A Course in Kindness

I recently crossed into another world, one in which I found a better thing to do than write. I was quietly surprised to find this place. It was almost like finding a door in your house that you never noticed, and opening it to find a new room, with a window from which what you thought surrounded you now appears to be different.

What brought me to this world was an answer to a question that many have asked: what is the best thing to do with myself, right now and into the near future?

Years ago I had my head hooked into a distant, utopian future in which I had attained a state of grace that I ascribed to my favorite science fiction writers, all of whom seemed to have

  1. the ability to come up with a wonderful idea for a story. This is ability is not shared by everyone. Though I got ideas for stories any time I wanted them by letting my mind wander, I discovered that most people don’t get ideas for anything, and thus, they depend rather heavily on those ideas that are packaged in consumer items. How surprised I was when my college professors dismissed the science fiction and fantasy stories I read in my adolescence as hackwork and junk culture, even if, in our brave, new 21st century, the cheesy space opera that I found fun but trite lives on as Star Wars, the greatest money-making consumer art work of all time, and the comic books that my parents wouldn’t let me read are now earning almost as much as films.
  2. the opportunity to do whatever they must to write their stories. That meant, for me, not long hours at a typewriter as much as an open, adventuresome attitude that took in the strangeness, scariness, beauty or hidden truth in the world, so that my prose would have an authenticity that I associated with the American realists, who embraced the syllogism that nothing was worth writing about until you lived it, and that what you hadn’t lived was not only not worth writing about, but impossibly to write about honestly and thus, wouldn’t sell to the avuncular editors who inhabited seedy little offices in New York, Chicago and Boston and thus, experienced a the world through the fictionally transformed misadventures of those they published. Alas, I’ve traveled a bit, and even done some travel writing. A guidebook I wrote is years out of date and nobody has tried to update it. I’ve read work by writers who have never been to Paris, Jerusalem or Mars, but they’ve done a pretty good job of telling a story. So what makes an experience “honest” or worth writing about?
  3. a talent for not letting their artistic ambitions drive them crazy. I also hoped, when I met writers who were drunks, self-promoting frauds, vindictive egotists who were abusive to their loved ones, that I would behaving with dignity and a gentle gravitas, as if being a writer of science fiction and fantasy stories was a civic role as important as that of the old village storytellers, or the griots who preserved tribal history.
  4. relationships with editors so that the stories were published smoothly. Most writers lied about this. Though my college professors taught the importance of legendary editors like William Dean Howells and Maxwell Perkins  (as well as John Campbell, who transformed science fiction from space opera to imaginative speculations about sociological and psychological trends, and nurtured the work of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and many others who became my heroes), I used to believe that I should work with every editor because all editors shared a joy in good writing and had reasonable goals toward packaging and distributing that joy–until I met editors who were not only unreasonable, but petty, and pettiness can stomp on youthful idealism with a cruelty that sends deep, paralyzing shocks that lead you to conclude that this gatekeeper wouldn’t have let the door quietly shut in my face if I had been a different person.
  5. people who valued their writing enough to buy it or seek it out in libraries. Hey, I did this with my favorites. How was I supposed to know that there were so many, many people writing stuff worth reading that, even if you major in English and read two or three books a week, you’ll never read them all. So how do you become a writer with a following? Nobody really knows. Promotion doesn’t work all the time. Writing the same book every time doesn’t work. Having your book made into a movie doesn’t help if the movie is bad, or the movie changes your work so much that it isn’t yours anymore. The only thing you can hold on to is that everybody who gets that following has moments when they can’t stand the expectations these people create. See Stephen King’s Misery, the best novel ever written about a writer and his Number One Fan.
  6. a sense of confidence so that I would not be unduly injured by critical slings and arrows. Again, I met many writers who claimed they never read reviews, but they had ways of finding out what the critics said about them, and they went nuts when critics didn’t like what they did. I know this as a writer, and a book reviewer, who was occasionally the subject of an angry letter from a writer, agent or publisher when my opinion (even a positive one!) wasn’t what they enjoyed reading. It seems that to survive in a commercial society, a writer has to be produce a lot of stuff, produce it quickly and without remorse, the stuff has to be “out there” in the marketplace as much as possible until something happens that brings attention, desired or not, and, most important of all, have a cast-iron ego that can withstand so many disappointments, let-downs, twisted ironies and far too many years of silent neglect. Who are these confident writers? I never met them. I never read them. Everybody seemed to want attention, if not the love, of people in their community, or in the great world of readers, and make these people happy with their work.
  7. A person to share it with. This I got. This dream came true. Hooray!

But I never became a science fiction writer because every story I ever sent out (including novels) was rejected and the rejection really, really hurt so bad and nothing helped me deal with that hurt. The stuff I sent out that was not rejected, was non fiction, mysteries, magazine and newspaper articles. To my surprise, a few science fiction and fantasy writers confessed they wished that their stuff appeared where mine did.

As I wished my stuff appeared with theirs.

I’m sure that if people read any of the books I have “in progress” (translation: I’ve begun them but I don’t work on them consistently and I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever finish them) they’ll like them, maybe even love them. May these works be important somehow? Perhaps. Will critics like them? Maybe. Will they make money if published? Why not?

But is there something better to do until any of those books finds a reader?

Yes. Of course.

And that is to be kind to as many people as possible.

Not change the world. Not change their world. Not tell truth to power, expose the bad guys and draw attention to worthy folks who struggle in the darkness. I’ve done that as a journalist and we still have powerful people who don’t care about the consequences of their action (or inaction), venal folks at all levels of society and so many, many worthy people who are trying to make themselves and their world a little bit better.

Journalism is not a profession that readily embraces kindness. In fact, kindness is dismissed as a weakness, a bias, a willful neglect of flaws, foibles, mistakes and things that could be improved.

To be kind is to be…what?

I never took a course in journalism. I only took one writing course and passed it.

But I’ve been taking a course in kindness all my life and, like most of us, I’ve had a few report cards that I’d rather not remember. It’s easy to disregard civility, respect for others, a positive comment or a bit of generosity when you want to “make something of yourself.” What you miss that that the self you’re trying to make something of–doesn’t change much, and whatever you have in the bank, whatever you’ve published, whatever you’ve lost or gained, doesn’t make as much a difference as you’d wish.

I’m at the age when life has made me more than I’ve made it. I must admit I’m lucky to have come this far. What’s next?

This new world I’ve entered, in which all I really have to do is be kind as many people as possible. I may lose it every once in a while. Or my acts may have unintended consequences. My increasingly forgetful mind may prevent me from returning a library book on time. People may accuse me of being insensitive to their passionate causes. I may be taken advantage of, ripped off, exploited, thought a fool.

I’ll never really know if being kind is the best thing to do. I’m enrolled in the course, and I’ll show up for classes and hope the report card is better this time around.

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