It's traditional, at this time of year, to write an article about the importance of "giving thanks." If you searched the web or browsed the blogosphere about now, you'd probably find an endless array of articles explaining why it is so important to be thankful for what we have -- and to recognize and give thanks for the many things we normally take for granted. I've written such pieces myself, often.
I've written them because I'm a firm believer in the importance of gratitude. I've seen the contrast between people who recognize when they are well off, when they are blessed, when they have reason to be thankful for the smallest things in life -- and people for whom nothing in life is ever good enough. You probably know that other sort of person too -- the fault-finder, the nay-sayer, the drama queen (or king) who can't wait to regale everyone with tales of the latest disaster in his or her life. I believe one reason it's so important to be thankful is simply people who don't know how to be thankful don't know how to be happy.
However, there's another side to "thanks-giving" that isn't talked about so often: The issue not of giving thanks, but of receiving them. It stands to reason that if we have something to be thankful for, we probably have someone to be thankful to. And while reams have been written about the importance of thanking others, very little has been said, it seems to me, about the importance of being the sort of person who deserves to be thanked.
Yet this is an area in which writers are uniquely qualified. Writers are blessed with endless opportunities to bless others. The work of a writer isn't simply to put words on a page. It is to aid, to support, to encourage, to instruct, to inform, to entertain, to guide, to inspire, to uplift. Writers touch lives. Writers transform lives. Writers change the world.
In fact, when I decided to Google that thought, I found so many examples that it's impossible to list them here. History is filled with writers who used the power of words to call attention to injustice, abuse, and danger -- and whose words have been instruments of immense social change. Think of Charles Dickens on the workhouses, Mary Wollstonecroft on the right of women to be educated, Harriet Beecher Stowe on slavery, Rachel Carson on the environment... and the list goes on and on. When one starts to enumerate the social changes that have taken place as a direct result of powerful prose, one starts to realize that many of the blessings we take for granted today really are "thanks" to a writer.
The amazing thing about the written word is how many lives it can touch. A single article can reach thousands of readers. Nor does a work have to be a monumental tome of earth-shaking significance to make a difference. It can be as simple as a story that makes someone laugh, a poem that makes someone cry. Sometimes, we change the world simply by enabling others to see, through our words, a part of the world that they would never otherwise see, whether it's the inner city or outer Mongolia.
Another amazing thing about the written word is the infinite variety of issues, subjects, and people it can address. Somewhere out there right now, someone is writing about how to master a complex computer system. Someone else is writing about how to raise goats. Both of those pieces will give someone, somewhere, a reason to be thankful. Perhaps an even more amazing thing is that we will probably never know that someone, or hear their thanks. Writing is the business of changing the world for total strangers, of planting a crop whose harvest of thanksgiving we will actually never reap.
Today, our words can travel farther and faster than ever before. However, it seems to me that today, it is also very easy for a writer to get lost. It's so easy to get caught up in our blogs, our Facebook pages, our Twitter feeds. And for those of us who resist the mire of social media, we're told, repeatedly, that we simply must jump in. We must blog, have a Facebook page, join LinkedIn and MySpace and Tumblr, build a following on Twitter -- even if we have nothing better to Tweet than "Hey guys just caught the latest episode of..." (Seriously, I was just browsing some writers' Twitter feeds, and on some, that was as good as it got.) We're told that "writing" is really all about "promoting," about building a following and a platform and a brand.
Perhaps this is true, though, amazingly enough, writers have managed to change the world in the past without the help of Facebook, and I suspect will continue to do so in the future. Where I fear this leads us, however, is into never-ending demands upon our time that result in a product for which no one, including ourselves, has any reason whatever to be thankful for. I suspect this is why I have such a dim view of SEO writing, which is, basically, the business of writing for robots. Hundreds of writers today spend thousands of hours cranking out thousands of carefully crafted words that aren't even meant to be read by another human being! Besides being the equivalent of a workhouse for writers, this is surely the ultimate "thankless task."
I'm certainly not saying that every writer needs to strive to be another Dickens, or Stowe, or Thoreau. However, in this season of giving thanks, I think it might be wise to take a moment to ask whether we are giving other people a reason to thank us. Am I investing my time and energy into something that has the potential to make someone's day? If not, does it at least have the potential to make my day? If it isn't even doing that, why am I doing it?
The root of writing, for most of us, was most likely the desire to be heard. The heart of writing is learning how to give readers a reason to listen. When we achieve that, we can be certain that somewhere out there, someone is giving thanks.
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