There’s an anecdote which I’ve heard attributed to a few different famous authors, including Margaret Atwood, though I read somewhere that she says it didn’t originate with her. It goes like this:
A famous writer is at a party. She’s chatting with a brain surgeon. The brain surgeon, upon hearing who she is, gets excited, and says that when he retires he’s going become a writer. The writer quips snidely, “Oh really? When I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon.” The author, here, implies that writing should be left to professionals.
Here’s where I think she gets it wrong. Of course there are activities we wouldn’t ever do without years of formal training and professional licensing, like brain surgery, nuclear-reactor design, and fighter jet piloting, because lives depend on our performance. But there are also activities that many of us do as a part of our ordinary lives that don’t carry such risks. We write. We tell stories. We create art. We make music. For these activities, I don’t think it serves us well to draw too hard a line between being a professional and being an amateur, or to assume that we can’t succeed at them as avocations or as second careers.
There’s no shortage of famous writers who had another day job, or who started writing later in life. One of America’s most revered poets, Wallace Steven, spent his days as an insurance executive. Raymond Chandler turned to writing only after losing his job as an oil company executive. Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees, was a writer all her life, but didn’t publish her first book until she was in her fifties. Others notables include Richard Adams, Bram Stoker, Tillie Olson, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Anthony Burgess.
Here’s where I think the author in the anecdote gets it right. You shouldn’t fool yourself that just because you write for your job, for school, and in your daily life, that being a good writer is any easier than being a good brain surgeon. Achieving mastery in writing can be every bit as difficult and complex as achieving mastery in brain surgery, and usually takes years of dedication and effort whether you are a professional, an amateur, or embarking on it as a second career.