Monday, February 28, 2011

Doing good, doing writing?

While writing a feature story on a multigenerational project undertaken by a large extended family. I emailed my primary contact in the family to thank him for putting me in touch with his 81-year-old mother.

He responded that his mother had enjoyed the interview with me and ended his email with these simple words: “It makes her feel important.”

Not only the sentiment but his use of the present tense caused a pang deep within me. Not just that she felt important for the 20 or 30 minutes I engaged her on the phone, but that she continues to feel important; that my interest in a project that she and her husband undertook gives her an ongoing feeling of importance.

“Well, she should feel important!” I wanted to reply. “What she did is impressive!”

But as a journalist, I need to be more dispassionate than this. I can’t let myself believe that my primary purpose in writing is to bolster people’s sense of self. I write for the purpose of fulfilling the demands of the paying readership of the Boston Globe, not to make people feel good.

Objectively, I know that’s true. It would be disingenuous of me to claim I write features to affirm for individual subjects the value of their personal endeavors. If that were the case, I should be doing this on a volunteer basis, not as the cornerstone of my yearly income.

Yet I had the same feeling later in the week when a friend’s mother asked me if I might serve as a consultant (my word, not hers) on her imminent attempt to create a lasting work of memoir out of the letters she and her husband exchanged in college. I might indeed agree to take this on, regardless of my (yet unknown) sense of its literary value, because it might give me the opportunity to make a woman who has lived honorably and kindly for eight decades believe that her past matters, and this is a means by which she can pass her heritage of love and morality on to her grandchildren and their descendents.

And as I thought about it, I realized that in some small way, these thoughts were forming a quiet rejoinder to the accusation I often lob against myself that in my chosen career as a journalist – and, put in broader terms, my chosen life’s-work as a writer – I really do nothing to help anyone. I’m not teaching children or nurturing sick patients or feeding the hungry or raising money to protect the environment. I’m just…writing.

But sometimes I catch the briefest glimmer that my chosen work and the arena of altruism might not be as mutually exclusive as I sometimes imagine them to be. True, I get paid for the writing I do, other than the very occasional pro bono project such as a yearly publicity campaign I do for our local prison outreach program. Nonetheless, is it possible that in some small way, I’m wrong in thinking there’s no humanitarian aspect to what I do?

This reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Tammie earlier this winter after I blogged here about a quotation by Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

That just doesn’t sound right to me, I confessed in the blog entry. “Am I really allowed to believe that going snowshoeing for two hours is what the world most needs from me?” I wrote.

Tammie, who first introduced me to that quote while we were on a weekend retreat, responded to the blog entry, offering me further food for thought on the topic. She wrote, “Ask yourself these questions:

1) What is important to you? What do you want to do?
2) What does the world need?
3) At the intersection of those two - dive in and go for it. If either of those elements is missing, that's not the place for action or involvement.”

I wanted to think Tammie was right, because I want to think that those things I love to do – a list that would prominently include both snowshoeing and writing – fall into the category of improving the world. And so I read the email about the elderly woman I interviewed again: “It makes her feel important.”

I’m glad. She deserves to feel important and to feel that something she and her husband devoted their time to has the potential to make a lasting impression on thousands of people who will read about it in next Sunday’s Boston Globe. Just as the memoirist I’m going to start working with later this week deserves to know that her words can potentially impact the actions of her grandchildren and future generations.

It’s not an excuse to give up the kinds of volunteer work I find far less rewarding. I need to continue to find ways to help feed the hungry, protect the environment and fight injustice. But it’s a chance to feel that maybe I’m not quite as far off that mark as I had long assumed.

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