The Gift of the Amateur
by Shelley Berc
Leonardo da Vinci claimed he saw all his paintings in the humidity stains on his walls before ever lifting his brush. Herman Melville stared at Mount Greylock every day until one day it became that devilish cetacean Moby Dick. Children look up at the clouds and see houses, alligators, and dinosaurs rather than cumulus, nimbus, and cirrus. According to biologists, man can no longer be defined as different from other animals by virtue of speech or tool making. But we are absolutely unique in our dazzling ability to make metaphors. Creativity is the art of living metaphorically.
We are all born creative, curious, and hungry to explore the world around and within us. For a child, creativity is expressed in play and play is the way he learns. Life is just one big erector set that is to be snapped together and pulled apart in a thousand different ways. But this flexibility often fades with the passage of time. We put away our toys and acquire jobs, kids, and mortgages. We become ‘specialists’ and keeping up with our specialty is supposed to take up all our spare time. But our eyes still seek out beauty and our hands itch to make something wonderful out of the wonders we see.
We live in a culture that doesn’t encourage us to be creative unless it looks like we are going to strike it big with a commercial hit. Creativity, like so much else in our world, has been co-opted into consumerism and its worth calculated by how much money it generates. It is only recently that the word ‘amateur’ became a dirty one. Until the 1980’s, just about every educated person no matter what his or her profession played an instrument, or painted, or wrote for pleasure. The aim of these hobbies wasn’t necessarily to become the next Beethoven but to deepen the sensibilities of the individual doing them. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin, when asked why he was teaching factory workers to draw, said “I’m not teaching them to draw, I’m teaching them to see.” I would venture to say that enhanced seeing and feeling are the real reasons to create, whether it is be a garden, a haiku, or a brand new thought.
The word ‘amateur’-from the Latin ‘amator’ or lover-means to create for the sheer love of it. I propose that we bring back amateurism with a vengeance. Weekend painters, closet writers, doctors who are poets, dancers who are CPAs! Some of our greatest scientists, thinkers, and artists have been amateurs. Charles Darwin was an amateur naturalist, Johannes Kepler supported his astronomical investigations by being a court astrologer, Wallace Stevens had a day job in a bank, and the idea of being a professional poet never crossed Emily Dickinson’s mind.
The creative spirit within us is a trickster that adores turning the world upside down. It is a tempest in our comfortable little teapot. It is our personal daemon determined to imprint our unique voice upon the planet, if only we will let it. It trips us and tickles us until we join in its playfulness. If creativity is any one thing-it is play, play, play. If we don’t express our imagination, it festers, it frustrates, it turns us into passive onlookers, when we were meant to be tooting our horn in the universal choir.
Our creativity is a gift. In many indigenous cultures, a gift cannot be kept to one’s self but it must be passed on to others, or it will turn on its owner. My theory is a little less ominous. I think the more creative we are, the more we want to share it. We give this gift by passing on the energy of imagination, play, and never-ending curiosity. Creativity is seriously infectious. Nothing can stop its rampant spread except embarrassment, self doubt, and a premature insistence on perfection. Wanting our inspirations to be fully formed from the start is like expecting a new born baby to get up and walk.
There is a myth about the creative soul that if you don’t feel inspired, you don’t have it. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and if I had to depend on my inspiration every time I stared at a blank piece of paper, that piece of paper would stay forever blank. I’ve experienced every emotion imaginable when I write-from abject terror to feeling absolutely nothing-and through it all like a recalcitrant mule, I have plodded on. Who can know from book to book or play to play if they will be a success? That’s not the point of creation anyways; the point is to take the journey. I trust my hands on the keyboard a certain amount of time per day as more reliable than the breath of the muse, but the funny thing is that the key punching action often leads the muse back to me. We never know what we can do in the realm of the imagination until we try or, in the words of Samuel Beckett: “fail, then fail better.”
Shelley Berc is the co-adaptor of King Stag and a playwright and novelist. She is the Director of The Creativity Workshop.