In Defense of the Amateur Spirit

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During our 4th of July road trip, Kelsey and I listened to an interview with Nigella Lawson on The Splendid Table Podcast. She’s a little bothered by the privileging of the term “chef” over “home cook.” When people are just becoming interested in cooking for themselves, where do they turn but to the illustrious chefs on television with their fancy ways of chopping vegetables? And why should chefs get all the glory?

What she’s bothered by is the glamour of specialization: this idea that the specialist, the professional who lives and breathes their craft, is the sole possessor of authority over it. Having been brought up a good Wendell Berry reader, I’m trained to see the faults with specialization, but let’s be clear about its merits: specialization brings efficiency, practicality, and a depth of accumulated craft otherwise impossible. Sometimes it’s good to devote your whole life to one thing.

Yet all too easily and all too often, the specialized discipline gets cut off from the whole of life. We’re mistaken if we place final authority on the specialist rather than share that authority with folks who encounter the specialist’s work within the whole of their lives. To continue with our cooking example, specialization is the force that separated so many from their home kitchens to begin with. The assumption became that in order to prepare food, you have to know a bunch of stuff, and you’re better off handing over your money to the people who know all the stuff. They’ll do it better than you and they’ll do it for you. Anything less is considered “amateur”—a word synonymous with “inept.”

But wait a second. How did that word get such a bad rap? The word amateur finds its root in the Latin word amator, which means “lover.” An amateur is motivated by affection. She loves the discipline to which she aspires. Culturally, that gets translated to, “It’s just a hobby—I don’t get paid for it.” The subtext reads: to do something because you love it is less valid than to do something because it pays.

At the risk of this becoming a sermon, let’s compare this perspective to the Parable of the Good Shepherd. We don’t say, “Well, the Good Shepherd ‘loves’ his sheep, but he’s not a real shepherd because he never gets paid.” No! What makes him a Good (and real) Shepherd is that his love inwardly compels him to lay down his life for his sheep. And this motivation is much stronger than the external incentive of a paycheck, which leads the hired hand to merely clock in and clock out. But our culture lands squarely in favor of the hired hand, assuming that it’s always best for the skilled individual to exploit his skills for profit.

Food is essential to life. It’s not a luxury. Nigella Lawson challenges us to give dignity back to the amateur—in this case, the home cook. And that movement is well underway, thanks to the efforts of people like Samin Nosrat and Michael Pollan. But what about other disciplines? What about art, story, and music?

As participants in the entertainment industry, we are well aware that a different kind of sustenance has also been outsourced—the sustenance of story and song. And in the same spirit that Nigella Lawson seeks to restore legitimacy to the home cook, the Rabbit Room aims to reclaim the dignity of home-storytelling, home-painting, and any other form of amateur creativity.

The mark of a good professional is not that they've successfully left behind the amateur spirit—it's that they have retained it even in the sobriety of their profession.

Drew Miller

This blog, these podcasts, this music, and these books are not just here to entertain you as an audience of consumers. These works are meant to spur you on to be creative yourself. We want to encourage discussions about how creativity takes place in our lives every day; how the impulse towards art, towards making the world around us beautiful, ought to be realized even if we don’t have a book deal or a fancy studio. (Full disclosure: I’m proud to live in Nashville. We’re home to lots of professionals who get paid for quality work. At the same time, this city is woefully prone to over-exalt production value, rendering all that is un-shiny invisible.)

When anyone decides to make the leap from amateur to professional, they must endure the complication of their original love. Their craft will now require a greater degree of discipline, replacing their initial infatuation with a “challenging reality better than…fantasy.” But the mark of a good professional is not that they’ve successfully left behind the amateur spirit—it’s that they have retained it even in the sobriety of their profession. And that’s what we want to do at the Rabbit Room: support those professionals who remain amateurs at heart while encouraging an actively engaged readership of proud amateurs who partake in what they love, unafraid to contribute to this beloved body of work.

In the Kingdom of God, the amateur is the one who gets all the glory, because the only thing that will get us where we’re going is love—the love of God’s creative, redemptive work and the unabashed desire to participate in it. This is the love at the heart of all creative expression—it’s the excitement of imitating your favorite guitarist when you’ve only learned a few chords, and it’s the fire that keeps us going into adulthood if we are wise and attentive enough to take care of it. Long live the amateur spirit, and may it thrive here.

Artwork credit:
“Bookshelf Watercolor” by Michaela Kinzel


11 Comments

  1. Caleb Fetterhoff

    @caleb-fetterhoff

    Thanks for this defense; it’s so encouraging to see lovingly crafted artistry upheld so eloquently yet so unashamedly straightforwardly. I live and work in a place (rural Africa) where I feel emotionally and physically drained much of the time, and the normal creative outlets I enjoyed back home in the States (piano, choral singing) are unavailable to me. The desire to be creative seems to be waning, but the more it fades, the more painful its leaving is to me. I have trouble even finding the peace of mind and creative gumption to even sit down and try to write a poem, as I sometimes used to do; my participation with art is limited to being a consumer of it via recorded music, published books and downloadable film. I’m finding that after a lot of time being solely on that end of art (a member of its audience), there’s a strange deadening and dissatisfaction that is infiltrating even my enjoyment of listening to music or watching a good movie. This defense, as so much here at the Rabbit Room does, stirs those memories of being creative within me again and makes me long for the discipline and inspiration to create again. And I think that’s because you highlighted the vital role that love must have in artistry (and, indeed, in all of life).

