When I was at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Joe Haldeman, one of my instructors, left us with a final piece of advice that, on the surface, didn’t seem like it pertained to writing at all. Volunteer. Get out of the house, go among your fellow humans, don’t isolate yourself. Want to change your view of the world? Volunteer. Want to see how sausage is made? Volunteer.
Joe was right. Not just on a karmic level (although I fervently believe that a society you’re not willing to put some time and energy into is going to be a pretty piss-poor society) but on a writing level. Doing volunteer work permits you to learn about all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise discover. Being on jury duty (if you’re selected for a jury) is fascinating. Teaching a class at your local middle school not only reminds you of why all teachers everywhere are heroes, but permits you to reframe things you know in a way that makes it accessible to other people–a really useful writing skill. Working along side people lets you see the best and worst of humankind–especially working with people who aren’t being paid and are doing the work out of love or faith or parenthood.
Which brings me, first of all, to Girl Scout Cookie season. My daughter wants to sell 1500 boxes this year (not that outlandish: she sold 1300 last year) and while she’s not aggressive about soliciting pre-orders, she is killer as a saleswoman. Like, scary. Because a volunteer army moves on the feet of its volunteers, I also raise my hand for cookie-related chores. Last couple of years I’ve been the Cookie Cupboard for the troop. There is nothing quite so eye-opening as rising at 7am to watch a fork lift deliver 300 cases of Girl Scout cookies to your garage. That’s 3600 boxes of cookies, cookies as far as the eye can see. And that’s nothin’. Our troop leader (who has five troops under her aegis, who collectively sell the most cookies in California, year after year) recieved a delivery of over 50,000 boxes of cookies two weeks ago.
What have I learned from all this? 1) People are, by and large, genuinely delighted to buy cookies from cheery, well-spoken girls. Reliably on the first day of sales some people swoop down on our booth crying “At last! I thought you’d never come!” and carry away box upon box of Thin Mints. 2) Each year my daughter and her friends grow more adept at people skills, money management, and stamina. Today we have a six-hour sales session; at the end we’ll be cranky and tired, but smiling, too. 3) For every person who wants cookies there are three who walk by, eyes averted, afraid to engage–until my daughter says “Thank you anyway!” and smiles, and the majority of them smile back, relieved that they’re not bad people. I’m always happy to help sell cookies. I’m always happy, too, when cookie season ends.
But there are other ways I engage my community: this year I was roped in asked to volunteer as the commissioner for the Nebula Awards, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Although the majority of voting takes place on line, we still have to send out paper ballots to the 1200 odd members of the organization, because some of them really prefer to vote that way. So in addition to managing the nomination of works, announcing the works, and overseeing the voting process, this week I had to produce the paper ballots, address them, and mail them out–a job guaranteed to provoke carpal tunnel syndrome. I got ’em all out, though. And there was an unexpected benefit: I had to look over those 1200 names, sometimes several times. And it reminded me of why I started writing, and started writing SF and fantasy. It wasn’t just the fangirly moments (I addressed an envelope to Ray Bradbury! Total thrill.) but that doing this mundane task reminded me of how many terrific writers I am privileged to know in this field.
Later this year I’ve been volunteered (by my daughter) to teach some workshops on stage combat to her drama class. I don’t yet know what I’ll learn in doing it, but I know I’ll learn something. It might be humbling, it might be inspiring. But I know I’ll come back to the work in progress with a few more useful arrows in my writing quiver.