In defence of the expert amateur


When I started Darrow all those years ago it stemmed from a  frustration: I wanted to talk about politics to prove, on a CV, that I had a right to work in politics. Having a degree in International Relations was like having just passed your driving licence and asking to drive a Formula 1 car with little evidence I’d be good at it.

Five years later and I’ve worked as a press officer at the Scottish Parliament, I’ve worked in public affairs, and for the last four years, I’ve worked as a teacher of English in the south of Spain. Concurrent to all of that was freelance writing, sometimes paid, sometimes not, but always done with an obsessive fervour that I could never quite explain.

Recently I’ve found myself restless and intimidated by the prospect of writing anything at all. I can’t write about history or politics at the moment, I get stuck in a gully of embarrassment. I’ve begun to ask what right do I have to produce articles on subjects to which I’m no longer directly affiliated.

I don’t know why this feeling has come about. I’ve covered local news for English-speaking papers in Spain, I write columns on Brexit, I conduct press work for a campaign group fighting Brexit and I’ve started a campaign to introduce MPs for Britons living abroad. I have a degree in politics, I read extensively on the subjects and always try to stick to things I feel I have something to say about, rather than just regurgitate what’s already out there.

Still, I’m left with the unfortunate need for an answer to a question that I wake up with and ponder daily: what license do I have to comment on a damned thing?

Confidence, I suppose, is a fickle thing that you only notice when it’s gone. Or when it’s on hiatus. Writing, and writing about history or politics or culture, is all about making a niche for yourself. When you do it, you express an opinion related to facts and tie it all together with energetic prose. It’s a curious buzz, and sometimes you get paid for it and sometimes you don’t. In any event, money is seldom the driving force – I need to express myself and it’s an itch that needs to be scratched.

There’s a lot to be said for the magic of self-belief. It’s a dark art, but it’s like Plato’s Cave in reverse. The absence of faith in yourself, when it’s taken away, leaves you with a lot of flickering lights and more questions than answers about what everything means and what your place is in the whole lot of it. Are you accepted by the quality of your writing or being in a profession related to your subject? How do you conjure up a confidence that has disappeared, if it’s hard to justify why it existed in the first instance?

If I don’t have a right to comment on a thing, then who does? If they do, is it explained and justified in terms of how much they earn or what qualifications they’ve earned?

In decades past, the answers to these questions were easy to answer by the very fact the written product existed. In the age of the Internet, it’s next to impossible to deny the voices of people who want to offer their take on things. It doesn’t change the fact that collectively most people can tell what is rubbish and what is not.

What, I suppose, is a commonality between the ‘expert amateur’ and the ‘expert’ is that both produce written pieces on the merits of their ideas. One may have a regular income from their ‘profession’ and for the other, it may be irregular and a supplement. Which is which I leave to you.

In any eventuality, the justification for writing isn’t the parochial nature of qualification or profession. Writers write and they can only do so with a confidence that infuses style with facts and expounded opinions. People read it, or people won’t. Writers will write, one way or the other.

The expert amateur, wherever they are and whatever they write about, will always have just cause to put pen to paper if they’ve got something to say that is worth reading. There’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art, only that which people enjoy.

The risk is the game we play and fear is the constant companion. Are we good enough, and do we have the right to publish? I suppose that depends on the person, doesn’t it? The only qualification, the only thing that matters for doing anything is to offer something new, something interesting. That’s not an event, it’s a process. And it’s a reminder that the process, the challenge to be better, will always be worth it if you can take the hits and keep moving forward.

Never let anyone point a finger in your face and say you don’t. And certainly, never, ever, give life to the voice in the back of your head that says you don’t. Everyone has something to say, and everyone should strive to do it to the best of their ability. That’s the addiction to the craft and the greatest reward is not just having that recognised, but knowing you produced something you’re proud of.

Fighters fight and writers write. And I think I will, again, too.


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Alastair Stewart 13 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and mentor. In 2013, Alastair founded DARROW, Scotland’s only dedicated forum for more than 200 up and coming writers. The magazine works predominantly with 16-35-year-olds to give them the tools they need to share their ideas, hone their craft and thrive as writers, journalists, and storytellers. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.