Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Curse of the Amateur

   


     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. 

10 comments:

  1. This was spot on! I really hope you're right.

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  2. When I was 4 or 5, I covered an entire sheet of paper with scribbles that looked to me like adult writing and I presented the paper to my mother and asked, "What did I say?" I think your amateurs are doing much the same. They have these great thoughts, but no skill in turning them into coherent arguments, so they hope that a professional can find some meaning in their scribbles and sell them to the world.

    John

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  3. First off I live in Wisconsin, so I don't have a dog in this fight. Rauner would not be the first guy to run for office with out being elected to office with out having any experience. After all we elected Ron Johnson here in Wisconsin to the Senate. He is just another rich business guy.

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  4. just heard some commercial with audio of Rauner making some pretty bizzarro comments relaying to some republicans that he had been approached by a few black men and he was concerned he didn't have his gun...Whaaa? Will this be his 47% take down?(hope so) Or is it too late?....either way, I hope you are correct Neil....great posting, as always.

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  5. Rauner is just the latest in a litany of rich men & women who think that they can come out of nowhere & save the system, that they've manipulated for so long.
    There's been Schwarzenegger, Michael Huffington, Meg Whitman & Carly Fiorina, all in California; Paul LePage in Maine, who won a three way race & has left a trail of hate in Maine; Rick Scott in Florida, who is just plain evil & Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, who got nowhere as governor.
    All of them had one thing in common: They never had to work with legislators & had the bizarre idea they could dictate to them their marching orders.
    Luckily, Huffington, Whitman & Fiorina lost, but the rest made total messes of their states because they have no idea of what compromise means.
    And if Rauner wins, he'll have to go to war with the true Great Dictator, Mike Madigan, the Destroyer of Governors & Ruler of All He Surveys!
    In a battle between Rauner & Madigan, Rauner will lose & Illinois will continue to go down the toilet, until we somehow get rid of Madigan.
    Zach Fardo, the US Attorney, when are you going to do your job & find something you can indict Madigan on & get a conviction?

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  6. I worked for some years in advertising and was at first irritated that the people who wrote advertising copy were called "creatives," as if the rest of us did not qualify for that title in our respective roles. But I did get the point. I was fully capable of writing an article on marketing strategy for a professional journal, but was not "creative," or a "writer." as they were. First, there was a matter of talent. It was "only" advertising copy, but to quote Aldous Huxley, who knew something of the subject, "It is far easier to write 10 passably effective sonnets good enough to take in the not too enquiring critic than one effective advertisment that will take in some thousands of the uncritical buying public."

    Then there is the matter of perserverance, suggested by a little poem of G.K. Chesterton's.

    "And I dream of the days when work was scrappy.
    And rare in our pockets was the mark of the mint.
    When we were angry, and poor and happy,
    And proud of seeing our names in print."

    And for "creative"writers" an unflinching attitude to the material suggeted by a quote attributed to Faulkner is important. "If a writier has to rob his mother he will not hesitate. The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies."

    As suggested by the above I am an "elderly gentleman," to employ Neil's kindly euphemism, but the closest I come to being a writier is reading about them and how they go about their work in order to improve my understanding of the craft.

    Re Mr. Rauner and the wish of voters to believe in magical solutions to intractable problems, it's depressing, but I expect we will muddle through, as one of our neighbor states endured having a professional wrestler as chief executive.

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  7. Wow -- I'm defending Bill Gates! He didn't act like the amateurs in your scenarios -- he didn't think it would be easy, and he hired a bunch of professionals and experts on the various issues facing poverty-stricken parts of the world, and his foundation made up of said experts worked to forge partnerships with governments and existing organizations to address said issues, and has made incredible progress on disease prevention and treatment, malnutrition, sanitation, and eradication of polio. He put in and puts in the work to educate himself, and admits mistakes (there have been a number of false starts in the Foundation's efforts on improving education in the U.S.) and is willing to listen to others and take advice and try again.

    I've worked in fund raising for twenty-two years, and was in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and bust, and there were many folks who fit the model you describe above. Gates definitely doesn't.

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    1. You might know more about this than I do. I was basing including Gates on stories of protests against his actions such at this one, from the Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2024758081_gatescriticsxml.html

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  8. I once heard Ann Patchet speak on the subject of the older amateur writer. She was referring to her mother who at the age of 60 became a successful novelist while working full time as a nurse. It's toes few success stories that drive the un talented to believe it could be them

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