Within the last few days it’s occurred to me that much of my written work involves a possible philosophical contradiction. Both my advice and banter on this blog and my as-yet veiled literary projects put heavy emphasis on the idea that a main character shouldn’t get by on just being the right person. They should put in the hours and seek help from professionals. Probably “professional help” as in psychatric intervention, but then, these are characters I wrote. Anyway, I feel that incompetent or talented but under-trained protagonists have been done to death so my protagonists have always had solid instruction.
The irony, of course, being that in one of the activities most central to my life, I’m a complete amateur. Naturally, that’d be swordfighting, but in fact the only art I’ve had genuine professional training in is writing. Insofar as I can sketch or do CG modeling, I’m self-taught. I can’t really cook and I generally don’t try, and as far as sword sharpening and polishing… let’s just not talk about that. It’s all very awkward. So, there’s my contradiction.
Now, I may bring up in an article that my sword practice has gotten incredibly intensive (so much so that I’m not sure I believe it myself), but intensive training doesn’t necessarily make a professional. On the one hand, I’m almost inclined to defend myself by citing the etymology of the word amateur, coming first from the Latin amator (lover), becoming amatore in Italian and then amateur in French. The meaning and original use of the word apply to people who performed their art for its own sake, id est for the love of it. It was once a positive thing to call oneself an amateur.
On the other hand, we all know that’s not how the word works nowadays and I won’t fool any of you by pretending otherwise. In modern English vernacular, “amateur” is self-deprecating if you say it about yourself and a slur if said about someone else. At the very best, it carries the connotation that they lack skill or passion even if not literally taken that way. Complicating this on my end, I’ve had problems in years past with a hyper-inflated opinion of myself and I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Qualitative evaluations of myself are tough to be objective about at the best of times. If we’re discussing something I’m as passionate about as swordfighting or writing, it’s nigh impossible. If asked whether I can do a certain technique properly, I can give an objective yes/no answer. If I’m asked anything broader than that, the answer has to be a wishy-washy dodge that barely explains anything.
So, with all that in mind, my insistence on professional characters might seem odd. That said, my amateur status is not elective. To put that in clearer terms, find me a kenjutsu dojo in Michigan and I’ll call you a damn liar because I’ve looked. The closest I’ve gotten in recent searching was that I found a Toyama-Ryu dojo in New York. That’s the best Google could do for me. Also, that was a trick example. Toyama-Ryu is Imperial Japanese Army swordfighting, therefore still not kenjutsu. As far as sketching and CG modeling, I don’t have time or energy to put towards classes for those since they’re more hobby than anything else.
Back to swordfighting, there’s also the much more basic issue that my O-tachi is, erm, an O-tachi. Its blade is a solid seven inches over the recommended length for my height, and even if I could compensate for that I’m not certain I could find a sensei willing to roll with that. Since I can’t get instruction from professionals, the next best thing is just to push myself as hard as I can manage. So, I do. In fact, today marked the shift from 840 cuts per practice session to 945. The next jump will be to 1,050 in July. I can’t say that I’m a good swordsman, but the cuts are good and there are plenty of them. That’s the closest I can get.
As far as the contradiction itself goes, it’s because of all the self-doubt, uncertainty and backtracking involved in being self-taught that I put as much emphasis on professional characters as I do. It’s not that I don’t believe amateurs can become masters-there are some hypotheses that Miyamoto Musashi may have been self-taught-but that I think the odds are terrible. Other writers are welcome to follow characters who succeed even though they’re facing those terrible odds, but for myself I’d rather not. It’s come to feel too easy to me.
I believe most writers intend the successful amateur to be an inspirational character, but too few of them put in the work to make their characters put in the work. We get far too many protagonists these days who succeed by luck in spite of a ludicrous number of fuckups. So the message that actually comes across to me is that you only succeed if you’re chosen by fate, and no amount of skill or effort on your part matters. That’s a horrible lesson and I’d prefer to avoid spreading it around.
I’ve got horrible lessons of my own to focus on, after all.
(Author’s note: As of six and a half months later, added a link to an article written a month after this one for maximum time paradox)