Writers and Volunteer Work

An author and teacher I greatly admire–Mary Kay Zuravleff–puts it this way: “I don’t volunteer my writing services,” she’s said to me and at craft lectures on the business side of the writing life. “But I do give in other areas of my life.” In Zuravleff’s case, “give” is putting in mildly, as her volunteer work on the Board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation has a trickle-down effect that’s nearly immeasurable, impacting the lives of young readers nationwide.

Her point is a good one. It’s good to volunteer, but we have full right to choose in what fields and what skill set we rely on for these hours. Self-employed artists often struggle to be taken seriously when it comes to invoicing and professional rates. But “volunteering” our time, working on spec, or constantly subjecting our income to fluctuating rates can be damaging when trying to build a business (and a life!). Want to see how absurd it looks when the tables are turned? Here’s what happens when you ask non-creative professionals to work for free (the video is really worth watching, I swear!).

All of this has me thinking about how I volunteer, what I might be able to do more of, and what will have a meaningful impact. In recent years, I’ve given $25-$50 to organizations like Fishtrap, VCCA, and Camp Spring Creek. This year, at Brad’s suggestion, we decided to sponsor an 11-year-old boy at our local YMCA’s Angel Tree service opportunity. We purchased items on his list (socks and shoes) and few items that weren’t on his list (Star Wars toys!). When we dropped off the wrapped gifts yesterday, it felt so good, I walked out thinking that next year I’d like to support an entire family’s wish list. I mean…really…I could live without a few gifts and all my stocking stuffers if it meant I had the money to purchase one gift for each person in a family of five, say, in need.

Holidays aren’t the only time to volunteer, of course. Throughout the year, as most readers of The Writing Life are aware, I volunteer to maintain trails in the Pisgah National Forest and along North Carolina sections of the Appalachian Trail, by acting as a trail crew member for two organizations: NC High Peaks Trail Association and the Carolina Mountains Club. I’ve picked up trash, repaired lean-tos, fixed tread, cleared waterbars, fixed confusing trail signs, bucked and hauled fallen trees, weed-whacked blocked trails, and more…and burned calories, breathed fresh air, laughed with friends, mulled over writing ideas, and admired views while I was at it.

Here’s to the giving spirit–this month, and beyond!

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