Err in the direction of kindness

Kindness Header

“[T]o the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.” ~ George Saunders

Kindness Matters

Following up on yesterday’s post on time as the coin of our life, I want to share a couple of seemingly unrelated videos and articles that have helped me to tie together some loose thoughts.

First, if you watch or read no other commencement speech this year, let it be George Saunders’s convocation speech to the graduating class of Syracuse University (2013), in which he tells them, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness” and that while they are busy doing “the ambitious things” that, at that their age, they should be doing, always to “err in the direction of kindness.”

What could be simpler, more important, or more difficult to sustain over a lifetime?

I have only recently discovered the work of George Saunders but instantly became a devoted fan. Last spring, I took the risk of introducing his short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” to my students—a risk because this particular story defies easy categorization and requires at least a couple of readings to begin to grasp, and the class was an introductory level “humanities for engineers” course, not an upper division literature class. I need not have worried, however, because Saunders’s unfailing sense of humanity, of decency, of kindness, even and especially in the midst of choices of unkindness, spoke as clearly to most of the students as it first had to me.

His Syracuse speech hits home for me in a personal way. This summer has brought many momentous changes for our family: the marriage of our only child a few weeks after his and our daughter-in-law’s graduation from college, and their move to Boston where they will start law school and graduate school in the fall. Through it all, especially as I have watched how kind and gentle they are with each other, I have experienced a profound settling of priorities that has been at least a couple of years in the making. In the words of George Saunders,

“…as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.” Read More

I feel and welcome this sense of self-diminishment. This is not the same as living through one’s child or giving up on one’s goals. I still have ambitions as both a writer and a person, maybe even more so than when I was younger. But my priorities are clearer, and I’m more willing than ever to try to be kind rather than right, to “err in the direction of kindness” rather than in the direction of success.

The second article, linked to on Facebook by editor and social media expert Jane Friedman, questions the value of spending our time churning out content “designed solely to suck people in”:

“Can we honestly believe that our ‘content marketing’ is a good use of their resources? ‘Yes, because it adds value.’ we tell ourselves. But what does that even mean? Can we honestly say that ‘engaging with our brand’ is a healthy, ethical use of their scarce, precious, limited cognitive resources?” Read More

For writers, especially, learning to juggle private writing with public promotion has never been more challenging or confusing than it is now. Blogs (like this one). Email newsletters and subscriptions. Websites. Facebook. Twitter. Twitter chats. LinkedIn. Goodreads. And that’s just the tip of the social media iceberg. Some people seem to keep up with it all and even enjoy it. Others, like me, struggle with maintaining the bare minimum of an “online presence.”

I can’t help wondering, in the end, how many coins of my life I want to spend on it all, and how I can ensure that I hold back enough coins for writing, for kindness, and for love.

* * * * *

Photo available under a Creative Commons license from http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetonveg/

New Psychology Today Post: Doing Less

57248_feet

My latest post at Psychology Today is about having the courage to do less, rather than more:

“Rick Hanson, whose most recent book is Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, suggests that we can begin to empty our days by deliberately putting ‘some space between finishing one thing and starting another.’ If we don’t want to do it for ourselves, we can consider doing it for our children. What child wouldn’t prefer a parent who has plenty of transition time between activities, for whom rushing from one event or appointment to the next is the exception rather than the rule, and who views time as an ally rather than the enemy? Scheduling cushions of time lessens the stress of inevitable traffic jams and late appointments and makes it more likely that we will experience a little mindfulness in our day.” Read More

From Not Writing to Writing

“It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself, sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her, and she was moving to meet it.”— Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

The_Song_of_the_Lark
The Song of the Lark, Jules Breton, 1884

Is it really almost three months since I’ve written here?

Rest assured that all is well. During the past several months I have been busy co-chairing the SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) annual conference, which was held July 13-14 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, an experience that was both intensely rewarding and, at times, all-consuming, in part because event planning is not something that comes naturally to me. I was fortunate, however, to work with an amazing, creative, and talented team of volunteers and staff who put together a conference to remember: over 300 attendees from several countries, a children’s program featuring trips to Milwaukee’s Discovery World and a Lake Michigan boat ride, and keynote and workshop sessions that, true to SENG’s motto, changed lives and changed futures.

No sooner had the SENG conference wrapped up than I traveled to the 10th International Dabrowski Congress in Denver, Colorado. Kazimierz Dabrowski was a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist whose Theory of Positive Disintegration also changes lives and futures with its emphasis on conscious personality development.

