Monday, August 25, 2008

From Sales to Service: A Shift in My Writer's Perspective

By Julia Buckley
This is a student mural painted to help raise money for Chinese earthquake victims.

Ever since I embraced writing as a second career, I’ve found that I can become bogged down in very selfish pursuits. Is my book selling well? Is it being promoted well? Can my publisher sell the foreign rights? What promotional ideas can I learn from other writers? How can I sell, sell, sell?

Yes, the industry expects writers to put on this hat. I don’t wear it as well as I do the writing hat, but I’ve been putting it on nonetheless. Sometimes the sales war is a very disheartening experience.

This week I went back to work teaching high school (after having the summer off). Our first assembly was about service. All of the students are required to do at least ten hours of service out in the community. There are stringent parameters: they cannot count babysitting or carrying groceries or shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor as service (although they were told they should still DO these things as good citizens). Their service, however, must be person-to-person, and it must have the potential to transform them—to shape their lives in positive ways.

I have always known about this service requirement, but this assembly made me more aware of what these young people are really DOING out there in the world—and doing quite willingly, even eagerly. Some students spent a week of their summer in the Appalachian Mountains, building homes for the poor. Some volunteered in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. One seventeen-year-old girl went to the podium and spoke to her assembled classmates about her summer work with a medical group (doctors and volunteers) which goes yearly to foreign countries to perform knee-replacement surgeries for people with severe arthritis. The first two summers she was with the group (ever since her freshman year), she went to small towns in China. This last summer she went to Ecuador. She had become a trusted and reliable member of the group, and was allowed to take the patients’ vital signs.

She loved it. She hoped, she said, to be a doctor, and for her this trip was a lesson in the most important part of medicine: an awareness of people and their need. She also told us, with great candor, that she had not realized how poor some people actually were.

The assembly was invigorating for me; it is always nice to know that young people are going to do great things in the world. But I wondered, since my high school had never required that I do similar kinds of service, what sorts of things I could do NOW.

I went home and did some online research (my students would say there is no other kind) and found Volunteer Match. I typed in my location and a strength I thought I could share (I put “writing”) and found many local places looking for that particular thing.

For example, the veterans’ hospital—a mere ten minutes from my house—is looking for people to read to the veterans or write letters for them. Many people are looking for tutors, not just in English, but in ESL. A Native American group was looking for GED prep helpers. A senior center was looking for people to “sit with residents, talk with them, read to them.”

These were just the first few listings. I couldn’t believe how many there were.

I think that many writers out there are already doing charitable things, but I must confess that I haven’t focused on it much in the last several years. I’d like to get back to it, so that I’m not the kind of mom who expects her children to do things that she herself never does.

But even in this I am selfish, because while I’m starting to think about which volunteer opportunity I’d like to explore, I’m wondering if that opportunity might offer me any story ideas. :)


Anonymous said...

Community service is important--it's a kind of grey area in the economy of any town. I lived for many years in a relatively affluent town whose excellent library had two librarians--and the desk was kept staffed throughout the week solely by volunteers. Church groups can do a lot of good, if you're so inclined. Political committees (hey, somebody's got to do it--hand out all those pamphlets, staff the polls on election day).

I commend students who want to give something to the community, and they should. But there's a caveat: they're all told it looks good on their college applications. Maybe if they try it, they'll get involved, but it seems just as likely that they'll lose interest once the applications are submitted. I saw this among my daughter's friends (of course it didn't apply to her!)

Julia Buckley said...

Oh, you're absolutely right, Sheila. You can't MAKE people transform, but I guess we can hope that they (and we) will be transformed in some way--or that maybe it will have an effect on them far into the future.

But believe me, I'm far from an idealist. This assembly caught me at a hopeful moment. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Even if students -- or adults -- stop volunteering after a while, for whatever reason, they've done some good while they were at it. Some people simply don't have the time for sustained volunteer efforts, but they may be able to do something now and then, and that's also valuable service. If they simply give money to a cause, they're helping organizations do their work. In a situation like the Chinese earthquake, all most of us could do was make donations.

Julia Buckley said...

And sometimes donations help more than anything.