The Lament of the Dilettante

By Jonathan Timar

dilettante (plural dilettanti or (rarely) dilettantes)

  1. An admirer or lover of the arts
  2. A person with a general but superficial interest in any art or a branch of knowledge. (Sometimes derogatory.)

Dilettante is one of my favourite words. I like it because it describes me almost perfectly. I am indeed an admirer and love of the arts. In fact I live and breathe for art. Never am I more happy and content than when I am creating art, with my camera, with my pen, with my computer, or as a performer. I feel at peace, as though everything in the world is just as it should be, and I am just as I should be. I forget about everything outside of what I am doing in that moment. Stress leaves my body, I don’t think about my obligations, my worries or even what I have to do five-minute later. Often, I can become so focused that I will not even hear people talking to me, that is how much I love art.

This is a powerful sign. When the outside world shuts down, and you think of nothing else that what you are doing in that moment, you can be confident you are doing what you were made to do. If you stop by the side of the road after a thunderstorm to photograph a rainbow on a backdrop of storm clouds and mountains, and every thought leaves you except for the desire to capture the beauty of that rainbow, you are in your element. When you forget all about the nerve-wracking drive through a hail storm you completed moments before, when you forget that you are hungry and were in a hurry to get home and eat, when that nagging feeling that you need to go back to work the next day has left your mind, you are in your element. And so it is with me and art, be it of the visual, written or performing kind.

As much as I love to create art, I also love consuming it. Though when I consume art, a curious thing often happens. I become discontent. If I watch a movie and it moves me in some way, through it’s content, or through the quality of it execution, I sometimes find myself feeling rather melancholy inside, even if I have just watched an outrageously funny comedy! A similar thing can happen when I hear an amazing song (especially if I see the musician performing live), hear a comedian tell a joke, or even just read a good book.


Because this is my hearts way of telling me, reminding me, that in that moment I am not creating, and that perhaps it has been too long since I have been creative, or that I have been off track for too long and need to reset my course in the right direction. The little voice is saying, “better get busy, buddy!”.

And herein lies the problem for us dilettantes. We are an easily distracted bunch. We love the theatre, but we also love to write, and we love fantasy art but we aren’t that good at it. Art lessons might help, but we’re already taking dance classes, so learning to draw right now might be too much. And heck, we can always make art though photography, but god damn it, we have to work in the morning to there’s just no time. Maybe I’ll work on a website. Screw it, let’s just watch TV.

We’re famous for starting things and not finishing them. We start to write a novel and get a few chapters in before we hit a block. We put it aside planning to come back to it, but we never quite find the time. Then one day we’re struck by another idea and we start to write another novel and we don’t finish that one either. We think, “maybe a screenplay would be a better idea”, and sure enough it is, until we hit a block with that one too. So we go out and take pictures for a while. And then after a trip to the movie theatre we get that familiar pang in our chest, and think, “I sure do miss acting…”.

“The challenge is not figuring out what do to, but how to do it all.”

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    We are not lazy people. We are not aimless. On the contrary, we have so many goals an aspirations that we become overwhelmed by them all. We know where we want to go, but unfortunately for use we also know where else we want to go, and we just can’t decide.

    And thus is the lament of the dilettante, we love, oh yes we love, so many things that we don’t have enough time to love just one. We spread ourselves too thin, and as a consequence fail to see anything through to the payoff. We don’t fail, you can’t fail at what you don’t complete, but we don’t succeed either. Instead we move from one distraction to the next, dipping our toes in, but never getting wet.

    We secretly wish someone would come along and throw us into the pool, giving us no choice but to swim. We remember as children in school creating superb works of art in class, the clear goals of the assignment working in our favour, but when we sit down to do it ourselves we stare at the paper and can barely form scribbles. We have too many options. We are in effect paralyzed by choice. Our artistic nature causes us to rebel against structure and conformity, and yet in the absence of it we float along aimlessly. Life looks like a buffet table, and it all looks good, but we can’t decide what we want. So we have a little but of everything, and together it amounts to too much and we can’t finish it all. We might even start to feel a little guilty about our lack of focus, after all, we live in a society that rewards specialists. A dermatologist makes more money than a general practitioner even though the latter undoubtedly as a more difficult job.

    Our challenge then, as dilettantes, is to learn to apply the focus we have while actively engaged in our crafts to our lives in general. We need to consciously restructure our activities in such a way that we can see them through to completion.

    This may mean making some tough choices. We may have to think long and hard about what is the most important thing in our lives, and commit to dedicating our time to that. This is particularly true if we wish to turn our passions into our jobs. We may be good at a great many things, but with a limited amount of time, we cannot ever hope to develop them all at the same time. We don’t have to give up on the other things, but we can’t allow them to become distractions. We must break the cycle of unfinished projects, of half-finished dreams, and abandoned plans. Similarly, we cannot let our fear of failure prevent us from committing to anything at all, or worse, something we do not love in order to please someone else, or because we think it will be easier.

    We must apply the same focus and structure to our lives that we would have in a 9-5 job. If our desire is to write, then we must schedule time to write. It won’t get done on it’s own. We must become linear in our approach, rather than a little bit here and a little bit there, we need to, whenever possible, complete one project before moving on to the other. And when it is not possible, we need to ensure that taking on a new project does not cancel out the previous one. Get organized, make a plan, write it down. Make Monday writing day, Tuesday marketing day, etc. Then, show up on time, get the job done, and only go home early if you’ve finished everything you can possible finish that day.

    Great success.