I’ve been going at this writing business for a little over two years now, and I hope I can say that I made marginal improvement. I feel at least a little more confident, and others have assured me that my writing isn’t all that bad. Which is reassuring, but being the worrywart that I am, I like to be certain about things. To know where I stand, to know how many bridges I still have to cross, to know what I’m up against. My dream career (you’ll never guess) is to become a professional writer, but the question remains: do I have what it takes? Difficult question. Which leads me to another question: is there any way to find out?
Dilettante means ‘a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge’. It is by origin an Italian word (which means wacky plurals; note that multiple such individuals are ‘dilettanti’ (though ‘dilettantes’ is also correct, albeit less interesting)), meaning ‘a lover of music or the arts’, derived from the verb ‘dilettare’ (‘to delight’), which in turn derives from the original Latin ‘delectare’. Originally it did not have a negative connotation, and merely referred to a ‘devoted amateur’. The pejorative sense only emerged later, in the 18th century, in contrast to ‘professional’.
It is one of my secret anxieties: that I will never be quite good enough. This is true for Life In General, but considering my literary activities over the past two years, this fear nowadays takes on the form of writing-related stress. Funny enough, the ‘potential’ people keep talking about is exactly the cause of that stress. Because what if you can never live up to that potential? If you have all the possibilities right in front of you, but you find them slipping right through your fingers? This reeks of dilettantism, and for someone who fears mediocrity like a disease, it is the ultimate phobia. If you’ll allow a neologism, I should say that I have mesophobia. The fear of being in the middle. Of being mediocre.
I suppose this fear started arising because I am slightly superstitious. Once I started thinking about words and what they mean, I looked up the meaning of my own name (call me self-centered). This was an interesting exercise for my first name, but for my last name it was less flattering. My last name is ‘Gezels’ (stress on the second syllable, if you please), which in English would translate as ‘journeyman’. Journeyman is a historical term which refers to (I quote Wikipedia) ‘an individual who has completed an apprenticeship and is fully educated in a trade or craft, but not yet a master’. They were called journeymen, because ‘journey’ in the old sense of the word meant ‘a day’s work’, and the typical thing about journeymen was that they could ask for payment on a daily basis (for a day’s work). As stated, I am slightly superstitious, so in the spirit of nomen est omen I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was doomed to stay a dilettante. To be a bit better than average, but never quite good enough to be considered a professional. To almost make it, but not quite.
Luckily I am rational enough to see that this fear of dilettantism is actually irrational. The fear of never being quite good enough is probably something many people can sympathize with; the moment you’re working on something, you stop for a minute, look up from your work and are seized by a sudden terror that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing. At your work, at your relationships, at life in general. I think most of us recognize this, but if it happens regularly this feeling of dilettantism becomes a problem. In scientific terms this is called ‘the impostor syndrome’, which is (again I quote Wikipedia) ‘a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments’. Even though there is plenty of external evidence proving their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Thankfully, I am not often seized by such a fear, but it does happen occasionally. The fear of being a dilettante, not just at writing, but at Life, comes up at unexpected moments, and usually has terrible timing. Sometimes these moments are short and intense, but sometimes they can spread out over long periods of anxiety. I believe in not being too proud or smug about your own accomplishments, mostly because I think humility is a virtue, but also because I have a mortal fear of hubris (because I’m Greek and all that). I’m afraid that if I show pride at my accomplishments, I’ll get overconfident and make a crucial misstep. I am currently awaiting my exam results, and though I got the overall sense that they went well, I am very cautious about making predictions based on such subjective data. What if I was overconfident? Who knows that maybe, behind a facade of intelligence and cleverness, I am the stupidest person you ever met.
Recently, though, I have discovered an upside to amateurism. For one, it gives you room for error. Professionals are supposed to know what they’re doing, so if they make a mistake they are often given the disapproving eyebrow. Dilettantes can feel comforted at the idea that not everything they do needs to be perfect. Secondly, it’s a comforting idea that there is someone out there who knows it better than you do; someone who can tell you how it should be done. I consider myself an incorrigibly curious person, and the thought that one day no-one will be able to teach me anything anymore because I will have learnt all there is to know, is quite frightening. Of course this moment will never transpire, because there are always new things to discover, but you get the idea. Because if you have been taught all there is to know, you are the professional, and you are supposed to know how it should be done, which doesn’t always make one feel at ease.
Do you think that that’s why people believe in God? A greater force in the universe which knows how this is supposed to work, and to which you can turn when things get rough? Someone to confide in when you feel your own clumsiness and dilettantism overwhelm you? When impostor syndrome strikes and you feel existential dread sneak up on you like a snake in the grass? It seems appealing to me. The alternative is believing that you are the only professional in charge of your life, and that you can only rely on yourself to figure it out. Some find this liberating. Others find it terrifying. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Ambitious as I am, I know that I will at some point have to leave the comfortable but limiting zone of dilettantism in order to move on to Bigger And Better Things, but I won’t deny that Bigger And Better Things freak me out a little as well. And so we beat on, boats against the current... (etc)