Recently a friend and a stranger gave me similar gifts, precious to my heart.
The stranger, an editor of a poetry journal, offered (out of the blue) to send feedback on a set of poems I submitted. This is a rare move for a busy editor. I eagerly took him up on the offer…then braced myself for the difficult experience of having my work held up to the garish light of constructive criticism. This generous editor took the time to respond to each poem, all the while weaving instruction into his commentary. He reminded me kindly that “we are all students.”
The gift of constructive criticism unwrapped
I took so much away from this experience! I saw places where I had been too cryptic, places where I had settled for word choices that did not express what I hoped to express, lines with awkward rhythm, phrases that didn’t balance metaphor with literal meaning elegantly enough. I learned that, after all this time, I still need to practice the art of whittling down a piece to its essence. I began to see where my poems feel too laborious, instead of limpid and effortless. That last one is still a mystery to me – the way the best writers (or athletes or musicians or public speakers) make crisp, painstaking excellence look so effortless, like anyone could do it.
Now, the editor did not say the above things outright, but between his words I read all the ways in which my craft still needs to be honed. Without an inkling of obligation or any possibility of personal benefit, this stranger donated his time and knowledge so that I can improve the creative facet of my life. This is a true gift – given freely, on no particular occasion, without expectation of recompense, out of pure kindness. Note that it was not the easiest gift to receive, as it challenged me and called me out on areas for improvement. But I think that makes it all the more meaningful.
(Ok, for the record, I do NOT think that this translates into saying we should all go around offering free criticism to our loved ones, friends, and acquaintances as our perfect gift to the flawed world! Feedback from an experienced artist to a novice is one thing. Randomly telling people how they should do things without solicitation of advice is another thing entirely – and it sometimes constitutes downright meddling!)
The priceless gift of a friend’s insight
Back to the topic of insights that are genuinely helpful! The friend who responded to my request to workshop one of my poems gave me a gift as powerful and appreciated as the editor’s. This friend took time out of her busy life to offer splendid, insightful feedback on a piece that had really been throwing me for a loop. It’s one of those poems I’d looked at over such a long period of time that I couldn’t tell anymore whether it was here or there. She offered specific, heartfelt, tactful expressions of her own personal experience with the various phrases and with the piece as a whole. It was exactly what I needed to move forward with this and other pieces, and no one could have offered commentary that I appreciated or respected more.
How these real gifts benefited me
As you can tell from my sparse blog posting habits, I’m stretched thin on time. I don’t have a place in my current schedule to belong to a writer’s workshop. These two people gave me insight right when I needed it to help me make some real creative progress.
Why the gifts you’ve been given deserve your attention
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam explores social capital, the cultural resource that blossoms in cultures where people help other people just because. Putnam argues that social capital lubricates the gears of society so that it works more smoothly for the benefit of all its members. Putnam also argues that this vital resource is waning in America, or at least it was at the time the book was published in the year 2000.
I have a feeling social media has altered the state of social capital in our world. We are better equipped to communicate with one another, get our messages out, and help one another. At least in that aspect, social capital is improving, though the long-term cultural effects of social media and technology-assisted communication remain to be seen. My point in bringing up social capital is that it is an all-around helpful thing – for ourselves, for others, for society in general – to foster the habit of supporting one another and giving gifts without expecting anything in return.
Poetry Prompt: Real Gifts
Let’s take some time out until next post to write about real gifts that we have been given.
- For our purposes, the gifts must be those that help us improve our lives. They might be physical objects, but will more likely be intangible things – skills, insights, wisdom, comfort, support.
- Try to write about a friend, family member, stranger, or community that give you gifts you might not have realized they even gave you. See the ways people have improved your life – ways on which you might not have focused before.
- Describe the person through their gifts (their actions, their words), without directly stating that they gave you something.
- Show the ways their gifts improved your life without directly stating what you learned or how you are better. Use small details to paint a big picture.
Another topic completely: What me and words have been up to lately
I consider the opportunity to work with words for living a great gift also. Another friend has given me this gift recently, and I’d like to tell you a little about her project. You might benefit from the content she’s giving away, too!
While “away” from the blog, I had the pleasure of editing a book for Food with Kid Appeal blogger and author Jenna Pepper. I’ve found it extremely rewarding to work as a wordsmith on a topic that is close to my heart – nutrition for the family – for an author with such a great message – the message that real food DOES have kid appeal!
This job highlighted for me of the unique power of language to help others. In this case, it’s helping parents to make healthy food relevant and appealing to kids. If you want to check out this e-book, including its 20 convenient kid-AND-adult-friendly recipes, you can get a copy at no cost for a limited time by signing up to receive Jenna’s newsletter here. It’s getting such good reader reviews that she’s going to start selling it before too long, but you can nab it now without laying down a cent of your hard-earned money. You’ll even find one of my recipes in the book! Let me know if you make it!
Until next time
Thanks to all of you who stop by or follow Hearth Bard through posts prolific and sparse. Next time I’ll be sharing a piece written by a smart kid who has a thing or two to teach me about writing poems.