Making a Difference

In case you noticed, my blogs this week (and last) have been scattered and coming out later in the morning or afternoon than usual. That’s because I am taking advantage of the last few free days this summer before pre-registration meetings take over my life to get some yard work done. Summer is hot here in Texas, and even after 15 years I find I can’t bear to work on the afternoon heat. So I get up early (well, early-ish) and try to get as much done outside as I can.

I have always been goal oriented. At one point in my life, my goal was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am still waiting for those Swedes to realize how good I am.

When you are young and full of juice, it’s easy–and appropriate–to put out large goals for your life. Everyone wants to know that by the end of their life they can look back and say, hey, I made a difference.

Writers are especially that way. With the exception of the mercenary-minded among us who simply write for the money, all of us who write feel we have something to say, and try and try again to say it in a way so that as many people as possible will listen and understand. Couple that with the selfish motivation of going to a party and when people ask what you do, you can say, “Oh, I’m a writer.” Actually, I have never felt comfortable doing that, but there’s always that possibility.

But as I get closer and closer to my 60th birthday, some realizations about those personal goals are coming to my mind. And this is probably the biggest one: NOBODY CARES. If you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, they will be impressed, but it won’t get you a discount at Wal-Mart. If your book makes Number One on the New York Times Bestseller list, it may mean more money for you, but your kids won’t respect you any more than they did before. If you make a million dollars in royalties, it won’t win you one second more of life.

The old saying goes: When I was 20, I worried what people thought of me. When I was 40, I stopped worrying what people thought of me. And when I was 60, I realized they weren’t thinking of me at all. And that’s the truth.

When you die–and face it, all of us are going to die sooner or later, unless you know something I don’t know–the number of people who come to your funeral will not be related at all to how well your books sell. What will make a difference in attendance is how much you–or what you write–helped them. Face it: we’re all selfish by nature. We all have our challenges in life. But when someone helps us, we tend to think of them differently than we did before. It could be something as simple as helping someone with a couple of bucks at the gas station, or helping a student pass a class, or stopping to help someone with a flat tire.

Writers have a singular opportunity. I recently read a book about Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton that was the first major victory for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. That was the point in the war when we almost lost. But according to Washington, what saved us was not his strategic genius at that battle, but a pamphlet written at the right time and distributed among the troops. It was written by Thomas Paine, who many consider the voice of the Revolution. People needed to know why they were fighting, and this writer, living in the right time and the right place, had the opportunity to change history. I don’t think he made much money with his writing. But he helped a lot of people.

It’s not what you do, it’s who you are–and who you help. How is your writing helping someone? Better yet, how are you helping someone?