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Volunteer, Give to Free Ideas

What happens when you volunteer? Do you feel enlivened? Do you get when you give, whether you intend to or not? More specifically, do ideas come unbidden when you donate your time and talent?

I asked the last question on social media recently. One person reacted angrily. I guess he assumed I’d never volunteered or had only selfish reasons for doing so. In truth, I’ve volunteered a lot over many years. Two of my paid office positions came from volunteering. As part of both jobs, I supervised volunteers and interns—work I loved. A few years ago, I volunteered to organize other volunteers. To prepare, I read a stack of studies and managerial how-tos.

There are many reasons people give their time. Pure altruism isn’t one I’ve encountered, at least among spiritually mature souls. They know that however selfless their expressed motivations, professional (skills and contacts) and health (physical, mental, and social) benefits accrue from their offering free aid to people and the planet. Some of what volunteers receive can be measured—and has been.

Their saintliness and co-creativity, their net giving, are for a higher force to quantify.

More intriguing in this realm—and what I was trying to uncover on social media—is the mysterious birth of ideas from volunteering. Joining others to solve a problem, when there is no promise of monetary reward, can set off light bulbs. Some of them brighten the lives of individuals or populations in need; others shed light on our own creative pursuits, including writing. The dark pressure of competition lifts to release thought. New programs, new artworks emerge.

We leave behind the stingy ego to cycle between giving and receiving.

We become “otherish,” a term Adam Grant introduces in his book Give & Take, if not altruistic. The more people give, the more they produce, he contends. When well developed and given with joy, their gifts generate positive change.

Givers Who Got—Ideas

Take Robert Egger, who once ran a nightclub. One night in 1989, he reluctantly boarded a van to help feed homeless people on the streets of the nation’s capital. He saw inefficiencies, dreamed up improvements, and started a food-recovery operation that morphed into DC Central Kitchen, a number of other programs, and a career as a writer and speaker. Twenty-five years later, he started LA Kitchen.

In The Gift, now a classic, Lewis Hyde tells the story of Walt Whitman, who found inspiration by nursing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. By transcribing into letters and transforming into poetry the experiences of wounded and dying servicemen, he used his genius for healing. He thrived, creatively and psychologically, while collaborating with others to alleviate suffering. Though he later returned to nature to find his muse, he spent his happiest moments in the wards, engaging the edginess of life—gratis.

Giving—to nature too—is intrinsic to our creative health, corporately and individually. The circular miracle of gifts given and ideas received happens everyday. Mick Ebeling, winner of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, shares his story in Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done. Read Bill Shore’s The Cathedral Within for more examples of giving through meaningful work.

Advice for Volunteers

  • Just as you might start exploring art by coloring with your children or nature by walking to work through a park, begin volunteering by performing simple acts of kindness. Do something for someone you know, then, for someone you don’t know, and, finally, for someone out of your comfort range.
  • Decide what you can give. To whom do you want to give—people, animals, or plants? How much time do you have? Adam Grant recommends two hours, “chunked,” one day each week. Where do you want to volunteer? Locally or farther away?
  • Make certain you choose a place that has a formal volunteer program and requires the skills you want to offer. Be sure it schedules opportunities for learning and socializing and respects volunteers’ time and input. Ask around, as you would about a prospective employer.
  • To start, pick an institution whose mandate has nothing to do with your day job. Experiment. Learn new skills. Later, you can do pro bono work for an organization in your field. Caution: Will your volunteering negatively affect the job or freelance market in your profession? If so, will you be giving? Also, you may want to avoid pro bono positions if you’re in your prime working years. You may find people question why you’re available or undervalue your contributions. Although interning may lead to employment when you’re young, volunteering rarely results in paid work when you’re older, according to sources no less prominent than Richard Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute?
  • Be wary of those on the take: Keep your boundaries. Break down your barriers. Listen. Hold your opinions lightly. Practice empathy.
  • Stay only if you enjoy it. Gage when you’ve given all you can. You won’t be able to give, and others won’t receive, if you work out of duty. You want to feel energized, not sapped. Ideas need to escape.
  • Try volunteering virtually—across the world!
  • In keeping with my last post on arts in development, let me suggest Ten Thousand Villages. Stores across the United States depend on volunteers. You’ll learn a lot about fair trade.

