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In Defense of the Amateur Spirit

During our 4th of July road trip, Kelsey and I listened to an interview with Nigella Lawson on The Splendid Table Podcast. She’s a little bothered by the privileging of the term “chef” over “home cook.” When people are just becoming interested in cooking for themselves, where do they turn but to the illustrious chefs on television with their fancy ways of chopping vegetables? And why should chefs get all the glory?

What she’s bothered by is the glamour of specialization: this idea that the specialist, the professional who lives and breathes their craft, is the sole possessor of authority over it. Having been brought up a good Wendell Berry reader, I’m trained to see the faults with specialization, but let’s be clear about its merits: specialization brings efficiency, practicality, and a depth of accumulated craft otherwise impossible. Sometimes it’s good to devote your whole life to one thing.

Yet all too easily and all too often, the specialized discipline gets cut off from the whole of life. We’re mistaken if we place final authority on the specialist rather than share that authority with folks who encounter the specialist’s work within the whole of their lives. To continue with our cooking example, specialization is the force that separated so many from their home kitchens to begin with. The assumption became that in order to prepare food, you have to know a bunch of stuff, and you’re better off handing over your money to the people who know all the stuff. They’ll do it better than you and they’ll do it for you. Anything less is considered “amateur”—a word synonymous with “inept.”

But wait a second. How did that word get such a bad rap? The word amateur finds its root in the Latin word amator, which means “lover.” An amateur is motivated by affection. She loves the discipline to which she aspires. Culturally, that gets translated to, “It’s just a hobby—I don’t get paid for it.” The subtext reads: to do something because you love it is less valid than to do something because it pays.

At the risk of this becoming a sermon, let’s compare this perspective to the Parable of the Good Shepherd. We don’t say, “Well, the Good Shepherd ‘loves’ his sheep, but he’s not a real shepherd because he never gets paid.” No! What makes him a Good (and real) Shepherd is that his love inwardly compels him to lay down his life for his sheep. And this motivation is much stronger than the external incentive of a paycheck, which leads the hired hand to merely clock in and clock out. But our culture lands squarely in favor of the hired hand, assuming that it’s always best for the skilled individual to exploit his skills for profit.

Food is essential to life. It’s not a luxury. Nigella Lawson challenges us to give dignity back to the amateur—in this case, the home cook. And that movement is well underway, thanks to the efforts of people like Samin Nosrat and Michael Pollan. But what about other disciplines? What about art, story, and music?

As participants in the entertainment industry, we are well aware that a different kind of sustenance has also been outsourced—the sustenance of story and song. And in the same spirit that Nigella Lawson seeks to restore legitimacy to the home cook, the Rabbit Room aims to reclaim the dignity of home-storytelling, home-painting, and any other form of amateur creativity.

The mark of a good professional is not that they've successfully left behind the amateur spirit—it's that they have retained it even in the sobriety of their profession. Drew Miller

This blog, these podcasts, this music, and these books are not just here to entertain you as an audience of consumers. These works are meant to spur you on to be creative yourself. We want to encourage discussions about how creativity takes place in our lives every day; how the impulse towards art, towards making the world around us beautiful, ought to be realized even if we don’t have a book deal or a fancy studio. (Full disclosure: I’m proud to live in Nashville. We’re home to lots of professionals who get paid for quality work. At the same time, this city is woefully prone to over-exalt production value, rendering all that is un-shiny invisible.)

When anyone decides to make the leap from amateur to professional, they must endure the complication of their original love. Their craft will now require a greater degree of discipline, replacing their initial infatuation with a “challenging reality better than…fantasy.” But the mark of a good professional is not that they’ve successfully left behind the amateur spirit—it’s that they have retained it even in the sobriety of their profession. And that’s what we want to do at the Rabbit Room: support those professionals who remain amateurs at heart while encouraging an actively engaged readership of proud amateurs who partake in what they love, unafraid to contribute to this beloved body of work.

In the Kingdom of God, the amateur is the one who gets all the glory, because the only thing that will get us where we’re going is love—the love of God’s creative, redemptive work and the unabashed desire to participate in it. This is the love at the heart of all creative expression—it’s the excitement of imitating your favorite guitarist when you’ve only learned a few chords, and it’s the fire that keeps us going into adulthood if we are wise and attentive enough to take care of it. Long live the amateur spirit, and may it thrive here.

Artwork credit: “Bookshelf Watercolor” by Michaela Kinzel


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