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When It Comes To Your Writing Process, Is It Better to Give Than Receive?

This guest post is by Jeff Elkins. A Write Practice regular, Jeff lives in Baltimore and is the author of B-More Stories. You can follow Jeff on his blog and on Twitter (@jffelkins).
Photo by Gabriele Diwald

Photo by Gabriele Diwald

When I was a kid, my favorite part of birthdays was getting presents.  I loved ripping the crisp paper, crumbling it into a ball, and tossing it over my shoulder as I gazed at the wondrous gift before me.  I liked to hold up the revealed present for a brief moment and savor it before diving into the next.  Once present-opening time was finished, I would sit and revel in all my new stuff.

As I’ve grown older, getting gifts has become less exciting.  I’m still appreciative.  I still enjoy getting new things, but the zeal for tearing open a present to unveil hidden contents has faded.  What excites me now is seeing how other people respond to what I’ve given them.  I love giving thoughtful presents.  It gives me great joy to see someone elated by something I’ve picked out for them.

The change from enjoying getting to savoring giving brings to mind the old proverb, “It is better to give than to receive.”  I think it goes beyond just exchanges of presents, and applies directly to our writing process.

When a Comedian Moves from Getting to Giving

A few months ago, I heard comedian Michael Jr. speak about a shift that occurred in his career when he started focusing on giving to his audience instead of getting.  He explained that for most of his career as a stand-up comedian, he told jokes to get the audience to respond, to “get laughs.”  One night, right before he began his act he had a revelation.  What if instead of trying to get laughs from the audience, he gave the crowd an opportunity to laugh?

The one word change from “get” to “give” may feel like a small shift, but it had a massive impact on how Michael Jr. approached comedy.  It inspired him to take his act to places comedians don’t usually go.  Rather than booking shows for his next tour in night clubs and theaters, Michael Jr. brought the gift of laughter to the people who needed a good laugh the most, including homeless drug addicts, violent prisoners, and abused children.

How to Move Your Writing from Getting to Giving

I feel the painful tension between getting and giving in my writing.  When you’re writing to get attention, or to get followers, or to get money, or to get reviews, your work is much less satisfying and enjoyable than when you’re writing to give back to your readers.

As writers, we have an amazing power to stories can shape world views. Our arguments can change thinking.  Our words can inspire and empower or tear down and harm.  Great books have and will continue to change the world.

What if we decided to use our power as writers to benefit others?  What if we directed our words toward improving a reader’s life rather than advancing our own career?  What if we stopped writing to get stuff and instead wrote a story as a gift to someone else?

How about you? Do you approach your writing from a perspective getting or giving? How do you give with your writing?

PRACTICE

Imagine someone you know who could use an uplifting story.  Picture that person in your head.  Think through how he/she has recently struggled.  Then, spend fifteen minutes writing a story that will lift his/her spirits.  When you finish, email your story to the person with the simple statement, “I wrote this for you.”  Finally, share your story with us by posting it in the comments below.

About Jeff Elkins

Jeff is a writer and pastor. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and four kids. He is the author of the short story collection B-More Stories. You can follow Jeff at his blog or on Twitter (@jffelkins).

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  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

    This is an interesting topic. I think that part of the time, I write just to get something out of the writing for myself. On the other hand, I write parts of my story to help others or open their eyes to things they never thought of.

    I might have to try an approach attempts to fully just give to the reader.

  • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

    Jen,

    Things are hard for you at the moment, but I know you’ll be able to pull through. You’re one of the strongest people I know. You are an amazing woman, a terrific friend, and I’m absolutely delighted you are in my life.

    You can’t see the sun when it rains, but you know it’s there. I hope we can both be like the sun, who don’t always see each other, but who are always there for each other. Life is full of beautiful things: soft sunsets, painted rainbows,
    delicate blossoms, love & laughter, quiet moments, and a wonderful someone,
    like you.