  2. Jonathan

    I enjoyed this article. It does annoy me at times the way “amateur” is used as a put down. “Amateurs” can produce work that is equal to and at times better than some “professionals”. The aspect of loving what we are doing applies to more than just the creative side of things. I remember in school I had a maths teacher whom you could tell loved maths and that was infectious. (I don’t know if I should admit to loving math 🙂
    I think ultimately the love of creating , the love of learning about what God has created and even “the love of God’s creative, redemptive work” needs to be based on God’s love working through us

  3. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Wow and yes and amen. Thank you, Drew, for wrestling these ideas down and putting them into words. I need to print out this essay and frame it and put it on my desk. Or put it on a t-shirt. Or maybe I’ll take up cross-stitching. Your essay put me in mind of this passage from Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb:
    “The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers – amateurs – it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral – it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.

    In such a situation, the amateur – the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness is a sin and boredom a heresy – is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak. If he loves Wisdom or the Arts, so much the better for him and for all of us. But if he loves only the way meat browns or onions peel, if he delights simply in the curds of his cheese or the color of his wine, he is, by every one of those enthusiasms, commanded to speak. A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job.”
    And @caleb-fetterhoff, I hope you’ll bear in mind that the arts are only one small slice of the creativity pie. Every time you tell a truer story than the world is telling–by whatever means are at your disposal–you’re being creative. I don’t know what kind of work you’re doing in rural Africa, but I suspect it’s pretty creative.

  4. Caleb Fetterhoff

    @caleb-fetterhoff

    You’re right, @jonathanrogers, and I do forget it so often, that art-making is not the only creative act. I guess there is creativity (by your generous definition) in my work; I need to learn to think of it that way: that each task and conversation is an opportunity to express creativity. And then on to infusing that spirit of love into all my work and actions, as Drew encouraged us.

  5. The Terrethian

    Thank you for writing this, Mr. Miller. I really appreciate this encouragement, especially since I run a Christian literary magazine that publishes artwork, stories, articles, and more by amateur artists like the ones you spoke of. I thought I might say that anyone is allowed to submit and/or subscribe to this monthly publication, Stories Under the Sun. Our website is http://www.storiesunderthesun.weebly.com. If you’re one of those people like me who loves to write or draw just for fun, and you would like a cost-free way to publish your work, consider supporting us by submitting to the journal. We are still developing and would appreciate your help!

  6. Meredith Davis

    Thanks for this article. As a writer, I find that with each new project I feel like an amateur again. While I’ve gone through the cycle of drafting and editing for years, and in the past year advanced to selling a book to a major publisher (woohoo!) that comes out this October, I always feel a bit inept and at a loss when I approach a new project. To be reminded that this is a good thing, to ask myself why I put myself through the doubt and anxiety again and again, and once again land on love, it is just what I needed to hear this morning. Especially now, I need to avoid the temptation of resting in the “success” space of the work being published, slavering over how to promote or post, when my heart needs to dig into the hard place again, where new work takes root. That’s where the love is. Love of the process, love of creating, not love of self in what’s already been achieved.

  7. Drew Miller

    JR, thanks for that kind, encouraging comment. I had forgotten that Capon addresses that word “amateur” so directly in Supper of the Lamb. What a guy. “A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job”—such an excellent quote. He hit the nail on the head. And for the record, I’d love to see you take up cross-stitching.

    Caleb, I agree with JR on that one. Maybe it’s become a bit of a cliche to say that there’s nothing outside the realm of creativity, but it’s cliche because it’s true. I hope you’re able to find some new ways to bring creativity into your days over there.

    Meredith, what’s the name of your book coming out in October? Congrats!

  8. Jennifer Hildebrand

    @jennibrand

    Thank you so much for these encouraging words! Amateur = Lover . . . that’s so incredibly freeing, and it is why the Rabbit Room and its whole philosophy for embracing creativity is so revolutionary. The outside world legitimizes only what it monetizes, and that can become downright crippling to the God-given passions within us. We need all the reminders (and kicks in the pants) we can get to spur on some beauty, beginning in our selves and our homes and working out into the whole world from there. Thank you again!

  9. Meredith Davis

    Drew, thanks for asking, it’s a children’s middle grade novel, narrative nonfiction, called HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK out from Scholastic October 1, co-written with Rebeka Uwitonze. The book chronicles Rebeka’s life. Thanks again for this article. It’s hugely helpful as I begin my next project.

  10. Helena Sorensen

    @helena

    Drew, thank you for making this distinction! After coming back from Oxford, I have an even clearer sense of why I love the Rabbit Room community, and you’ve put your finger on it. This community feels safe and beautiful because we’re all “unabashed” in our love for Jesus and the world and the arts and food and story and so forth. We’re free to engage with one another instead of competing with one another, because we define success differently. Isn’t it wonderful? And isn’t it so like the Kingdom?

  11. Shigé Clark

    @s-clark

    Drew, THANK YOU for writing this. It’s one of those things that has often passed through my mind but that I could never fully form into a coherent and persuasive assertion. Thank you for doing so! It’s beautifully said, and all the more meaningful COMING from a professional. I’ll be passing this around a lot.

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