Why It’s Better to Be a Dilettante


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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