Monday, October 28, 2019

smithing words, making space

Homeboy Industries had a beautiful culture of storytelling, but not of reading or writing per se. People would send long emails about the staff barbecue with detailed information about the type of meat the cafe crew would be grilling, and forget to include the date. Someone would inevitably reply-all: What about veggie burgers? And someone else would reply-all: This is so important to our model of kinship and I just want to really thank Rulies for organizing this!!! It takes a village!!! And someone else would say: When is it??? And eventually we'd find out.

I wrote grants, but I also helped a former trainee rewrite a policies-and-procedures manual, and I wrote descriptions for a bunch of salsas I'd never tasted. Word got out that I could write a variety of things, and people started bringing me their stuff, saying, "I was hoping you could wordsmith this for me."

At first, I was flattered but also annoyed, because "wordsmith" sounded like a word that people who don't value or understand writing would use. Like it was some kind of glitter I just sprinkled over things. It seemed to describe a craft, not art.

Then I started working at a writing organization where people Got It, but I still got requests to "wordsmith" various chunks of text. I've been thinking a lot about that word, and I'm coming around to it.

First, because being a craftsperson is great. When I think about the art I like, it's always a combination of concept and craft. Like Ray Eames' smooth birds and planetary hang-it-all. Or my friend Rebecca Niederlander's intricate wooden sculptures. I like skill and versatility. I like imagining myself as a weaver or blacksmith in a bygone time, someone people would come to with their need for a blanket or a soup ladle. I would return something pleasing and practical.


Second--and slightly in contradiction to Point A--writing is thinking, i.e. concept. I had my annual performance review recently, and came away with shoulders slumped because it was clear I'm not much of a manager. Or, in the language of performance reviews, it's a "growth area" for me. I felt small and dumb. And it's true, I have plenty to learn in the realm of management. But if I'm wordsmithing things for my organization, I'm also thinking through our mission and programs and strategies, and that is a kind of leadership.

I had a very satisfying text exchange with my IKEA Writers Collective friends about how frustrating it is to be a person who leads behind the scenes but doesn't command a room or give shiny presentations. There are some ways in which I'm a straight-up slacker, for sure, but I'm also a critical thinker who understands how people work, and those are useful ingredients in the leadership recipe.

When I was processing my performance review angst with my therapist, he made me pause after saying "Everyone thinks I'm a nice enough person and a good writer, but--" because, he said, "people gloss over the things that are easy for them, but they're not easy for everyone. And even being a good writer doesn't mean you can write in every context." He described a student of his who's a wonderful storyteller but struggles with academic writing (I would too). And it's true that I pride myself on being a little bit of a chameleon.


To that point (this is a transition), AK and I just wrote--drum roll--the profile for our second adoption. That strange and hopeful self-marketing letter to a stranger. It's been a long time coming. First we weren't sure we wanted more than one kid. Then we decided we probably did, but definitely couldn't afford to double our daycare bill, so it made sense to wait until Dash started public school. We took our sweet time completing our home study, which is to say I didn't become a megalomaniac this time around. I can't do that to Dash. It was bad enough when I did it to AK and myself back in 2011-2014. I have to remember that whatever happens, or doesn't, we're already a family. We're not incomplete; we're creating space.

Of course when you create space for possibility, you also create space for disappointment. I worry about our health and our energy levels and our finances and my writing. Sometimes it feels like we're trying to create space where there isn't any. But scarcity thinking has never served me well. So here's to abundance and openness and woven blankets and the baby names I whisper out loud in the shower.