Last month a local non-profit organization asked me to do a little ‘volunteer writing’. You know how it is – we’ve all done it, right? We’ve been writing for years – maybe decades – but because we don’t have the Pulitzer we expected by age twenty-five and can’t add ‘MFA’ to the back of our name, we consider ourselves ‘hobbyists’. Out on a lark. Playing around.
Two little 800-word biographies of a local artist and a local volunteer. What could be so hard about that? A cakewalk. Of course I said ‘yes’.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “no” to volunteering – non-profits depend on volunteers. I’m just saying “no” to volunteer writing. Ask me to be a clown, to serve meals, to read aloud – I’m there. But don’t ask me to write.
I’d heard this sentiment before (watch this video of Harlan Ellison) but I didn’t understand. And I still didn’t understand when I sailed through the first biography without a hitch. Then it was time to interview my second subject. I had my first inkling things wouldn’t sail as smoothly when – unaware that it was I who was doing him the favor – my subject arrived fifteen minutes late for our interview. A few days later, after sending him a rough draft of the article, his email reply opened with “thank you for your efforts”. My efforts?
For some reason, that bugged me. It bugged me bad.
The individual had some suggestions, which – despite having my hackles up – I was open to. Some of his suggestions added depth to the story and clarified a rambling anecdote. But the three-hundred word quote explaining his thoughts on a life well lived? Not so grateful.
Still, I made the changes and submitted both articles ahead of schedule. And waited. Not a word. From anyone. I waited five days and then sent another email. And waited. Finally, confirmation arrived that the articles had indeed been received and only needed minor editing. Oh, and by the way, thank you.
And thus ended my very brief career as a volunteer journalist.
Am I being too sensitive? Probably.
But here’s the lesson I learned. I will continue to work for a good cause. But I will not give away the very same talents I use every day to pay my rent and put food on my table.
As a writer or visual artist, how do you feel when you’re asked to give your talent away?