Saturday, January 1, 2011
Last night across America, millions of people who’d never met and may not have ever wanted to meet turned to a stranger and said, “So, what do you do?”
I have no doubt some of these folks had an uproariously good time, but little did they know this question works like torture not only in these economic times but pretty much any time at all.
“Do” means “Give me your stats.” Your income, your résumé highlights, your impressive numbers. "Do" boils us down to concrete, financially-viable actions taken and monetary results achieved. What do you do? never means, Tell me who you are, tell me what you value, tell me what you love.
I think a better question for the New Year is, "What did you do right this past year? What didn't make the billboards, Twitter, Facebook status, or Google Alerts?"
Forget feverish revolution and anxious browbeating. Let's not spend the first day of 2011 with to-do lists. Let's make it a Sabbath from the shoulds, the musts, the wills.
For writers, it is tempting to berate ourselves with the stats not yet achieved: agents not landed, contracts not signed, and manuscripts not done. To feel that our pages and publications number too little to be noticed; to feel sad that our writing practice lacks the perfect devotion of a triathlete, a marathoner, a special ops soldier. Always there is someone far more devoted, persistent, and perfectly successful out there. They must never cease working, these dynamos. If only you had resolve, you, too, could be they...I like Hope Clark's wisdom about having never arrived on this writer's journey. The work never ceases for any of us, and it's a delusion to think all the others who have success are "already there."
This last year I became more patient with what I once deemed lack of progress. At my day job I keep an African proverb by my desk: "If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together." I used to think certain people and situations stymied me. I now know they're here for good reason, and on the worst days, if for nothing else, for short-story fodder. At my writing job (which is also every day), I keep many quotations, but these catch my eye today:
"We've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include." Hugh O'Connor
"Bide your time, for success is near." Fortune Cookie. (For all local North Carolinians, you must try the wonderful Gourmet Kingdom where this fortune was found.)
When I write I ask myself if what I'm writing I love and believe in, if my writing brings me and others good, and if I am making time for people as much as my pages.
This last year I set my mind on higher things. I listened to the quiet while driving in my car. I listened to the wisdom of spiritual guides and read sacred texts. And I asked myself sometimes before I spoke, but most often after: Is this how I wish to speak? Sound? Be?
My family can tell you I sound much wiser here than I do in person, but, I would like some credit for thinking right every once in a while.
No one puts these details on a résumé or in a query letter. It's the kind of do we refrain from sharing with strangers.
I had a moment wondering if "do right" is proper grammar. Upon further review, I determined I mean "right" this way "uprightly or righteously." That's more than correct--that's right good grammar.
It's all good, as they say down here in the South, if what you do is not about racking up the stats but about expressing who you are.
Writing Prompts for Students:
-- What did you do well this past year? How did you know you did well?
-- What did you do right? How do you know?
-- Describe a person you admire greatly for doing things that are true to self. By "true to self," we mean, doing what is honest, right, and good.
-- What did you do that was true to yourself?
-- What did you not do this past year that leaves you feeling discouraged? Why?
-- Make a resolution about how you will think differently this year. Do not resolve to do this or do that, but instead, describe the types of thoughts you wish to have going forward.
Writing Prompts for Teachers:
-- Describe a moment from teaching last year that leaves you smiling. What makes you feel joy or amusement?
-- If there is one thing you do right in your teaching, what is it?
-- Write a paragraph of your thoughts for 2011. This paragraph should be the thoughts you wish to wake up to every morning.
-- What in teaching most discourages you? How will you try to think differently about it this year?
-- Who is a teacher, author, or some other person you admire greatly? Write about not only the concrete accomplishments but the intangibles of character that you value so much.