A Question of Profession: Splitting Hairs

I am awake in the wee hours of the morning with a persistent voice in my head that shouts, “You’re no writer!”

I try to ignore this voice which tries to convince me being an amateur is less than being a professional. Writing is an art not measured by fame or fortune, or so I tell myself.
Certainly I would love to be recognized on a large scale, thrilled to have a best seller on the market but I cannot write with such thoughts in mind. I must write directly from my heart.
A quote I read recently comes to mind:

“Being an amateur author isn’t easy. It requires stamina, determination, and imperviousness to ridicule. Unwept, unhonored, unsung.”
– Leonard L. Knott

My curiosity is piqued. What do the terms professional and amateur really mean? I have a general idea but being the etymologist that I am (also amateur), I decide to delve into the finer points.
This is what I discovered: A professional is defined someone who is trained or skilled at something and performs this as a paying job.
The word amateur is Latin derived from French. (ametor, lover) and also means one who pursues an activity as a hobby or pastime or one lacking the skill of a professional.
It is clear to me that in these contexts I am an amateur.There is no glamour surrounding my writing and it is not my profession as it does not earn an income.
I don’t write for a newspaper nor am I a copywriter for an advertising firm. Screenplays are not my forte and neither are short stories. I am not the editor of a glossy magazine or a war correspondent. I haven’t written a book.
My creativity lives within my journals that include both essays and poetry. An amateur writer seems to lack the esteem and honor of his professional counterpart so I suppose in that sense I am unsung, unwept and unknown; certainly my name has been seldom in print.
I have been paid once in all my years of writing – a check for $25 for a short prose piece I submitted to a literary magazine. I was exhilarated, admittedly, and felt validated as a writer.
Since childhood my life and my writing have been intertwined. I attribute my love of language to the nurturing of my parents and to one particular English teacher.
I am continually absorbed in the whimsy of language and play with words even when I fear that the muse will not grant me inspiration. I am not college educated, having decided to be a full time wife and mother. In retrospect I realize that life experience has been the best teacher.
Being an amateur can be difficult, as Mr. Knott suggests. Derision plays its part, whether blatant or subtle, whether from external influences or self-induced. I am not impervious but in either case, ridicule be damned.
My efforts are not futile. My journals, essays and poetry are not pointless. What I feel or think is important to me and my stream-of-consciousness journals tap a creative source that is surprisingly deep, universal and something that my ego cannot take credit for.
Writing is my mission. My muse doesn’t seem to mind that I am unprofessional. She still comes calling, usually when I am clear and open to the creative process.
Richard Bach wrote, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
Perhaps I will redefine my status to that of “professional amateur” or term myself a “proficient unprofessional.” This might be appropriate and should quiet the voice inside my head. Now I can get some sleep.


The drive over the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State is breathtaking, and even in May there is snow alongside the highway. This year we caravanned from Western Washington with my son; two vehicles pulling trailers with all our possessions to settle in northeastern Washington near the Columbia River not far from the Canadian border. The last time I lived here for any length of time was over three decades ago when my 2nd born daughter was a little girl. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the cabin nestled among the pine trees, felt the serenity of this land and witnessed the majesty of the Columbia River. Now I am here at my daughter’s house, the one she and my son in law built several years ago. This is where my husband and I will stay while we are building our home.

There are few distractions here; one is graced with the essence of simplicity. To be near the river and surrounded by the Ponderosa Pines is a gift that frees my spirit and I cherish my time here. While I look forward to the future the past is my treasure, for the discovery of this sanctuary all those years ago fulfilled a dream.

I have so many memories of the early days; summer afternoons with the children swimming in the river, hiking up to the apple orchards, and the “berry walks” harvesting the mulberries and abundant serviceberries. I remember the rattlesnakes and the bears, (I saw a young bear close up in an apple tree one year) and the osprey’s nest across the river. I remember hitchhiking into town for groceries; giving birth to my youngest son in the deep, quiet winter of a January morning. These were times of faith, simple times, deep times.

Nature was all around us so each day was a learning experience for us all, both adults and children. At one point there were three households on the land and between us we schooled our children, teaching them math, reading, and art. My daughter tells me these were some of the happiest days of her childhood. There was always plenty of excitement like the stump fire that broke out behind the cabin one summer which took us all day to put out. Exhausted as we were by the end of the day we still had to deal with a wild dog that attacked our chickens as we were sitting down to dinner. There was the day my daughter broke her arm and we had to go all the way to the hospital in Spokane.

We had few possessions in those days. The kitchen was furnished with wooden apple crates for cupboards and we kept our perishables in the spring box up the road behind the cabin. We had electricity but cooked with a wood cook stove and did laundry outside the cabin in standing washtubs and hung our clothes on clotheslines. We baked bread and grew our vegetables which we canned, froze, or stored in a root cellar.

