The front porch and steps of the old house were painted institutional grey. A swing holding two teenaged girls hung from the beams. They swung back and forth, the beam creaking under their weight, the thump of shoes catching and then pushing them back again. The watched me walk to the door. No smiles. “Hi,” I said, a little too perky. No response. My hand found the screen door and pulled it open, lump in my throat and “oh my God what have I gotten myself into” in my heart. Today was my first class at “Attention Homes of Boulder.”
I was a writing student at Naropa University, a Buddhist inspired school, deeply rooted in the traditions of meditation, creative expression and service to others. Attention Homes was the service to others part and it was for a class on community outreach. As a student of writing, I was expected to give back what I was getting to my community. Short of writing a letter to someone, I had no idea what that meant. Still, I had come up with my pitch to teach a class in poetry at Attention Homes. And did I mention that I had no experience in teaching and that my poetry sucked?
For twelve weeks, I would come to this place and gather the teenaged girls who lived here around the dining room table and find a way to get them to write the longings of their heart. That sounds prettier on the page than the experience. It was like learning to be the teen whisperer. The girls at Attention Homes were tougher than anyone should ever have to be, and had seen and experienced more in their young lives than most of us do in a long life. They were the stats that didn’t look that great on the graph. I was met each week by bored faces who wanted to kick my ass to the curb. Then one class, we wrote about our mothers. It wasn’t intended. It was just a happy accident that caused lines of memories and longings to pour forth onto the page, because what united us was that we all had a mother. I was too clueless to realize that these tough kids missed their moms. And I had wanted to separate myself from them. They were the students over there and I was the teacher over here. The day we wrote about our moms, there was just one of us, and it was the beginning of my understanding how we are all connected by our stories.
I finished my twelve weeks with a small book: a comb bound, copied at the corner store, typed by me, book of poetry that was beautiful. Talk about self-publishing! Each of the girls got three copies and each of them talked excitedly about what they had made and who they would give it to. Give away what you are getting. I never forgot that class or those girls.
Today I woke up to an email from Michael Larsen, the director of the San Fransisco Writers Conference. He had sent two lists. The first list was about all the things you do as a writer. The second list was about how you can give it away. In the spirit of the season of giving, I am passing the list on to you. As writers we all want to be read and that’s a good thing. But as writers, we all have a lot that we can give to our communities that goes far beyond the writing or publishing of a book. May your days be merry and bright and may all of your Christmases inspire you to write. (Now you can see why I say my poetry sucks!–thankfully I write prose. ) Here is Michael’s list:
Here’s how to share your gifts during the holidays and the rest of the year. You can:
Write your own greetings cards by hand and use stamps to mail them
Write a letter to share your year
Write letters for those who can’t
Read books to those who can’t
Teach reading and writing
Write a memoir to share your life and create a legacy
Share your knowledge with a blog, interviews, podcasts, webinars, and talks
Support groups that give books to people in need
Ask libraries, literacy groups, and charities how you can help
Join a book club
Share your passion for the value of books, reading, and writing
Encourage other writers and writer’s organizations to help
Help organize events to support your goals
Give new or used books as gifts
The more you share your gifts, the greater your gift for sharing becomes. Give the best in you to others, and you will receive more than you give.
Michael Larsen, Co-Director
The 13th San Francisco Writers Conference & Open Enrollment Classes