    Thank you for being so wonderful, and thank you for being in my world. It’s a thousand times better since you walked into it.

    Forever, and always,

    -Rob

    • eva rose

      Love the line “you can’t see the sun when it rains but you know it’s there”. and “Thank you for being in my world.” Thanks for sharing this.

      • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

        Thank you for your appreciation. I think she’ll like it, too. :D

    • Margaret Terry

      You could send this letter to so many people! Beautiful. Tender. Authentic. Short and oh so sweet. Last line made me tear up…

      • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

        I could, but it is intended for the love of my life. My lady. I don’t know what I did to deserve her, but when, or if I ever figure it out, you can bet I’ll be doing it again. :) She’s epically special.

  • Missaralee

    I really like the idea of picturing someone to write the story for as a gift. This story for my friend is taking way longer than fifteen to finish, but here is the beginning.
    ——–
    In the autumn woods a toad sat slumbering on a log. She had filled herself to the brim with whatever toads liked to nosh and now digested it all in the peace and warmth of midday. She heard the crackle of smaller animals moving through the leaves that had found an early bed on the cool earth of the forest floor. She heard the call of the finches looking for the last summer seeds. She felt the damp settling in from the approaching storm. She was well contented in her forest home. She did not hear the woods fall silent. She did not see the shadow fall across her log. She did not smell the spearmint gum on the breath of the small child standing with net raised high behind her. She only felt the mesh settle around her and force her down when she leapt reflexively away from the large shadow and its minty breath.
    “Oh please, oh please” she said to the behemoth looming over her. “Please let me go. I have eaten my fill and have now been slumbering, please do not take away the peace and warmth of my autumn day.”
    “Grant me a wish as toads are said to do” said the girl to our toad.
    “I have no wishes to grant, none at all today” said our toad.
    “You must give me something, for I have looked far and wide, high and low in these woods for a present to bring my mum and I have nothing to take back to her. I have searched from breakfast to noon and from midday hunger ’til now and still I have nothing.”
    “You might bring her a golden autumn leaf” said our toad.
    “She already has so many leaves and she despises them so thoroughly that she pays brother in ginger snaps and milk tea to collect them and take them away.”
    “Why not give her the pebbles that sparkle by the waterside?”
    “Sparkling rocks she already has. She keeps them close to her on her finger and on her ears. My uncles give her more and ever more of them in boxes and bags.”
    “Does she like the rough and musky scent of wood? I will share with you a strip of bark from my log. It is a delight to sit upon and digest the morning meals.”
    “Oh no, she hates trees and had all the best climbing and hiding trees cut from our yard.”
    “Cut down! My goodness.” Our toad became very nervous as she began to suspect there was no good thing that could be given to buy her freedom. “Does your mum have any warmth at all? Does she like the slick coolness of mud?”
    “She would scrub my finger nails with the potato brush ’til they were raw if I brought her a mud pie!”
    “Does she treasure the sight of autumn flowers? The reds are still blooming in the gully.”
    “Flowers make her sneeze and I am not to get my boots muddy wandering around in gullies.”
    “Apples?”
    “She’s diabetic.”
    “Wild peas?”
    “She won’t touch legumes because of the phytoestrogens.”
    “Sunflower seeds? There is a rather nice stand of them in the meadow.”
    “She says they’re too high in Omega-6 fatty acids.”
    Now our toad did not know what any of these strange words meant, she only knew the sweetness of pond grass, the crunch of crickets and the delicate tang of moths. She knew the bliss of mud burrowing and the joyful racket of multi-coloured and splendid leaf litter.
    “Why does your mum demand a present” our toad finally asked the girl.
    “She cries all day and throws vases at the squirrels in the yard. She hasn’t let me climb up into her lap since the first uncle James stopped visiting her, and she only leaves the house to go out for drinks with uncle James the third.”
    “Then your wish is to make her happy” asked our toad.
    “Yes” said the girl, her gigantic eyes brimming with a flood of tears.
    “And you wish for her to hold you again in her lap?”
    “I want my mummy back” cried the little girl, sitting her bottom, white frilly skirts and all, onto the mossy, damp bark of our toad’s log.
    “You poor girl. Here now, let me out of this net and I will surely grant your wish.”
    “Really?” The girl sniffled and wiped her nose across her frilly sleeve.
    “Yes of course, I do have one wish left for one who really needs it.”
    “All right” said the girl. She lifted the net off of our captive toad and expected the little animal to leap away into the safety of the leaf litter. Instead, our toad sat still on the log and looked up at the girl and the gargantuan tears pouring from her eyes. Afraid of drowning though she was, our toad crawled up in the girl’s lap and sang a toad song of amazing beauty and peace. Of course, all the little girl heard was a gentle croaking and a few clicks and wet sounds, but she was soothed none the less.
    “Now, dearest human child” said our toad. “I will show you how to bring happiness back into your home. Take off your shoes and let your toes sink into the cool mud.” The little girl did as she was told. “Do you smell the musk of the tree and the tang of the earth?” our toad asked her.
    “Yes, I smell it” the girl said, sniffing the air.
    “Do you feel the softness of the mud and how it sucks at the bottoms of your feet?”
    “Yes” giggled the girl who had never been so dirty before. “Yes, it’s squishy and…” blurp went the mud between her toes, “it makes funny noises!”
    “Do you hear the sound of tiny animals crawling through the leaves that have bedded too early?”
    “Oh yes! What are they?” asked the girl.
    “They are voles and shrews and sweet little snakes” said our toad.
    “Snakes” cried the girl, horrified. She pulled her feet out of the mud and folded her legs under her on the log.
    “No child, do not be worried by the snakes. They are sweet, you will see.” Our toad croaked and from the litter slithered a snake no bigger around than a pencil. Her back was decorated in green and yellow stripes and her tummy was all yellow and smooth. Her tiny pink tongue tasted the air.
    “Sssalut, Toad” hissed the snake. “Would you introdusss usss to your friend?”
    “Dear, this is Snake. Darling Snake, this is a human girl. Isn’t she large?” Our toad croaked out that last part, wishing not to hurt the girl’s feelings.
    “A pleassssure” hissed Snake. Snake wound her way up the log and into the girl’s lap. The girl’s eyes grew wide, but to her credit she didn’t cry out or fuss. She sat still and let Snake inspect her.
    “May I, may I touch your back?” asked the girl, gathering her bravery.

