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by Richard Nilsen

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One of my great pleasures, when I was an art critic, was visiting artist studios. Certainly, there was usually a mess, spattered paint, cans dripping or tubes squeezed, and rags and brushes. Things taped to the walls, papers scattered and, often, music blaring. But there was also a sense of purpose, a sense that someone here knew what he or she was doing.
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I had that sense again recently while visiting my brother-in-law, the painter Mel Steele. I love his work. And I can watch over time as he works and reworks his canvas, trying this or that to make it better.
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Mel is a professional. And by that, I don’t just mean he sells his work, or that he is talented. That goes without saying. I mean something more particular. It is something I see in the work and work habits of many artists I have come across, from Jim Waid to James Turrell.
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I have been thinking about the manifest difference between the work of an amateur and that of a professional. And I don’t mean to denigrate the work of amateurs. Indeed, there are professionals stunning mediocrity and there are amateurs hugely talented. No, I mean something about the approach to the work.
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This is something that I have been cogitating about since retiring. Without making any great boast about my own writing, I can say with utter confidence that I wrote as a professional. This is not a claim about quality or greatness, but about some inner acquaintance with the nitty-gritty of the craft. It has been seven years since I worked for The Arizona Republic and I can say with confidence that writers never really retire: They just stop getting paid.
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In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the secret to achieving meaningful achievement is to repeat something 10,000 times. The book has been trashed by many critics as a kind of pop psychology, but without taking the actual number as gospel, certainly one of the things that makes a professional is that repetition. You don’t become a professional — as I mean it here — by being hired. You do it over the long haul, writing every day for years. Or painting every day for years. Or dancing, or playing violin. Or, for that matter, plumbing or dealing in the stock market.
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For all that patience, what you get are several things. First, you get better at what you do. But you also become familiar with the business. By that, I don’t just mean the financial side of the work, but the daily bits of familiar habit. As a writer, that means understanding deadlines, the importance of editors and copy editors, the argot of the trade — point size, picas, inches, folios, air, heds, ledes, trims, slots, cutlines, sidebars, widows, and more than I can even now remember. But was once the lingo of my daily life.
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If told I had 10 inches to fill on deadline, I could write a piece that would come in at 10 inches, give or take nary more than a line, before I even measured it. You just have the feel of it. Occasionally, I would return to the office from a concert at 10:50 p.m. to write a review and have 10 minutes to file before deadline. I could whip that sucker out: Ten inches in 10 minutes, and feel at the end like a rodeo cowboy tying the feet of a calf and throwing my arms out in triumph.
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More important, you divest yourself of the bad habits of your amateur years and your novitiate. You unconsciously avoid using the same word twice in paragraph; you vary your sentence length; You know instinctively to include just the amount of background your reader needs, without burdening him or her with unnecessary detail; and you know in what order to present that background. You become aware of consistency within a piece: Do you spell out numbers or use integers (knowing to spell it at the beginning of a sentence or after a colon)? Do you know where commas fall? Do you abbreviate “street” or not? All this comes with familiarity and practice.
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I now look with embarrassment at something I wrote when I first came to the newspaper business because I see all the stupid mistakes I made. Rookie mistakes. Over time and countless deadlines, you leave those inelegancies behind.
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Most of all, you gain a comfort level: a sense that you know what you’re doing. Like a pianist who can run his spider fingers up and down the keyboard and confidently hit each B-flat as it passes. Or a painter who automatically reaches for the Hooker’s green because the Phthalo won’t give him the shade he needs.
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You watch Jacques Pepin on TV slicing an onion and you can see how second-nature it has become, how quickly and accurately he does it. He knows how to make an omelet because, as he preaches, he’s done it 10,000 times. There may be more creative or innovative chefs out there, even among amateurs, but you have to admire Pepin for his confident professionalism.
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Nor is a professional precious about his work. Museum curators can be fussy about white gloves and humidity levels, but the artists themselves are seldom so concerned. If they screw up, “I can always paint another one.” It is not unusual for Mel to paint over some detail he was unhappy with, even weeks or months later, to alter the work. It is only amateur writers who bitch and moan about editors changing their sacred texts. Editors (good editors — and I was lucky to have only good ones) make the writing better, cleaner, more precise. Even such things as cutting stories to fit news holes won’t perturb the professional. He may negotiate, but he won’t whine.
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I’ve written about artists and journalists because that is the world I know best. But much the same could be said about professional musicians, construction foremen or career diplomats. Professionalism, as I mean it here, is not simply about being paid; it is an attitude. An approach to the work. A comfort level and familiarity, an ease, an assurance.
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And any true professional can spot a navvy in an instant. You won’t necessarily feel superior, but you will feel a kind of pity for the poor beginner. There is so much to learn that is entirely beyond merely talent.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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