Here’s a quote to ponder:

The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. . . . Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrifaction, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up.’

(Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World [New York: Vintage Books, 2007], 189)

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What do you feel driven to give? Who will benefit? Does volunteering free ideas? Tell us quickly, before the sheer rush of creativity drives us from the subject of writer’s block forever . . .

And I run out of time to wish you a happy Volunteer Appreciation Month!

Still Blocked? Embrace Nature

Sometimes practicing an art indoors just isn’t enough to unblock your writing. You have to take your drawing, your singing—your mind—outdoors. Imitate branches blowing in the breeze till you dance yourself to a sane standstill. Defer to the air. Put aside the pad and pencil, the poem notes on the “comely beetle, fair of feet.” Defer to the ladybug. Capture nothing. Let your creativity, your intellect meld slowly, higher into nature. Become the wind, the tree, the insect. Find your relative nothingness. Marvel wordlessly in place, or gently walking.

Embrace nature. Cleanse your thoughts of word cholesterol. Unblock, simply.

Easier said than done, especially when you live downtown and labor in a drywall square before an un-nature-al machine. Perhaps you gave up your car years ago and cannot meet hiking clubs at trailheads miles away. Or you sensibly fear strolling alone and spirit-full through the woods. Maybe your neighbors have claimed all nearby urban garden plots five years out. You may dislike zoos and have limited space for houseplants. You’re definitely past it for playgrounds, green or otherwise.

What to do? How to engage nature’s curative silence?

Try as I might, I can’t come up with much of a method this time. No one can jam nature onto worksheets. It’s where it should be—beyond our ken. In its time, its way, it will knock words from the brains it gave us. Separate the good ones from the bad, with or without aid from the arts. We only have to make ourselves available. Outside.

But we can push it … just a bit.

Whether you set out with an easel, a songbook, or not, try some of the following activities to quiet yourself. Pick one from each category. They’re meant for the apartment-dwelling adult with access to a city park, if not a forest. They’re meditative alternatives to the family-oriented, more involved suggestions in the back of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, which inspired my interview with Robert Zarr.

Earth

  • Pick up a rock. Who lives underneath? Replace it thoughtfully.
  • What kind of rock did you pick up? Are there others like it around you?
  • What does the rock smell like? The soil coating it?
  • Go out late on a clear night. Can you find Venus?
  • Go out midday. What kind of clouds do you see?
  • Which way is the breeze blowing? Is it friendly or frightening?
  • Any precipitation? Take off your hood. How does it feel or taste?
  • If your park features a creek, skip a stone. Avoid braining the fish!
  • How does the light play under the trees or your legs, crossed on a park bench?
  • Can you find a mushroom, another fungus, lichen, or a yellow slime mold?

Plants

  • Pick a tree. Make it your favorite. Sit beneath it at different times. Look up.
  • Play with a stick, as you see children do. Who’s looking?
  • Visit a tree you planted as a tiny tot or testy teenager. How it has grown!
  • Identify trees by their bark or leaves. App away or bring a guide!
  • How many colors and shades can you find on blossoming trees come spring?
  • How many colors can you see in the leaf duff under your feet, summer and fall?
  • Feel moss. Which side of the tree is it growing on?
  • In midsummer, pick a wild onion, one standing tall apart from dogs. Taste it.
  • Find one wildflower, one “weed,” one ornamental, and one invasive species.
  • Who’s pollinating the flowers around you? Bees? Butterflies? Beetles?

