Where Writing and Kindness Intersect
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Our guest post today comes from Donna Cameron, author of A Year of Living Kindly where she chronicles her experiences of committing to practice kindness every day for a year. She has spent her career working with nonprofit organizations and causes and has been transformed by the powerful acts of kindness she was witness to. Here she shares what she learned during the process of her year of kindness.

What do writing and kindness have to do with one another? Why not conflate writing and prudence, or kindness and water-skiing? Is there more than just a passing connection between these two wondrous endeavors? Could it be that there’s an important place for kindness in the writer’s life and process?

In my multi-year exploration of kindness, I’ve noticed that some of the principles of living a kind life can also be applied to living the writerly life. There are skills that must be cultivated to extend kindness: learning to pause, learning to stay present and pay attention, withholding judgment, and employing curiosity, to name just a few. These same skills power a good writer. Where would we be without the capacity to wonder why, or notice details, or allow our story to unfold without judging our writing or our characters too quickly? Kindness also requires that we be patient, that we take the time necessary to achieve our desired goals. Writing? Ditto. And kindness asks us to overcome inertia and our own innate laziness to extend ourselves outside our comfort zone. Writing? Yep, that, too.

And there’s still more:

Courage

As every writer knows, writing takes courage. The writer puts herself “out there”—out where she may be criticized, misunderstood, and rejected. Out where what matters to her—whether fiction or nonfiction—is bared for all to see and judge. It makes her vulnerable...it also makes her strong.

Kindness takes courage, too. When we extend kindness, we put ourselves out there in a similar fashion. Our act of kindness may be misunderstood, mocked, or rejected. We may express ourselves clumsily. We risk judgment. Like the writer, we do it anyway—because we have to, because it’s how we can express what matters most to us. It makes us vulnerable . . . but it also makes us strong.

Honesty

While self-delusion might be a strategy for some, both the writer and the kindness practitioner need to be honest with themselves. We are far from perfect and there are areas where we need to work on ourselves and our skills. Are we strong on dialogue and weak on description? Have we gotten sloppy with grammar and lazy with word choice? Does our resolve to be kind fade when we feel threatened or awkward? Could our tendency to be defensive and thin-skinned be getting in the way of our effectiveness as writers or compassionate people? We can’t change what we won’t acknowledge, so without self-honesty we become stuck. We’re running in place, unable or unwilling to admit the painful truth that we’re inescapably imperfect.

Fortunately, there’s another common practice that will serve our best intentions.

Practice

That practice is...practice. Every serious writer knows that skill development requires practice. Your butt in the chair, your fingers on the keyboard—not just when you “feel like it,” but also when you don’t, when you’d rather be doing just about anything else. Even when we’re embarrassed by the drivel that appears on the page, we’re still improving. Recognizing our drivel helps us get past it and uncover what has been waiting: the heart of our story, the aha concept, the ideal transition to move the narrative forward. Without regular, consistent practice, we can’t mine that gold.

Kindness is the same. Knowing just the right words to say takes practice. Learning to swallow that snarky comment or clever put-down when faced with incivility takes practice (lots!). Understanding when the kindest thing to do is to speak up or maybe to stay silent requires abundant practice. But doing it, and accepting that we will sometimes fail and sometimes appear inept is all part of developing the skill.

Both writing and kindness take discipline—the more we practice them, the easier they become and the more gracefully skilled we become.

Self-Care

Sustained kindness, just like sustained writing, requires that we nourish ourselves, and that we recognize that we are not following a whim, but a long-term goal and lifestyle. With a bit of trial and error, we balance our desire to serve with our need for self-care. For one cannot sustain a kind life—or a writing life—if one cannot feed the fires within and from that glowing center share the best of who we are.

Self-kindness may mean knowing when to withdraw and replenish, or it may mean holding firmly to our boundaries; it may mean saying “yes” to an extra hour’s sleep, or “no” to temptation.

When we take care of ourselves, we have more to give others—be it through our kind actions, our creative imagination, or both.

I won’t claim that all writers are kind. Some are not. Some who are not kind would be if only they knew how—which is often just a matter of overcoming fear and paying attention. In my experience, though, most writers are both kind and generous. While some may be severely introverted, they still welcome connection with their readers and with other writers. They share their knowledge and experience, perhaps mindful of Annie Dillard’s wise advice to writers: ”…the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Personally, I have been awed by the generosity and kindness of other writers—whether in critique groups, publisher collectives, writers’ conferences, or one-on-one communications. Though each has their own goals and ambitions, they also seem driven by the question, “How can I help?”

I believe—naively, perhaps—that both writing and kindness have the power and potential to change the world. At a time when lies, strategic soundbites, and incivility often drown out our better natures, the kind writer is a vital force for ensuring humanity’s future.

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Comments
  • Patricia Robertson

    "Personally, I have been awed by the generosity and kindness of other writers" - me too!