“Dabrowski believed that the most important aspect of human development is the emotional one, since only in the area of emotional growth, transformation of behavior and character is possible.” ~ Elizabeth Mika

The Dabrowski Congress was my “mental spa” time. I had the most amazing conversations, made new friends, and came away ready to resume my writing life. I was also fortunate to present a session on Willa Cather (hence the quotation above) titled “Unreasonable States of Excitement: Women Writing Their Way Through Positive Disintegration,” a topic I plan to explore further.

All of this is to say that writers who are not writing are often refueling their lives so as to have something to write about. We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to write every day, no matter what. But writing can take many forms, and sometimes the words are etched in our hearts rather than on the page.

To everyone whose email and blogs and comments I have neglected in recent weeks, please accept my sincere apologies. August will be my catch-up (or re-boot) month.

Misc. News

Earlier this summer I signed a contract to revise Creative Homeschooling, first published ten years ago (!). The new edition will feature both new content and updated resources. In the coming weeks, I will be asking for your ideas for the best homeschooling suggestions for creative, intense learners, so please start thinking of your favorite books, programs, learning games, online classes, and other resources.

I’m very much looking forward to attending the South Dakota Festival of the Books, September 28-30, in Sioux Falls, where I’ll be presenting two sessions: “From Fact to Fiction: Writing Historical Fiction for Children” and “Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux: From Fact to Historical Fiction.” Maybe I will see some of you there!

Writing Life Manifesto: Be a Part of the Iceberg

Why do we attend conferences?

Apart from being able to present our work and ideas, meeting up with friends and colleagues old and new, learning from others, or updating professional credentials, one reason rises above everything else. We attend conferences and conventions to remind ourselves of why we do what we do.

That was certainly the case for me last week at AWP 2012 in Chicago. Now that I’ve been home a couple of days and have plunged back into the everyday world of family, teaching, errands, and email (always the email), I know what I gained from being around 10,000 other writers, teachers, publishers, and editors, and it wasn’t what I expected.

I had thought the highlight of the conference would be hearing two of my favorite authors speak and read. On Thursday night, Margaret Atwood walked slowly but surely across the stage of Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre to her podium, carrying a large bag and reminding me oddly of Charlie Chaplin, and, when she was finished, walked off again, unaccompanied, stopping only to acknowledge and take a bow with the sign language interpreter (read Patrick Ross’s detailed description of the talk and venue). On Friday, at the session “National Book Critics Circle Celebrates Award-Winning Authors,” I heard Jane Smiley read from A Thousand Acres, a book, like Atwood’s The Edible Woman, that showed me the power, potential, and beauty inherent in literature and story-telling.

However, these thrilling moments—and these authors—are just the tip of the iceberg, the peaks that jut and shine most clearly. What lies beneath is even richer and more exciting, a mass of people with all kinds of backgrounds and viewpoints and goals, finding ways to live a writing and reading life in whatever way they can and sharing their love of the written word with each other.

I am convinced that the most pressing danger we face as writers is not the changing publishing industry but the continual temptation to allow others to define our success. We have all been there. As soon as we find the courage to say “I am a writer,” we are asked, “What have you published?” Once we are published, we worry about sales and reviews. We wonder if blogging is worth the effort if we don’t have hundreds or thousands of followers. We spend ninety percent of our time building an elusive platform, leaving ten percent for the writing which that platform is meant to support, and no time remaining for creative daydreaming or leisure reading.

Having a successful writing life is something very different, not necessarily easier or harder, but simpler. Writers write, practice, improve, and get their writing in the hands of readers. That’s it, and it is the same for every single writer. Sometimes—rarely—this kind of life leads to Pulitzers or Booker Prizes, events to be celebrated.

More often, though, the writing life leads simply to indescribable joy, a joy that is sometimes hard-won but that always comes back to the power of words to sustain us, to direct us, and to give life meaning.

If you are unsure about your writing because you allow others to define your success, take a step back and remind yourself that a successful writing life is one we create for ourselves.

The Writing Life Manifesto

  1. Write a little today.
  2. Revise a little today.
  3. Read a little today.
  4. Do something today to get your words in the hands and hearts of readers.
  5. Find a way today to let other writers know that you are reading their words.

Be part of the iceberg.

“See Also” the Adirondack Review

Happy Friday!

You can read my short story “See Also” in the new online spring issue of The Adirondack Review.

Today, rather than try to post during the day, I’m going to focus on taking notes and soaking in AWP conference sessions and extensive exhibits, and perhaps share a few thoughts on Twitter (you can follow the conference on Twitter using the hashtag #awp12). If all goes well, I will post a summary this evening.

My tentative schedule includes sessions on the fiction chapbook, writing for young adults, readings from the National book Critics Circle (including Jane Smiley), historical fiction, and writing about the prairie.