    • eva rose

      I’m a bit lost in this story but assume the purpose is to show that simple everyday things have been lost in appreciation. The young girl wants affection so much she is willing to touch a snake. I’d be interested to read how the story plays out. Thanks for sharing.

    • catmorrell

      Oh my gosh, I am totally hooked. What a beautiful fairy tale. My granddaughter loves swamps and the critters in them. So naturally I pictured a blond little girl. Luckily, her brother and both parents go from hunting with her. They catch and release and take lots of pictures. I can’t wait to read the rest. I will have to friend you, so I can find it all in one place when you are finished.

  • eva rose

    A song on the radio gave me the words,”Suddenly it happened, I lost every dime, but I’m richer by far with a satisfied mind.”
    Attempting to define a satisfied mind, I found these clues.
    A friend had a nice apartment, good food, his flute and hiked weekly in the mountains. He said, “I have everything I need; I am content.”
    Watching children play, I learned to love the moment. There is no clock watching or worry about tomorrow. They live in the present.
    In the summary of a young man’s brief life, his family asked only this, “Love where YOU are, love what you’re doing and share it with those around you.”
    A weary executive sought refuge by fly fishing in the high mountains. Silence and nature’s beauty guided his return to a balanced mind.
    One school teacher recognized the needs of a poor student with raggy jeans and split shoes. She presented him with a “donation” of an entirely new outfit and his joy brought a satisfied mind.
    When a young veteran of the war returned home, he offered the comment, “Life is precious and fragile. Taking it for granted just seems baffling.”
    A cancer patient made the simple observation, “Look at something beautiful every day. It’s good for your soul.”
    When the road ahead is shorter than the road behind, good health and the love of family and friends are gifts I treasure.
    I have everything I need.

