Why It’s Better to Be a Dilettante

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I went down to San Jose last week to see Alexsandar Hemon read from his new work, The Book of My Lives. After the reading he answered questions from the audience on topics ranging from writing, to imagination and creativity. One of the questions brought up the subject of expertise. Specifically, how much is needed to be a successful writer.

Hemon talked about how we live in a modern-day culture of experts. We listen to experts on the news who talk about this or that political situation, and we look up expert opinions online when we want more information about something. People are rewarded for their level of expertise as they climb the professional ladder. Writers are no exception when it comes to adopting this sort of belief system. We tend to think that, before we can do any real writing, we need to learn how to write like an expert.

The point Hemon made is this: Writing might be one of the only callings in which dilettantism is a significant advantage. Because writing isn’t just about writing. It encompasses the entire field of human experience. And to access the richness of that experience, what’s really important is an ambitious, relentless curiosity. In the face of such a limitless curiosity, expertise doesn’t count for much.

I think this is what the advice “write what you know” is really saying. Not that you are confined to writing only about experiences that you’ve actually had in real life, but that your personal experience of life should be the departure point for your imagination. When you combine that individual experience with authentic creative expression, you get magic.

Charles Bukowski wrote about working at the Post Office and made it interesting. Nikolai Gogol wrote about characters working as civil servants in the Russian bureaucratic system and made it scathingly funny. George Eliot wrote about a gossipy small town where everyone is bored to death and made it a masterpiece of everyday psychological desperation. You can do it too. Your own life, your own human experience, is all that you need to begin.

Look around you. What types of personalities come and go in your little world that you’ve never been curious about before, but that you could examine further now? What kinds of experiences have you always wondered about, but always said “no” to when asked along? What subjects have you been interested in, but never had the time to explore more deeply? Enthusiastic energy for new people, new experiences, new things to learn—these are what make a writer a true master.

So instead of reading another blog on writing (like this one), I urge you to get out there in the world and participate. And then come home and write about it. Don’t worry if the words come out clumsy, or if you end up not saying what you meant to say. That’s all part of it. You’ll make mistakes and write things that you didn’t expect, or that embarrass you. You’ll have that sneaking suspicion as you’re writing that you’re not doing it correctly. Self-doubt might be ever-present, never letting you forget that you’re not doing it the way you think you should be doing it.

But keep going out into the world and meeting new things. Keep welcoming the whole range of human experience into your heart. Observe and examine, laugh and play and cry. Do everything you can to really be here, now. Part of it all.

And then put that all into your masterpiece.

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21 Comments

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 23 September, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Great advice, only I would have hated to miss this post because I was out, being curious :). As writers we do set ourselves up to be experts on everything because we write about the totality of human thought and existence. We try to write about “truth” in a way that goes beyond the stating of mere facts. Still, we should get our facts straight and there’s no better way to do that than by exploring and challenging our curiosity.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 September, 2013 at 9:50 am

      Oh the truth part is so challenging, isn’t it? As is capturing the totality of human thought and existence. Fortunately, most of us writers have the ambition to match our projected goals!

  • Reply Kimberly Hill 23 September, 2013 at 9:39 am

    And the best part is, even if what you write turns out to be crap, you can fix it later.
    Great post.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 September, 2013 at 9:49 am

      Totally. That’s what I count on in my writing all the time 🙂

  • Reply Dover Whitecliff 23 September, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Awesome post! I’ll have to chnage my job title to Inkslinging Dilettante…. it sounds classy! Than you much for doing what you do.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 September, 2013 at 9:48 am

      I really like “Inkslinging Dillettante”!!! And thank you so much for continuously supporting me, writer friend!

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 23 September, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Well written advice about writing, Lauren. Appreciate the reminder that oftentimes, we just need to put our heads down and write our hearts out.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 23 September, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I agree, anyone can start writing, and everyone can learn o write better.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 September, 2013 at 1:53 pm

      Totally. It’s just the “start writing” part that’s hard 🙂

  • Reply sylviatoystlouis 23 September, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Thank you, Lauren. I am sharing in every possible venue I know of. This is excellent, profound and helpful.

  • Reply Yolanda Isabel Regueira Marin 23 September, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Great post and so true. In order to write you must first live. 🙂

  • Reply Rebecca Vance 23 September, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    This post really resonates with me. I started writing in college back in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s and I was an older student then. I was not able to finish getting a degree. All I have ever wanted to do is be a full-time author. I explored other options, but none suited me as much as writing. I worked in customer service for over 30 years, then after an early retirement about 2 years ago, decided to get back into writing. I felt like a duck out of water. Now we have the digital world..all things digital. So I read up on it. I’ve been an avid reader longer than I can remember, literally. My earliest memory is 4 years old and I was reading my 13 year old brother’s textbooks fluently. I don’t remember learning. It seems like I always have. I am now working on my first novel and write a review blog for debut authors and advice for aspiring authors. My point of the entire comment is that I have always felt inadequate to write a novel because I never finished my degree. I wonder do I know enough, can I do it? Others have reminded me that I do have a lifetime of experience. I try to take this to heart, and to believe that now is my time. Maybe I needed to have the life experience to be successful. I’m not sure. I have considered going back to school, but I really want to devote my full attention to writing and frankly I am not in good enough health to do both. Thanks again for the post. It makes me think that I have made the right choice for me. 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 September, 2013 at 9:12 am

      You have made the right choices, and I do believe you have it in you to write a novel. You really do not need a degree. Many of my favorite writers dropped out of high school or college and never went back, in fact. Writing is about learning how to be truly, authentically yourself. That’s the hardest part. The language, structure, etc., all of that is editing. The WRITING comes down to opening your own heart and sharing what is inside with others. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if you are able to post a comment like this one, with so much integrity of spirit and openness, then you definitely have what it takes to be a writer.

      Good luck to you!

      • Reply Rebecca Vance 24 September, 2013 at 4:52 pm

        Thank you so much, Lauren! I really appreciate those encouraging words. I am a new follower to your blog, and appreciate all of your help. 🙂

  • Reply Karen Dowdall 23 September, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    The very word “Dilettante”, I think, describes the way writers often think of themselves (at least I do) and it conveys the gammet of meanings from trifler to dabbler to connoisseur and even a person that is admired and a person who is an admirer. Lived experiences begin at an early age when we trifle and dabble until we reach the event moment of connoiseurism ( I am way not there yet), and then we do write, we write with truth, unbashedly.

  • Reply Karen Dowdall 24 September, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Lauren: Your post “Why It’s Better to Be a Dilettante” I think is so good I put a twitter link to it on my twitter page and facebook as well. It is so true that we must live in the world and write with our own truth, heart, and soul what we see and feel. Great post! Thank you.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 September, 2013 at 9:13 am

      Thank you so much for doing that, and for your comments! I really appreciate both so much!

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 24 September, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Great advice, Lauren and real positivity! It’s a Catch-22 (ah, what a book…) for writers – the act of writing inevitably keeps you in at your desk more than other activities would but you need to get out more and experience real life to give your work authenticity. Ho hum!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 September, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      I know, I thought of that while sitting at my desk writing the post. And also while sitting at my desk from 8am to 5pm each day…ho hum 🙂

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