The public library hired me when I was seventeen. I'd been volunteering for months, shelving books, typing card kits, and chatting literature with the librarians. My passionate affair with reading had been going on for years--Nate the Great, Nancy Drew, David Copperfield. Now, four Saturdays a month, I was getting paid to indulge my love. I was a youth librarian.
Or was I?
Five years later, I'm still at the same library, and I'm still asking that same question. Am I a librarian? I don't work full time. I don't have a library science degree. I don't have a college education at all.
"You work at a library," my dad said once. "But do you think you're a librarian?"
Many writers encounter similar hesitation from without and from within. Am I really an author, just because I write? I mean, let's face it, there's no MFA after my name, and there's no hardcover novel waiting for my autograph. I write, but am I an author?
A close cousin of mine is planning to attend Wheaton next fall, where she'll begin work on her library science degree, partially, she says, because of my choice. "I know a lot of people who are librarians--my mom was, and you are."
Technically, however, in the eyes of society, my cousin will be the librarian, because she will be the professional. I can tell you without blinking who wrote Shakespeare for Kids, translate a request for "something red, or crimson, and a valley" into Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech, and recommend stories you'll come to adore based on titles you already love, but I will be the amateur.
I can spend thousands of dollars acquiring novels that fly off the shelves, catalogue a fifty-pound box of new books faster than a speeding bullet, and recite every likely Newbery candidate from a dozen lists and personal experience, but I will be the amateur.
Society views writers in much the same way: we're dreamers indulging a hobby unless our novel breaks through the Red-Rover chain of publishers. Only then do we become authors.
But could our culture's view of us--as authors and librarians--have anything to do with our view of ourselves? Could the opinion of the people around us be changed by an alteration of our self-respect? I'm not advocating belief in oneself. I heartily echo G.K Chesterton's assertion that "the men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums." But do you value your abilities honestly enough to be able to proclaim with conviction, "I am an author"?
The word amateur is rooted in Latin. Amo. I love. This might seem odd at first--doesn't amateur mean inexperienced? How does that relate to love? Look closer, though, and the etymology makes sense. A professional athlete plays the game for money. An amateur plays for love of the game--and sometimes plays it very well. A professional author can write for both money and love, but only an amateur writes purely for love.
Writers who are amateurs in the truest sense are also authors in the truest sense. They spend long hours studying the market, the tastes of editors, reading industry books and countless novels, the toast of every genre, trading days with friends and family for days with a computer screen. They write, in Uncle Andrew's words, "dem fine" stories, and they write them because they love them.
Amo being a librarian. I am a librarian. Amo being an author. I am an author.
What about you?