Animals

  • Look up at the trees. Count nests in the winter. Find burrows in the ground.
  • Go out early. Listen for birds. Who’s making the music?
  • Find a feather. Look at its amazing structure. Who wore it?
  • Watch a squirrel bury nuts or find a stash. What a unique form of intelligence!
  • If two squirrels are chasing each other, ask yourself why. Wait for an answer.
  • Do you see animal tracks? A raccoon’s? Who else has been about?
  • Where do garden spiders build their webs? Is an owner just out of view?
  • What lives in the cracks in the pavement? How many anthills can you find?
  • Who lands on the back of your hand? How does it feel or look?
  • At the end of summer, listen for katydids and crickets. Which is which?

After you fool around a while, sit or lie down on the ground, in the dirt. After all, copywriting and nature are messy processes.

Wait. Listen. Let time pass. Why ever not? Find yourself under nature’s spell. Embrace it.

Then, go inside. Sit before your computer. Touch the keys. Make music with them. You’ll be amazed at your new verbal powers, your hidden “nature.”

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Add an outdoor activity below or on Twitter. You’ll often find us under #environment.

And, yes, scientists have documented nature’s positive effects on grownups’ health. That’s subject matter for a future post.

Writer’s Block? Practice Arts

We all suffer from publish-or-perish these days. We’re often anxious, traumatized, blocked. We can’t write a word and for good reason: There are millions of blogs for billions of readers. Posts, e-books, white papers, and barely edited, barely professional popup journals pop up overnight, full of stuff. Maybe, we think, reading just one more thing will relax us enough to write just one more thing to add to the noise. We sit nervously in front of our laptops. Avalanches of paper magazines, newspapers, and reports can’t smother smartphones that croak, bark, or boing until we read messages from who knows whom thousands of miles away. Every onslaught of words requires at least passing attention—doesn’t it? We respond. Again, we compete for milliseconds of attention and talk, text, or tweet past each other, not with each other. We’re angry. We can’t find our notes; we’ve lost our train of thought. The blank screen remains blank. A Great White Nothing shines in front of our eyes.

Forget all the colorful books that tempt us into the next room!

Everyday expository writing is like Edwardian service for words. It’s hard work, nothing pretty. It’s no place for verses in fancy frills. Although press releases—the chauffeurs—have to prance and strut, well-presented pages in butlers’ blacks and whites satisfy their masters most often. We, the employers of words, want the assignment done, not great art.

But in the commotion, while blocked, we confuse passable, even creative copywriting or academic writing with artistic writing. After all, when we read poetry and fiction, we encounter writing as art. Writing, we know, can be no less art than “art,” music, dance, and drama.

So we become more fearful. Nothing we type sounds good enough or makes sense. We need a solution—and fast.

Solution to Writer’s Block

Could drawing a picture on Saturday help us put words to work come Monday? Could practicing a long-neglected art for no more than an hour once a week loosen our fingertips?  I think so, and I’ve developed an arts discipline, my own arts-in-health or healing program, that helps me far more than reaching for potato chips—or my smartphone. It may unblock you, too. You may also find your self, or selves, embarking on an internal, revealing adventure that will cost little or no money.  You won’t even have to buy an e-book!

Just read on …

First, this is about doing, or practicing, the arts. It’s not about consuming them. So, no, you may not go to that lecture on Easter egg painting in—I dunno—Revolutionary War Antarctica.  Much as you may find inspiration in arts and cultural programming, right now, it’s a distraction, a means of procrastination. This is not an intellectual, cognitive pursuit. Cogitate, watch, read, and you’ll veg. You can’t unblock vegged in place.

Second, get rid of expectations. We ain’t talkin’ high art. You might stink at it. This is not about instant fame, fast cash, or even sharing. Do you exercise to become a pro? Pray to become a saint? I hope not. Can we all get our poetry published in The New Yorker? Compose a hit song?  Sadly, no. But we can rid ourselves of writer’s block (which even the famous endure). If, along the way, we discover some truth about ourselves, have some fun, well, jolly. Those are definitely secondary aims of the method herein.