Every now and again there was a day when I was alone on the land and it was these days that are some of my most precious memories. I was complete in stillness within, with the sun on my face, the trees singing in the wind, and the chirping of cicadas. Many years later I am again granted this peaceful feeling as I gaze at meadow that unfolds in front of the house. There, in the middle of the field is Angel’s tree, the tree beneath which lay the ashes of my grandson who was stillborn almost two decades ago. I can’t think of a better place for him to rest.

Personal Letter Writing, a Lost Art?

     As Jane Austin said, “a person who can write a letter with ease, cannot write ill.”
Letter writing as an art form deserves respect but “snail mail” communication, as my kids refer to it is not, it seems to me, a popular way to communicate in our digitized, high speed culture. Personal communication has changed dramatically since the development of the internet through emailing, instant messaging, and YouTube. Cell phones, along with conversing, now enable texting and photography as a quick fix to get information and to stay connected. Receiving a personal letter though the mail doesn’t happen that often; at least not in my life. Personally I still like to get something in the mail and often I will write notes to my two grandsons although they only live about an hour and a half away. What child doesn’t love getting mail in the mailbox from Grandma? When I was young I had pen pals; kids from other states and even other countries. I have pen pals to this day; two of my best women friends exchange cards and letters the old fashioned way. One of these friends hand writes letters, actual pen to paper in cursive.

     My mother and I have exchanged countless letters over the years. We now email but every once in awhile I like to compose a letter and send it so that Mom will have some variety to their morning coffee sessions. Dad can no longer see to read so she reads the sports section to him. A newsy family letter to read aloud is always welcome.     
   When my 2nd born daughter was a little girl, she wrote to her great grandfather on a regular basis.  He appreciated these letters and told her that she was the only great grandchild that ever wrote him. He wrote her back and for awhile sent along gift certificates for JC Penny at Christmas time. I have a collection of letters written by some of my ancestors on my dad’s side of the family.  What a treasure this is to get a glimpse of what life was back then. I have often thought this would be a good resource for someone’s novel. When I was young and ambitious I thought this someone would be me.

     During Victorian times handwritten letters were used for intimate correspondence, and a skill that a Victorian Lady was obligated to cultivate. Paul the Apostle wrote the Epistles which were a series of letters to the Church, and there are other characters in history whose love letters have continued to inspire us today, such as Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved”. The exchange of love letters between Robert and Elizabeth Browning are as poetic as the poems they penned.

I am not sure if letter writing is taught in school these days.  When I was a youngster in grade school we were writing letters as part of our English class. There were two distinct categories, the business letter and the friendly letter. Back in those days we stuck to the rules of form which were the return address, date, the inside address, the greeting, the introductory paragraph, the body, the closing, and the signature. God forbid we misspelled or used a comma in the wrong place.

I have often thought of my journals as letters to myself, letters of the most personal kind which prove time after time to be the most freeing and most creative because they delve into the unconscious mind and are not edited by my internal editor on the spot. One does wonder who, if anyone will read these personal entries? Will my journals be found by my grandchildren as they play in the attic someday? That I cannot predict. I don’t think my diaries are as exciting as those in “The Bridges of Madison County”   but read through another’s eyes you just never know.

Freestyle Poetry

   Imagine an artist in his studio in front of his easel, pallet in hand.  He makes a few strokes with his brush, and then steps back to appraise what he has done. He approaches his easel again to brush another stroke of color onto the canvas. He stops, sets aside his paintbrush and pallet and walks over to the window to gaze out. He muses for a few moments before going back to his easel to continue his work.  The painter uses color and brush to create his art. The poet is an artist as well, who uses his pen like a paintbrush to color in his words on the page the images he sees in his mind’s eye and to express his heart and soul in the form of a poem.  

Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature and by its very nature is difficult to define. It is hard to shackle poetry with a firm definition but the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge say it well:  “Poetry: the best words in the best order”.  Throughout the ages, whether it is sonnets written by Shakespeare, the Song of Solomon from the Bible, the snippets of the Greek poetess Sappho, or the works of the poet laureate Kay Ryan, poetry has enlightened us, entertained us, and has evoked the quintessence of our human nature.

Free verse, or freestyle poetry is what its name implies; a “free style” approach to writing .What sets this mode of writing poetry apart from other forms is that it is free from rigid rules and patterns.  Within freestyle the poet can let go and be flexible as he writes his poems because he isn’t concerned with a particular rhyming scheme or line breaks; rather he can focus on the pleasure of choosing the words to convey his ideas and emotions. How fitting this free style is to open the floodgates of creativity!

             A freestyle poem is born of any strong emotion whether it is anger, frustration, joy, or love. This is the core of the matter, the way to bridge the heart and mind of not only the poet but also the reader. The poem can be as radiant and buoyant or as dramatic and intense as the poet himself at any given moment. Therein lays the uniqueness of freestyle. The act of spontaneously and recklessly pouring the words onto the page without thought of correctness and without editing is the essence of this form of creativity and, I believe, an aspect of art necessary for nurturing the unique and divine nature that lives within each of us whether we are the reader or the poet.