When in doubt, volunteer

Writing is a lonely business. I don’t know about you, but I toiled away for years on my own. Online writing groups helped, but I always knew that there was a larger community out there that was just outside my reach. The genre community seemed to revolve around conventions–I’d never been to any, and my finances didn’t look like they were going to allow it any time soon.

I sat on the outside looking in for years, reading people’s blog posts about the cons, the awards, the launches, the events. The more I read the more rooted in place I felt, the more hopeless it seemed that I could ever become a part of that larger community. The thing about communities is that you have to put something into them. I’d been a taker my entire life, taking stories and ideas and relief from the mundane from the SFF field, and I’d never put anything back in.

Then I found StarShipSofa.

For those unfamiliar, StarShipSofa is an audio magazine, as distinguished from a variety of other podcast formats. It has an editorial, a flash fiction piece, interviews, fact articles, and a featured fiction piece. It is only available in audio form–much like an audio book, only there’s no hard copy to refer to. It is entirely fan-run–everyone involved is a volunteer, including the authors who allow their stories to be “reprinted” there for free. The editor is in the U.K., the flash fiction editor is in New Zealand, the other contributors are from all over the world. It’s an astonishing community effort. I loved it immediately. And lucky for me, Editor Tony C. Smith was looking for narrators. I volunteered.

I’d never done anything like that in my life. My last “performance” was my senior year of high school (which was 21 years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit.) But I can read aloud pretty well, I enjoy doing it, and usb microphones are affordable. So I recorded a story (and re-recorded it, and then re-recorded it again–that first one was REALLY HARD and I was a nervous wreck.) Eventually I turned it in, and suddenly I was a contributing member of the SFF community. I had earned my keep, I had given something back. I belonged.

Since then I’ve repeated that essential step of volunteering for the unknown several times. I volunteered for SFWA, and got to help migrate content from their old site to their new one. I volunteered for Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, where I wrote the show notes for their first 21 episodes (I still can’t believe it was that many!) I volunteered to do some editorial support work on a couple of anthologies, and I volunteered for Lightspeed. That’s all in one year. Each time I do it I give something back to the community that I’ve taken from for so long and that made me who I am today. But it’s not a straight payment toward that debt, because each time I gain so much from the experience.

If you’re considering raising your hand for an assignment, and are wondering “what’s in it for me?” here’s what I can tell you:

  • Experience. This is the obvious one for gigs like slush reading and web design/implementation.
  • Insight. Many volunteer positions–such as SFWA and GGG–offer an opportunity to see the inner workings of an organization or project.
  • Contacts. So that when you do finally go to a convention, there is at least one person there who you know will shake your hand, have a drink with you, and introduce you to whoever they’re standing next to.
  • Self-esteem. The creative life is a hard one at times, and our egos can take a real beating. Self-esteem comes from doing esteemable things. What volunteering offers that I personally have found most valuable is a sense of accomplishment, of having contributed, of having helped. Every task can be chalked up as a personal Win, and in a sea of rejections and failures sometimes these gigs are what keep me afloat. And when that project I worked on goes on to be a success, I get that vicarious Win as well.
  • Reputation. The world loves reliable people who are willing to help make great things.

There are some things one should not expect to get out of volunteering. Among them are:

  • Public recognition. Scratch that daydream right now, or you will be deeply disappointed.
  • Favors from the people you volunteer for. This varies; some people are more than happy to offer advice in their field of expertise, but never expect it. If you get it, it’s a bonus.
  • Publication. The only thing that will get you published is writing a really amazing story and placing it with the right market.

Volunteering is a great way to get involved. There are always markets looking for slush readers, great organizations like SFWA who could use some administrative help, amazing projects looking for support in the form of content or website maintenance or any number of things.

One last thing: “volunteer” doesn’t mean “optional” once you’ve taken the gig. You have committed, and people are counting on you to follow through. Treat it as if it were a paying job–and in fact, it is, it’s just that you’re being paid in intangibles. It deserves the same level of attention and care that any other commitment in your life would get.

So if you’re a writer on the outside looking in, maybe now’s the time to change that. Step up! Volunteer. You won’t regret it.

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  1. Morgan Dempsey
    08/10/2010 at 5:59 am Permalink

    Nice post! And yeah, totally true. I’m really glad you and Erika nudged me in the direction of slushing. I’m really excited to be giving back, especially when I feel like the community’s already given me so much 😀

  2. Shay D
    08/10/2010 at 2:08 pm Permalink

    Great post. 🙂
    I’ve written both fanfic and original fiction for years, and while I always felt like a part of the fandom communities I was in, I still felt like an outsider when it came to the world of publication — until I found a place to volunteer.


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