“Can you do me a favor?”
My ears pricked up. These six words may be the most dangerous in the English language. Typically, they precede one of the following:
- A request to help somebody move (doubled in likelihood if you own a pickup truck)
- Yardwork or cleaning that will take more than four hours to complete
- Locating something that has been lost beyond the ken of man, angels or the Webb telescope
This one proved to be a rare exception, a request from a Kansas friend and former co-worker. Not a short task but certainly a delightful one.
Namely, she wanted me to help judge a high-school journalism contest.
Like a lot of creative professions, journalism has its share of competitions. You can always tell when awards time has come around because editors and reporters start digging through the archives like never before, trying to find that one perfect feature that appeared on page C9 of the Sunday edition. If the contest requires a hard copy sample, you can count on adding several layers of dust from digging through a year’s worth of barely-touched newsprint.
You squint at the categories, you fill out the forms, you send it all off … wondering the whole time what will suit the fancy of those mysterious, unseen, usually out-of-state judges.
Now it was my turn to be on the other end. A virtual stack of 30 opinion pieces awaited my scoring and comments.
Easy? No. In many ways, it reminded me of being a director at auditions, where half a dozen great choices present themselves but only one can get the part. That’s always agony.
But at the other end, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my time. I mean, I had a chance to share what I know, with teens eager to learn the craft and improve. That’s exciting.
After all, good teaching moments always benefit both sides. And that’s not always easy to come by in writing.
It’s an odd craft. Some arts give you the chance to constantly bump up against others: acting, music, dancing. You work with others, you see what they do, and (in the best cases) you each come away the better for it.
Writing, by its nature, is a little more solitary. Both the creating and the learning tend to come when you’re reading and writing on your own. And unless you’re deliberately pushing yourself, a lot of it tends to fall into the comfort zone: we read what we like to read, and we see and learn the same things.
So having to evaluate a beginner in the craft forces you to think. You consider topics and approaches that aren’t your own, you see basic things that you haven’t thought of for ages. And in making yourself notice and call out details – whether to praise or correct – you reinforce that in your own mind too.
That’s valuable. And it goes beyond writing.
Whatever we do, whatever we’re proud of, we’re never so good that we can’t learn more, and a student can be the best teacher of all. We can always lift up someone else by sharing what we’ve gained … and often, find ourselves rising at the same time, buoyed by reflection, enthusiasm and the freshness of something new.
We teach someone to build. And in the process, we gain new materials of our own. Everyone wins.
So as the world opens up a little more (I hope), take the opportunity. Share something you love, whether it’s fishing or guitar or fixing the sink. Watch a rookie and remember what it was like to be there yourself.
I suspect you’ll enjoy it.
It may even do both of you a favor.