I’ve just returned from my second volunteer orientation session at the writing center, during which I was orientated as a volunteer, and I am feeling good about this. I feel like a do-gooder, which is a person who does good outside in the world and tries to make it a better place; and I feel like this is something good I am doing in a selfish kind of way, because so far, these are all good people with whom I should enjoy to have good relationships. It was very difficult to not stop everyone, as I walked out of the building, and kiss them with tongue. In a very spiritual way.

So what I’m going to be doing is coaching writing. The writing center has set up volunteers all over the city, on different days of the week for two hours in an evening, and anyone at all can come and sit down and say, Hey, you, please help me with my letter of recommendation or my slave narrative or my resume or my short story about cheese or a letter to the editor or a villanelle about my relationship to 14th-century Chinese pottery or this thing I wrote on the back of a matchbook which I would like to turn into a novel that ruminates on the vagaries of life and the unfair ravages that time tolls on every one of our fragile hearts and gentle souls and also cheese. And what I am supposed to say is Okay! Let’s do it!

It is supposed to be a collaboration with people from all levels of skill and comfort and interest in writing and familiarity with both grammar and vocabulary. It is not a position in which I am the authority and they are the supplicants; I am working with them to make them comfortable with their voice, their mode of expression, the tools they have and their grasp of those tools. I am supposed to be an usher in their personal journey toward fulfillment, and I can already tell that this is going to be difficult, and it’s going to be stressful, and it’s going to be humbling.

I am a judgmental person. I come from being in a position of authority every single day, because that’s how I earn my living–telling people that this is right, or this is wrong, and this is how this ought to be and if you’re trying to get something across, buddy, you’ve gone ahead and failed. I come from a position in which creative writing is more
valued than any other writing, in which publication is a form of validation, in which writing is very swiftly judged and rejected. And I am coming to this writing coaching as a person with very particular ideas about writerly aesthetic, about what is right and proper and clever and good. I am a snob.

And they want me to take tender, fresh new writers who are just taking their tentative first steps toward finding their voices and lifting their hearts and exposing their tender, artistic underbellies, and I can feel my eye start to twitch already, because I am, frankly, not just a snob, but a bitchy snob.

I don’t want to be a bitchy snob. I don’t want to think I’m better than someone because structuring a sentence is fairly intuitive for me, I don’t think poetry ought to rhyme or it’s not a poem, and I can put together a business letter. I think this is an unconscious prejudice, a basic, unthinking assumption I carry around with me and I feel like it’s something I need to let go of, something that is harming me more than helping me, something in me that means I am not the kind of person I think of myself as, the kind of person I want to be.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that, really be able to let go of all of that and quit being a judgmental bitch and ascend bodily into heaven. It kind of terrifies me, honestly, this attempt at sincerity, this stripping away of all my fancy protective irony, this thing they’re asking me to do, which is help people do something I think is important, when you get right down to it. Humbling is the word I thought of, as I sat through my volunteer orientation, and I think that about covers it. But I will have new best friends to make out with, at the end of it, and that might keep me alive.

3 Replies to “volunteerism”

  1. My experience with any kind of mentoring or teaching is that I THINK I am a snob but, really, when it comes down to it, I love to help people and if they feel comfortable coming to me and asking for advice and then at the end they express gratitude and appreciation (tongue kissing optional;) I am one big bundle of massaged ego–and that ends up being more what it’s all about, more than me being a snobby know-it-all who tries to tell them what to do and/or in what ways they suck.

    You are a giving person, Anne, and you’ll be great, and you won’t be a snob, and it will be an incredible experience, and when all is said and done they will have learned something and you will feel like Mother Teresa, all beneficent and do-good-erly, and everyone will be happy. Enjoy it!

  2. Oooh I have the same problem about writing. I took a fiction writing workshop in college that *really* tested my patience and hold-back-from-being-completely-bitchy boundaries. The part that got me was that it was a room full of writing majors who honestly wrote things much, much worse than my ten-year-old sister could at the time. Combine too many “deep” English literature classes with HORRIBLE writing skills and LOOK OUT BELOW. But. I was able to hold my tongue and make strong constructive criticism, and you will be too. :-) What a great method of volunteering!

  3. Just think… someone in your class could have once been a decent writer, but then she went to graduate school in the sciences and was tortured into writing like a scientist, and now she’s just trying to salvage whatever innate skill wasn’t slashed and burned. :)

    (I’m not taking your classes, but I’m jus’ sayin…)

    …And you could help him/her out of the rut of passive voice! And poor repetitive vocabulary! :)

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