    • eva rose

      This was part of a letter to a friend who asked, “How do you pull yourself up on a bad day?” It has lost some meaning on the shortened version.

  • LadyJevonnahEllison

    Especially enjoyed this article! I love to give too. It gives me so much joy to see someone’s expression when they receive a gift from the heart. Love the “I wrote this for you.”

  • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

    What a great practice idea, I need to give that some thought! I’ve wrestled with the tension of using words to get or give. I want to give and use words to inspire and encourage, but I also need to make a paycheck. I’m trying to figure out what that balance looks like and how the attitude of giving can dominate the attitude of getting.

  • venkyiyer58

    I like the concept. I write, without any definite reason why. But at the back of my mind is the dream of becoming a household name, and I am sure every other writer does have that little niggling wish. I am not sure it can be willed away, but can certainly be subdued enough not to affect your writing. Writing to give.

  • Margaret Terry

    Thanks for this Jeff! It’s an exercise near and dear to my heart as when a friend of mine was losing her life to cancer, I didn’t know what to do for her so I gave her pieces of my life, one letter at a time. The letters became a book after she died (called Dear Deb, pub. by Thomas Nelson) and the biggest surprise is how the gifts keep on coming in the way of letters people write to me!

    Here’s my practice for a parent who needs to let go this week:

    Twenty two years ago, as I watched my first born son’s school bus pull away from my street, I felt like I had fallen overboard in a tsunami. “He’s only five. He’s only five. He’s way too little for the big bus!” I argued with my sane self as
    my crazy self flew back into the house to grab my car keys. I had been crazed for weeks thinking about his first day of kindergarten and had practiced being confident and brave by looking in the mirror and repeating “have a great first day, honey” until I could say it with a June Cleaver smile. The practicing worked. For a while. I was fine when I kissed the top of his head and wished him a great first day at school. I was fine when I stood on the top step of the bus to make sure he found a seat, and was even fine when I chatted up the bus driver to make sure she was wide awake and responsible.

    It was the window that did me in. As the bus roared into first gear and began to roll away, my son’s teeny, tiny, too small for school face looked at me out the window and mouthed “bye mama”. That’s when I flew back to the house, jumped in my car and drove like a maniac to his school. I beat the bus and waited in the lot to make sure he made it to the front door. To make sure he didn’t need me. To make sure I could last until noon when the bus would bring him home…

    • Carmen

      Those letters to your friend sound like a great idea, I am sure each one was treasured. And your story about the parent was very sweet. How very brave that mother is to hold it all together and clever to devise a way to show her son she was there if she needed him.

      • Margaret Terry

        thx, Carmen! I received the greatest gift in the writing as I got to look into the window of my past each day I wrote to her…

  • Carmen

    This is to a dear friend of mine who has just lost her father. I can only hope to provide her with some kind of support as she goes through what I can only imagine.

    I know it hurts to look at him now. I know you feel so much. I know that the thoughts in your head as you take in what is around you make no sense of the emotions tearing through you. But think of what he saw when he looked at you.

    A little girl with so much love in her eyes. So quick to smile and so eager to put a smile on others. So wanting to please. A beautiful girl with a good heart, forever a child in his eyes. A potty mouth who swore in both languages, spoke his one clumsily and spat out the intonations. His girl. He had twenty one years of looking at you like that. And he would watch you as you began to dress up and wonder, watch you as you fell in love and marvel. Watch his girl lead a life so different from his own and brim with quiet pride.

    When fathers look at their children they see hope. They see dreams and a future possible that is not dark but light. They get an optimism they do not even remember having themselves.

