Giving Back

The writing community has been very good to me. At the suggestion of one of my mentors I began volunteering at conferences. My first stint was a timekeeper at a California Crime Writers event a couple of years ago. Since then, as I’ve gotten more attention I volunteer to speak at conferences, I mentor aspiring writers, and I shamelessly promote fellow authors every chance I get. Volunteerism is in my blood, literally – I gave blood in a hurricane relief drive earlier this week. I also regularly donate time & money for causes near and dear to my heart like Alzheimer’s and cancer research. Volunteering with and for writers is one thing, the other forms of giving back I do are my little candle in the dark, gestures to try to make the world a better place, one humble effort at a time. My question this week is, how do you give back? Susan: I hope you don’t mind if I turn the question around, Robin, but only yesterday I learned that the woman I considered my mentor, died, and so it’s been very much in my heart how blessed I was to be on the receiving end of her guidance. Jane Carter was one of my students, though a far better writer than I will ever be. She revered language and expected, or possibly demanded, the best from me and she did not hesitate to tell me when I was being flippant. At the same time she had such a kind and loving heart and she read everything I wrote and adored it. She loved Nabokov, and gave me a copy of P’nin, which I treasure, though have never enjoyed as much as she did. Toward the end of her life, after a very circuitious route, she wound up in a homeless shelter in Harlem. I went to visit her. You would think she would be bitter and angry at that point and she certainly had cause to be, but when I walked into her room she grabbed me and said, “Susan, come here. You have to hear this man’s story!” She’d talked to every single person there and knew each person’s story and she wanted to set up a writing class, which she did. The last time I saw her was at the Harlem Book Festival, which was a fantastically hot day, and I have to confess I left behind my booth and went off with her to have Cuban food and ices and we talked for hours. I guess I would hope to be irreplaceable in someone else’s life the way she was to me. Paula: Great story, Susan. Everyone needs a Jane Carter in her life.I know this may sound strange, but I try not to talk about it. Not that I do any more or less than anybody else, but it’s that one part of the Sermon on the Mount that I actually took to heart. Mostly thanks to a novel recommended to me by my catechism teacher when I was girl: Magnificent Obsession, by Lloyd C. Douglas. (They made a 1954 movie adaptation with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.) This book had a very strong impact on me, a good Catholic girl who like all good Catholic girls of a certain age wanted to be a nun. I outgrew that part, at least. Tracee: Here’s to the Jane Carters. I love that this illustrates the breadth of giving back. Teachers who stay those extra minutes to encourage a student, high school athletes who mentor their younger almost-peers. Children who travel great distances to spend time with parents. I was a professional fund raiser for years, both as director of a non-profit and as an assistant vice president at a university. I spent a great deal of time emphasizing that we really did value time, talent and treasure. Too often people think that if they can’t give cash then they aren’t giving anything of value. Being a mentor is a sharing of time and talent (buying that coffee to spend time over is also sharing treasure). When I was head of a non-profit we depended (that’s an understatement) on the contributions of time by our museum docents, of talent by those who helped curate new exhibits and, of course, treasure to pay the lighting bill. Each of those contributions played an equally integral role. I found that when people give from the heart to something they value then they feel the good they’ve done and want to do more. For some that means a shift in the how (from time to treasure) or an increase in their financial contribution. For others it means that they forgo their financial contributions while on a fixed income in retirement and give the time that they didn’t have while working. A natural evolution is a mutual link that creates goodwill on both sides and is irreplaceable. Perhaps because I was a professional fund raiser I see the many ways people are asked to give today. Sometimes I think that every time I check out in a store I’m being asked to donate a dollar or round up for a charity. I feel guilty when I say no. It is the public nature of these gifts that disturbs me. Why should a person who has just written a thousand dollar check to a local nonprofit feel guilty for not giving another dollar at the check out stand to that same organization that same day? I would like to suspend judgement about “giving” and simply encourage people to be involved. That is a true gift. Michele: To me, the question how do you give back begs a bigger question. How do you live? What I have learned is that the simple practice of kindness is the answer to all things, whether it is by digging into your pockets, volunteering, speaking in a gentle tone, smiling at a scowling stranger, or speaking out on behalf of those without voices. Kindness breeds generosity, which breeds kindness. Kindness is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Alexia: Now that I’m at a point in my life where my income actually has a “discretionary” portion, I’ve tried to increase the “treasure” part of my giving. I’m someone who thinks “social justice warrior” is a compliment, not an insult, but I’m not really a get-out-in-the-streets-with-a-banner type so I make monthly donations to some organizations dedicated to pursuing social justice. I also donate to symphonies and libraries because I believe books and music are vital. I donate to a historical foundation that is making deliberate efforts to portray a more inclusive story–history for all of us instead of the select few. Time-wise, I volunteer on the Altar Guild at church. Not just so I can collect hysterical wedding stories. I find setting up and breaking down the altar to be a peaceful, spirit-filled exercise. Talent-wise, I’ve forgone the prestige and glamour (and, let’s be honest, money) of private practice and opted, instead, for a career in public service. I wasn’t destined to take up arms in defense of the Constitution but I serve the same goal (and actually had to swear an oath similar to the one uniformed officers swear) as those who do–to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic–by providing medical evaluation (at various points in my career) to those in uniform, those who’ve taken off the uniform (veterans), and those hoping to wear the uniform. Alison: Every one of these stories is inspiring, in the textbook definition of the term: to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on…I echo Paula; donations are not something I feel comfortable discussing. I also echo Michele; I think small kindnesses make a big difference. Something as apparently trivial as holding open a door can change a person’s perception of the day, which then alters the way that person interacts with the next person they encounter. This ripple effect is so cliché, but I have been on the receiving end more than once. The tiniest thing can transform my outlook and my ability to pass on compassion to a fellow human being. I’m raising a glass to everyone who tries each day to pass on some kindness in this world, however they choose to do it, even when it’s hard, perhaps, especially when it’s hard. Cate: I try to give back to writers by blurbing their books when asked because other writers who didn’t know me were kind enough to take time read and comment on my books. It’s the kind of giving back that our community does routinely. I just did this and it fit with the theme. I went to my daughter’s school Thursday and taught for 45 minutes about how to write better stories. I spoke to them about creating a problem and complications to the ultimate solution, rising action, falling action and the all important twist.  We created our own story in class about two brothers, Jack and Mack, who have a disagreement while playing chess. Mack, the little brother, loses the game and throws all the pieces on the floor, in full view of the baby monitor that their mother uses to keep an eye on them when they are in their room alone. Jack, the calm, older brother, asks him if he wants to play again and promises to go easier on him. Mack says no and, like a sore loser, tells him that he cheated. Jack tries to convince Mack he played fair, only to have Mack storm off to their mother with his assertion that Jack cheated. Jack convinces the mom that he didn’t cheat. Then, the TWIST, Mack brings in the baby monitor that recorded the whole thing. Jack totally cheated. Jack gets time out and the brothers hug it out in the end and resolve to play fair.  Robin: These are all such great stories. Have I mentioned how proud I am to be a Miss Demeanor? How about you, dear readers? Any stories to share of giving back, whether on the giving or receiving side?   It was giving back, to an extent, but also the most rewarding thing I’d ever volunteered to do for any of my kids’ classes.

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