He saw that all the struggles of life were incessant, laborious, painful, that nothing was done quickly, without labor, that it had to undergo a thousand fondlings, revisings, moldings, addings, removings, graftings, tearings, correctings, smoothings, rebuildings, reconsiderings, nailings, tackings, chippings, hammerings, hoistings, connectings—all the poor fumbling uncertain incompletions of human endeavor. They went on forever and were forever incomplete, far from perfect, refined, or smooth, full of terrible memories of failure and fears of failure, yet, in the way of things, somehow noble, complete, and shining in the end.
—Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City
Now and then I'm approached by an elderly gentleman. Sometimes at a speech. Sometimes over the phone. Usually by mail.
And that older gentleman has written a book, or would like to write a book, and knows that I write books, and so wants to show me his book, or tell me about his idea for a book, for some purpose I can never quite figure out.
I'm supposed to see it, I suppose, recognize its genius, then go the the Magic Door to the publishing world that exists in my attic, turn the Golden Key, and deliver this newly-discovered manuscript or thrilling idea to a grateful world. He seems to expect me to help him write it, or edit it, or publish it, or promote it, or all four.
And I sigh, because I know what's coming. I passionately want to politely thank him and say, "Why no, as a matter of fact, I do NOT want to see your book. Thank you for asking."
But I don't do that. First, because doing so would make me a jerk. Kindness, as Roger Ebert said, is so important. Second, I know the desperate hunger that writing a book creates, the desire for SOMEONE to say SOMETHING about what you have done.
So I take a look. And it's always, always, always the most whipped-together dog's breakfast of jumbled nothing. Cliches like stones in your shoe. An amorphous bowl of gelid blah.
And I've wondered, How can an adult do this? How they can spend their lives at a certain career, being accountants or lawyers or whatever, understanding that those fields require practice and skill, talent and years of work, and then, upon retirement, think they can just lurch into an entirely new realm and expect not merely to do something competent, but to be outstanding? They seem suddenly children, proudly showing off their first scrawl.
The reason, I've decided, is what I call the Curse of the Amateur. A blend of ego and ignorance. A kind of blindness. You think so much of yourself to want to immortalize your doings, to prevent the obliterating hand of time from effacing Your Precious Self, and thus want to share your unique life and perspective with the mundane world. You know nothing about the craft of getting people interested in what you have on your mind, and since working on it, even in a slapdash fashion, is hard, it seems more satisfying to go showing it around. And so go blundering into the world, waving your masterpiece, excited to be finally doing it, mistaking politeness for interest. You just demand attention and respect, as if it were your birthright and it's not.
I try to give people advice. You have to edit your stuff. Again and again and again. And again. Then more. Being good doesn't mean it comes out good the first time, it means you see that it isn't good and you try to make it good. You need to realize that absolutely nobody cares what you have to say. You have to make them care. That's what writing is. Making somebody care about something they don't care about at all. Oh hey, I seem to be reading a three volume, 2,700 page biography of Lyndon Johnson, whom I hated, while he was alive, and had absolutely no curiosity about whatsoever. That's writing.
But they don't listen, these seniors with their pamphlets. They don't really want my advice. The particulars bore them. They've done their work; they're ready to move to the praise part of the program. They want me to tell them how wonderful they are.
Because, in their heart, they think the whole thing is easy. A scam. Part of that is that other people's jobs always look easy—what, you play a ball game for a living? What fun!— because we know almost nothing about what doing those jobs actually entails, while our own jobs, well, we're well-versed in their complexities and know how hard it is.
Of course this isn't limited to senior citizens pushing their unpublished memoirs. The Curse of the Amateur often afflicts wealthy men in late middle age. Having succeeded wildly in one field, their egos and ignorance are such they assume they can march into some other completely unrelated area and master that too. Henry Ford, fresh from his success at selling Model Ts, decided he would end World War I. He didn't. Bill Gates, having made a fortune in software, decided to end the woes of Africa. He didn't. Those woes turned out to be a problem bigger than money.
Can anyone glance at Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner and not recognize the Curse of the Amateur? Here's a guy, 57 years old, who never ran for anything, forget being elected to any public office. He's someone who has never performed any kind of public service beyond very recently, after he decided he would be governor and started suddenly funding schools and firehosing the money he has so much of this way and that and calling it civic mindedness.
So he campaigns. And his ignorance of, his contempt for, the job he would take on, is so great, that he presents his utter lack of experience as his most enticing attribute. It's pure hypocrisy. Who can imagine that Rauner would accept that logic in his own affairs? Who believes that anyone could go to him and say, "You know, your Excelo Widget Company isn't doing so well. I am uncorrupted by any sort of experience making or selling widgets, so am just the man for you to bring in as CEO."
Does anyone imagine he would snap at that opportunity? He expects us to.
The good news is, amateur authors go away quite quickly. Another amateur hallmark: lack of persistence. They quit, because they don't have faith in themselves, not really. We will see Bruce Rauner's true lack of commitment because, after he loses, which I believe he will, since Illinoisans are hard pressed but not fools. Like Peter Fitzgerald, he'll vanish in a puff of green smoke. He'll go back to his nine houses and never be heard from again. Like so many larking rich Republicans before him. Because he didn't really care about the state or have any idea what to do to help it. He just was bored being a rich guy doing whatever complex financial bullshit he does to get rich, and thought he would take a break and run our lives for us and of course soak up all the praise for saving Illinois. Because, really, how hard could fixing our state really be? A piece of cake for a rich man. Whatever people think of Pat Quinn, nobody accuses him of not working hard to solve Illinois's problems which are so deep and varied they defy easy solution. And he was bad at it, for the first few years, but then got better, and actually started to make some progress. It's a daily grind, like all successful projects. He's been doing it, working at it, and having some success, and the notion that Bruce Rauner can waltz in a fix everything in some undefined magic way—his message, essentially—is amateur self-delusion. I don't believe people will fall for it and, if they do, well, we'll deserve the Keystone Kops chaos that will follow.
Amateurs fool themselves, a task they accomplish with breathtaking ease, and think it is just as simple to fool everybody else. It's not.