This is the season when we begin to think about gifts, giving, and the spirit of giving-ness. It's not the spirit embodied in Black Friday frenzies (which appear to be primarily about getting, especially on the part of the stores). It's what we like to call either the "Christmas Spirit" (to be precise) or the "holiday spirit" (to be politically correct). It's a time when we think about what we have to give.
As writers, the answer is often "a great deal." Writers have so much to give, so many writers enter into writing with an amazingly giving spirit. Perhaps that is partly because we are aware of how much other writers have given us. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, nothing under the tree was as important as the books I knew would be there. I didn't know what they'd be, but I couldn't wait to find out. Once the debris of Christmas morning had been cleared away, I'd dive in, and for the rest of the day I'd be found with my nose in a book.
So, I wondered... what would our writing be like if we thought of every piece we put out into the world as a "gift"? Please understand, I'm not talking about giving your writing away, or writing for free. Gifts can be costly, and worth the price; I'm a firm believer in writers getting paid for their work. But what we get for our work, and what we put into it, are not necessarily the same thing.
While most definitions of "gift" include the "free/without payment" aspect, one online dictionary also defines a gift as being given "as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance..." Wikipedia adds, "By extension the term gift can refer to anything that makes the other happier or less sad, especially as a favour, including forgiveness and kindness."
For many, writing is all about making life better for others. Often, it's about making people happier. Often, it's about helping people, providing assistance in various types of life situations. Whether an article is designed to help someone save money or cope with a lost loved one, that article is a "gift," aimed at making someone's world a better place.
If we think of writing as a gift, that leads us to take the natural next step, and consider the recipient. Who will receive this gift of writing? What will be the effect of our gift upon the recipient? What will it mean to that person? How will he or she benefit from the gift?
Now, at this point, if you know my editorials, you're probably expecting me to go on in this vein for another page -- and I was expecting to do the same myself. I was going to talk about the importance of identifying and understanding the recipients of our gifts (i.e., understanding our audience). Then I was going to move into yet another reason for thinking about writing as a gift, which is the fact that we are living in an era of fashionable snarkiness. Snide comments on (and in) blogs, tweets, and any other place that a person can write a comment is all the rage today. Snarkiness is perhaps the antithesis of "a gift" -- it's a socially acceptable way of saying I don't care about you, I think you're stupid, and I want to prove how much smarter and cleverer I am. Snarkiness flourishes wherever people can express themselves anonymously, so in a way it's also the antithesis of "real writing," i.e., writing over which we're proud to display our bylines. Snarkiness is free -- it doesn't cost anything to snark or to read snarky comments, but that doesn't make it a gift (and there's a reason why there are few paying markets for snark).
But that wasn't what really derailed the course of your regularly scheduled editorial. What really derailed it was coming across the New York Times "year's notable fiction, poetry and nonfiction, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review." That's 100 books selected as most significant, meaningful, worth reading, and presumably representative of our times. Cool news item, I thought, so I broke off to scan through the list.
Let me share a few phrases from this list of "notable" books -- the things that make the folks at the New York Times feel that a book is, apparently, praiseworthy and representative of our times:
Tortured embezzler ... Blighted career ... Cautionary tale ... "calamity is always close at hand" ... Guiltridden ... Traumatic ... Shadowy passages ... Hard times ... Lost and tormented ... Shattered by tragedy ... Nihilistic ... Angry and bizarre ... Ferocity ...
That's just the fiction section. I skimmed over the nonfiction, but how can one pass up "a ... curiosity about the glittering byproducts of personal pain"? (Glittering byproducts? Seriously?)
This list puts me in mind of nothing so much as the fictional promo in the movie Scrooged*:
"Acid rain. Drug addiction. International terrorism. Freeway killers. Now, more than ever. .. we must remember the true meaning of Christmas. Don't miss Charles Dickens' immortal classic, Scrooge. Your life might just depend on it."
OK, maybe it's me. Clearly there are lots of folks out there who can't wait to get their next dose of calamity, nihilism, tortured/tormented protagonists, and glittering personal pain. But I have to ask: Is this a gift? Is there a benefit here, somewhere, for the recipient? Is it making the world a better place? I'm sure that some will answer "yes" and point out that we must face darkness before we can dispel it.
But a key word there is "dispel." Dispel, not revel in. Dispel, not exploit. There is indeed a great deal of darkness in the world; we don't need more of it. Perhaps, now more than ever... we really do need to remember the true meaning of Christmas.
Which is to light a candle. To give a gift. To make life better for someone, anyone. To do something, however small, to make the world a slightly better place than it was before. As writers, we have so many opportunities to bring light into darkness. As writers, we have a special gift -- the gift of words, a gift that can change hearts, minds, and lives.
So here's my holiday wish for all my readers: May the year to come be the year that your gift make a place for you -- and makes the world a better place because of you! Write -- and light that candle!
* My second favorite Christmas movie of all time, my favorite being The Bishop's Wife.
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