Are you still playing in the amateur league?

I remember the exact moment when I decided to go pro. It was January 5, 2013. I’d spent the last five months battling Lyme disease, which meant nightly fevers and flu-like symptoms that were accompanied by chills that purpled my skin. Every morning when I woke up, I wondered how I’d go on. 

When this hopeless funk showed no sign of letting up, I googled mindfulness and writing, and quickly discovered UVA was offering a mindful writing course. Without hesitation, I signed up. Then I told my husband to make me attend these sessions no matter how I felt.

The mindful writing class met on Mondays from 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM. I worked from 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM every weekday. A night class felt like a stretch, and yet my soul knew writing was essential to my recovery. 

So, every Monday at 6:30 PM, my husband kicked me out of the door. The class revolutionized my writing career and I’ve been writing consistently ever since.  

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says, “Resistance hates it when we turn pro, because pros beat Resistance at its own game.”

In part two of his book, he shares the differences between amateurs and pros. 

Amateurs play from the sidelines and are often sidelined by disappointments and problems. Terrified of failure and driven by the whims of ego, they are Resistance’s favorite afternoon snack. 

Professionals understand the difference between what is urgent and important. They do what’s important first, and that means making time to write. 

“This edict doesn’t mean that our work is necessarily crucial to the survival of the planet,” but it acknowledges that this work might be important to the development of the soul. Attend to these soul callings and we bring our best to all situations. Ignore them, and we get crunchy and irritable.  

To become a pro, you have to develop what George Saunders calls a blue-collar work ethic about writing. He likens the job of writer to the job of a truck driver. In an interview I saw several years ago he asked, “Would a truck driver show up to work only on the days when feels inspired? No, he shows up because otherwise, he’ll get canned.” 

Pressfield agrees with Saunders and says, “The muse appreciates working stiffs.” Here’s a list of what he says we do for our jobs. 

  • We show up every day.
  • We show up no matter what.
  • We stay on the job all day.
  • We are committed over the long haul.
  • The stakes for us are real and high. For a job, this might mean survival, like feeding the family, but in the realm of creativity, it’s about offering the world your gifts. And, as Marie Forleo is fond of saying, “When you fail to share your gifts, you’re stealing from the world.”
  • We do not over-identify with our jobs. We understand that this is just one part of who we are and that while we may see a job as our avocation, we understand that failure is an important part of this process. To fail at an attempt does not make you a failure.
  • We master the technique of our jobs.
  • We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
  • We receive praise and blame in the real world. 

Before 2013, I played in the amateur league. I hadn’t yet developed those blue-collar writing values, or the patience Pressfield says is essential. Professionals must “not only give the stars time to align his career but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work.”

Between the day I turned 8 (1982) and that moment in 2013, I had written intensely for months or a few years at a time, only to exhaust myself or get discouraged by setbacks or lackluster feedback on my attempts. 

Since 2013, my writing life has been as steady as a river. Writing dates appear in my calendar. I show up no matter what. I work my tail off to perfect my craft. I approached my writing life like a pro. 

But here’s the day when I actually turned pro.

Between 2014 and 2017, I worked on my first memoir. That effort included writing dates, taking classes, attending conferences, readreadreading memoirs, craft books, and novels. I even hired an editor and writing coach. Between mid December of 2017 and early February 2018, I sent my book to ten agents, absolutely certain that I had written a kickass book. 

Five agents asked for more pages. Two read the full manuscript. Just to get that far is a victory and a fantastic sign.

Here’s what happened. 

Agent One: “You’re a fabulous writer, and I love your style, but this isn’t going to sell.” OUCH!

The agent’s news was filled with gentleness and respect for me and my work. Still, I gave the above line a one-finger salute and then clung to what I was certain would be the Y.E.S. I had been working toward.

Agent Two’s feedback arrived on the day before my 44th birthday. I was in Hawaii, celebrating both my birthday and my tenth wedding anniversary. It was around seven in the morning, Hawaii time. We were eating breakfast after watching the sunrise at 13,000 feet on top of Haleakala volcano. I was exhausted and still jetlagged. Why I chose that moment to check my email is beyond me. When I saw Agent Two’s name in my inbox, I couldn’t unsee it. 

Part of me said, “Wait until you’re home.”  But how could I not celebrate my Y.E.S. in paradise? 

Here’s what Agent Two said. “There are so many great things in this manuscript, but something’s still missing. I’m happy to read a complete revision of the manuscript if you figure the problem out.” 

Boom. There it was. A big fat no. 

It often takes between 60 – 100 agent queries to actually get a yes, and I’d only queried 10. Conventional wisdom would dictate that I just keep trying. 

Except that after I licked my wounds, my gut knew these highly regarded agents were right. 

I hadn’t yet earned a yes. Because this project was mine, I couldn’t tell where the problem was. So, I asked for help, which Pressfield said is one of the things that separates an amateur from a professional. 

I applied for a conference that included a full manuscript evaluation, workshops with highly skilled peers from around the country, and masterclasses that might give me some insight into my manuscript’s problems. 

While I waited for feedback, I started my book about the heavy metal tour I was on shortly after my brother’s death. After all, I was a working stiff writer who still needed to show up. 

Over time, I came to understand and agree with those agents. The knowledge I gained is what will make the project about my brother and that heavy-metal tour successful. 

How do I know that day in Hawaii was the moment I became a pro?

I didn’t quit even though those rejections stung. 

I remained humble enough to listen to feedback and ask for help. 

I learned from the experience. 

I never stopped showing up. 

Two years after that rejection, I now know that my first memoir was essential writing for me, but not necessarily essential reading for everyone else. A few scenes ended up in my new manuscript. Others might appear in an essay or another memoir. Until I know, I’ll keep showing up.  

So, what writing league are you playing in, <<First Name>>? 

Which of Pressfield’s working-stiff attributes are easy for you to follow? 

Which ones are difficult? 

If you’re still in the amateur league, what’s keeping you there? 

What will help you take your writing life over that hurdle? 

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