who hug their graphite-cluttered journals to their chest and breathe “I’m going to be the Next Big Thing”. I harbor this secret hopeful, but I’m ever cautious to reveal her. In the company of “real” writers, she’s clucked at, pitied, or downright written off. (No pun intended.) Because everybody wants to be someone who wrote the next big thing. And lots of people think they can!

    But gatekeepers are alive and well, despite the exponential opportunities in non-traditional publishing. I think people that hold a concept about what constitutes “real” tells more about themselves, though, and what they’ve had to accomplish on their way in order to be perceived as real to others. A bit of baggage here and there, maybe.