    I know at the end, he would have looked at you with that same wonder and I know that your love would have given him greater comfort than either of us can imagine. Holding his baby girls hand would have made all the pain go away.

    I don’t know why we waste so much time on the wrong things in life, it is a mistake we all make.

    I’m so sorry your Daddy has gone.

    • Margaret Terry

      This is beautiful, Carmen. I loved how you took the perspective of your friend’s father to show her what he saw in her and the gifts she gave him. It’s a grace filled testimony to both of them. Well done.

  • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

    This is for one of my best friends –

    The first time I saw you you had a toddler stuck to one leg and a smile on your face. I knew in that moment you were a kindred spirit and you would be my friend. I don’t know how I knew. My head was still spinning from a turbulent flight and landing smack dab in the middle of know-where wild west country. But I knew.

    And I was right. Six years later and you’re still my kindred spirit and friend. Just like craggy mountain meets babbling brook, pounding wave meets sugary sand, exultant mockingbird meets rich silence, you and I create an unexpected
    harmony.

    It’s good to have a hand to hold in the darkness, whether literal or figurative. Another heart holds our secrets best when they are tied together in love. Not that it’s always been sandy beaches and swelling music. Often it’s been tears and sadness, hopes and dreams, the hard work of parenting and loving, filling our moments and words.

    But it’s all been beautiful and never alone, because he’s always been with us. The One who made the mountains and brooks and birds and our hearts. Which I suspect is where the harmony comes from. In the sweetness of his love he’s written the music of our friendship, knowing that for this hard journey we would need a friend.

    • Margaret Terry

      Great first line, Beck – a wonderful picture. Love how you placed the yin and yang of their personalities using nature. Great job!

  • Bob DeSpy former Spycacher

    Believe it or not, deep inside I know how you feel. And always has been. Your concern and care for me is the biggest indication of your love, endless patience and loyalty. Is not that I don’t appreciate your interest in my health, or that I don’t love you, it is only that the seizure, not only has shaken my heart, but also rattled my life. All of a sudden, my body is manifesting its decline and isn’t coping with me. Now I know. But I won’t have it. We still have many things we want to do, and I want to, but my heart cannot take it anymore. I don’t want to accept. I’m fighting with myself. I hate my body no longer wants to follow. It makes me angry not to be in charge. It’s not like earlier; I felt immortal and I did as I please. I was
    arrogant, I know. It makes me feel helpless, failed, and untrustworthy. I don’t
    know how else to fight against the eruptions of bitterness and discontent but
    to show wild annoyance. It gave me a warning. I ought to slow down. I have to
    adapt to a new life and leave the stress behind. Forgive me. It’s hard time,
    the adapting. I love you.

  • aworthy

    Today was going to be THE DAY. Today was the day Tani was determined to take charge of her life for good and make it incredibly better. Better than what she had experienced for the past six months. Could she do it, really do it this time? Could she actually walk away from all the negativism and procrastination? She didn’t know but she was going to give it all she had to try. Squaring her shoulders, first she dropped her son off at preschool then she came home and began to clear out an area to serve as HER space . She threw out everything that reminded her of previous failed attempts. Closing the lid on the trash can after her last trip, she dusted her hands to declare good riddance. Then she marched back to the house, showered, changed and put on her best makeup. With a last look in the mirror, she flipped her hair and walked to HER space and sat down at the desk. Pulling an empty pad to her she began to write:
    Dear Tani,
    You are a phenomenal woman and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You are smart, creative, breathtakingly beautiful, (here she rewarded herself with a big smile) and a terrific Mom. The world is an increasingly better place because you are in it. Today is one of the best days ever for you to appreciate yourself and command the respect and appreciation of others. And even though some may not appreciate you to your fullest, you are STILL worth it. Now because you are who you are, looking good and feeling good go out and treat yourself to a fantastic day.
    Love Tani.
    And she did.