Third, what I’m proposing isn’t therapy. I’m not an art therapist, dance therapist, drama therapist, poetry therapist, culinary arts therapist (a new one to be sure), or expressive arts therapist. Our arts histories and feelings are important, no doubt. A blocked sculptor, a blocked chef could live within you. But right now, we want to scrape only the tops of our psyches—alone. We have writing assignments to do!

So what is the discipline?  How do you start?

Practice Arts

Develop your own curriculum. Which arts appeal to your true self, dare I say, the child within?  List them. I chose drawing, voice/singing, movement/dance, and poetry. Devote up to one hour a day, one day a week to each one. If you pass into the zone, and the hours fly, that’s grand. But don’t pay for a class. Odds are, the how-tos will block you even more.

Instead, make a pile (not an avalanche) to stand for each art you’ve chosen. Fill them with colored pencils or DVDs from your previous attempts to follow your inner Renoir or Barishnikov. Then put them in order, according to the schedule you’ve developed. You can move them around if, say, dance day interferes too much with visits to the gym. Consider designing tent cards for your stacks. If you have a large house, devote a corner or room to each art.

Now for the worksheets …  Get ready to loosen …

On each of three sheets, list your arts and give yourself no more than three lines to write on. There’s no time to waste in unblocking your work-for-hire writing—and exploring long-lost or never-explored arts. Later, you can write more in your journal. Now, you need to get dirty, make noise, bump into furniture, do weird things with words.  Oh, never mind …

Call the first sheet First Steps. For each art, scribble down no more than two activities that excite you. No to-do lists here! We’re interested in process, not goals—except for removing writer’s block. Here are two examples from my First Steps worksheet:

Drawing—Play around with different drawing materials by making abstract designs on different papers. Make simple mandalas.

Voice/Singing—Practice how to breathe from the diaphragm. Do simple voice exercises with a CD.

After a week of “classes,” label a second sheet Interrelatedness. Have you noticed any relationships between the arts you’ve chosen? Here is one example from my Interrelatedness worksheet:

Voice/Singing and Movement/Dance and Poetry—There are many forms of breathing. Breathing for singing differs from breathing for yoga. Yoga breathing and Pilates breathing are not the same. Shallow, strained breathing results in poor singing, poor speaking, poor movement, poor dance. Appropriate breathing improves them. Singing and movement elevate mood, inspire thought. Better thinking leads to better copywriting, better poetry.

At the end of the second week, when feeling less blocked—maybe even inspired—take out a third piece of paper and title it Revelations. What have you learned about the arts you’ve chosen? Have they revealed a new direction you’d like to take in your writing, in life? Here are several things I realized:

  • An arts habit fills me with gratitude and quiet joy.
  • Dabbling in the arts, if not excelling in them, is good for my mood and work, including writing.
  • If you promote the arts, as I do, you need to practice them.
  • “Doing,” not just “consuming,” the arts is a necessity. Like exercise and nutrition, the arts are intrinsic to good health.
  • Practicing a few arts regularly can reveal new directions in work and life. It can help you prioritize.

When you’ve completed the process once, start again with a second-steps worksheet. Quick, before you get stuck perfecting the first steps!  Complete the cycle at least twice over a couple of months. How many writing assignments have you finished? Have they come more easily since you started having fun with the arts? Do you prefer one of the arts you’ve chosen? Does one unblock you better than another? Do you want to make one of them into a hobby?

As for me, I plan to continue exploring all four of “my” arts. They and spending time in nature, which I’ll explore in subsequent posts, have helped me hone my calling.

Now … you’ll excuse me as I dance over to my phone, which is singing Pavaroti under my latest mandala and and first poem in sestina. Wow! A new customer wants me to write a brochure. She wants something like the one I wrote for her competitor. The copy flowed really well. Hmm …  Wonder why?