A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Wonder Woman & the Non-Profit Sector

It is always the writer’s duty to make the world better.

— Samuel Johnson

I found this quote on the opening page to Writing for a Good Cause: The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich. This is one of a couple of books that I picked up to help me learn the ins and outs of my new job as a Communications Associate and Grant Writer for a social services non-profit.

Johnson’s quote is an incredibly idealistic statement, but one that I have always believed in one way or another. From the time that I first set my sights on becoming a novelist (something that is less of a priority now, but still a goal) I knew that I wanted to write books that changed people. Books that made them laugh and think and cry and ache inside. Books just like the ones that I would read in bed with a flashlight. Books that created an expansive feeling in my chest, as though there was a balloon in my heart that someone kept inflating a little more, a little more… Yes, I have long thought that the writer’s duty is to make the world better, whether it is by telling an important story in a novel or a news article, or recording a beautiful sensory moment in verse.

So a writer’s job is to create expressive prose and use stories to help readers build a compassionate understanding of people who lead different lives in different worlds than their own – but I have always thought about this as an artistic endeavor. A noble pursuit, but one that often leads to destitution. Plenty of people have lived as starving artists in remote cabins and cold apartment garrets in order to write their beautiful stories and heartbreaking poems – so many works which have been incredibly important to the development of human society. I’ve always admired the authors who have stuck it out under these types of circumstances – but I have to admit that I always end up asking my grandmother or my husband for a little bit more money to tide me over to the next pay check (whenever that might come). I’m not the starving artist type. I can’t write if I’m hungry – thus the need for a “real” job.

As I am reading this book, though, I suddenly find this idealistic, na├»ve sentiment – that a writer is an agent of change – being paired with a job that actually earns me a decent paycheck. The book talks about transformation through the written word as not just an artistic ideal, but as a “duty.” Like I and all my colleagues can be superheroes, wielding the written word as a mighty weapon. I’ve had enough experiences with saying the wrong thing to know that words can be very powerful – statements and stories can be agents of both positive change and painful (!) negative consequences. But I’ve finally landed a job where my words can make a positive, tangible difference in people’s lives – and I get paid. This seems a little bit miraculous (although I have to take into consideration that much of the actual work of a grand writer is somewhat tedious, so it’s not entirely perfect).

I read the quote again: “It is always the writer’s duty to make the world better.” Talk about stroking the old ego. You’re special, Lauren – you can’t work for an air conditioning company or a corporate headquarters. (Well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along…) You have a responsibility to put your words to work for the GOOD of all mankind.

Here comes the newly empowered Wonder Woman… and her inflated sense of self.

The Introduction for Barbato and Furlich’s book continues stroking my ego:

Let’s deal with an assumption that pervades most fund-raising offices. It is this: Anyone can write. The gobbledygook we all encounter in office memos every day gives the lie to those three words. Yet the notion that anyone can write, and presumably write well, persists. The personal computer, which allows us to move words, paragraphs, and sections any which way and to remove and add words with great ease, has given even more power to the idea that we are all writers… [but] it is an assumption made only outside the world of professional writing: Editors of newspapers and magazines and at book publishing houses are well aware that not everyone can write… [and that] stringing words together with an occasional period is not writing no matter how pretty it looks when it comes out of a laser printer.

In other words, Lauren, you are special. You don’t just string words together and add periods here and there for effect. You have a craft. A craft that may not pay very much when you produce fiction, but a craft that is appreciated in other sectors. A craft that will earn you respect and a paycheck, now that you've found this job, because not very many others can write as clearly and as persuasively as you can.

I don’t need to feel important for what I do, though – I need to feel that I’m good at what I do. I’m the kind of person who, if I decide to spend my time doing something, wants to be really good at it – whatever it may be. So now I have this image of myself as Wonder Woman, with several lofty long-term goals. I shared those aspirations with my boss on Friday, and with an enthusiastic smile she told me that she’s “all for it.” I don’t think she was just humoring me, either. If you’re really good at your job as a grant writer, it is possible to achieve the kinds of things I mentioned to her:

My Long-term Goals

1. Get our organization into national publications like the New York Times and Time Magazine (more publicity leads to more donations, which means that the organization can help more people).

2. Get our organization funding from wealthy, high-profile grantmakers like Oprah. Yes, I said Oprah. I’m going for the big guns.

I may not get the president of my organization all the way to Oprah’s television studio in Chicago, but I’m not going to worry about mud on my face for posting these ambitious (ridiculous?) goals, either. You’ve got to aim high to get anywhere in life. It’s kind of like Les Brown said: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” Except really, he got it backwards – you should aim for the stars, which are infinitely farther away. Hopefully if you aim for galaxies far, far away, you’ll land on the moon, which is still a pretty big accomplishment. C.S. Lewis, my absolute favorite author, similarly said, “Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

Well, Wonder Woman can fly, can’t she? So here I go, the new author-superhero, launching myself into the work of grant writing. Hopefully I’ll make it far out into space – and with any luck, my inflated ego won’t weigh me down too much.


Xiaoyan said...

Your organization is really lucky to have found you!
I have always thought having a dream and the belief that you can achieve that dream one day (whether it's from the inflated ego or not:) is a blessing. What is life without a dream or passion? I always suffer when I feel that I've lost the passion for SOMETHING in life. It is really great to see these words from you! and YES, a decent paycheck is important, really nice thing that you found both in one job!:)

Tara said...

Having worked in a publicity department for two years, I can tell you that getting ANYTHING (even a charity) in Time Magazine or The New York Times is a pretty tall order.

But if you want to read a story about a man who wrote a single letter (and consequently, changed the word, read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson sometime.) He's even better than Wonder Woman :)

Tara said...

And by "change the word," I meant "change the world." But I'm sure you knew that :)

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