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Monday, September 2, 2013

Can you use your powers for good and not evil?

You have a superpower. You can't manipulate fire or gravity, but you can manipulate words. This weekend, I put on my superhero costume to assist a little girl who's being bullied.

She's being bullied at school. It's the full spectrum: social bullying plus physical violence, emotional abuse, property damage and theft. The teacher, when approached on multiple occasions, said, "Ignore it." The school's bullying policy is "ignore it" until you can't stand it any longer, at which point you're to approach a teacher (who then, apparently) tells you to ignore it.

The parents then approached the teacher, who at first denied the girl had ever even asked for help but finally admitted there was a problem. She still wouldn't do anything about it. The classroom's co-teacher then entered the discussion, screaming at the parents that no bullying was taking place in her classroom, and that the girl should have ignored being bullied.

Are you angry yet? Because the parents' next step was to approach the principal, who explained that theft and property damage, verbal abuse, physical violence were all a part of childhood, and really, what could you do about that?

This is the point at which I entered with my superpowers. I'm helping the mother write letters.

Nasty letters. Well, no, not nasty. Incisive letters that cut through the school's nice words and pat-pat on the head. Letters which will bring the plight of this school's victimized children (this girl isn't the only one) to the attention of the overseeing authorities and, if necessary, the media. We're making it airtight. And yes, I'm using every tactic I've learned in four decades to help this mother make it happen.

(I have done this before. Not even eight hours after I sent that letter, the school changed an unsafe policy.)

Also on Friday, I wrote a letter to customer service to praise the local sushi chef, who's always been friendly to my preschool-age son.

It was the juxtaposition of these two letters that brought me up short. What am I doing? I'd just turned an edited manuscript back around to my agent, so I was tired of editing, tired of words, and yet here I was wordsmithing on behalf of a kid I'd never met in a country I'll never visit. I joked, "I'm using my powers for good and not evil."

But I've realized there's something to this. We don't belong to ourselves: the "powers" we've been given are only fully realized when they're used for the good of others. We're not just writing: we're writing for others to read. We're not just expressing ourselves: we're expressing ourselves to be understood. Most writers would say they want to make the world a better place, or entertain others, or create a lasting work that will inspire people, or raise someone's conscience -- which all means pretty much the same thing. We want to be helpful.

What about until we get our novels published?

Let's help. Let's use our powers for good and not evil. Let's write a review a book we enjoyed and post it everywhere so the other writer can sell more books. Let's write letters to customer service to praise the cashier who didn't lose composure when a screaming customer threw a bag of onions across the store. Let's write letters to the editor when the local library is being defunded and explain, clearly and without varnish, both sides of the issue so anyone reading can make a rational decision. Let's help parents who are struggling to get their children help from the school, and if that fails, let's help those parents write letters to their congressmen or their local paper.

More than just in writing: you have the power of persuasive spoken words. So be supportive. Be encouraging. Be open.

I had a dream once where someone introduced me to "the nicest writer in the world." She was very pleasant in my dream, and she let me know she promotes other writers' books. And there are going to be other pass-it-along ways of using our powers for good and not evil. We can critique other writers and help with their query letters. We can provide encouragement when they email with "That's it. I'm going to put my computer on the pavement and drive over it five times."

We belong to each other, and our gifts work best at the service of others. As a writer, you've got an amazing power, and the world needs you.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or swatting mosquitos. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


Suzanne Warr said...

This is a lovely thought! I hadn't considered the possibility of writing being a superpower...maybe I should have, though, given the whole 'pen is mightier than the sword' thing. I also hadn't really thought about how some people don't have this power, and could use help writing these sorts of letters. You've inspired me!

Katherine said...

What a great post. I've always tried to give back as a way of thanking people who've helped me along the way, but I never thought about writing letters as a way of doing that. I hope your letter writing helps the little girl and others like her. That school has a terrible view of what bullying is and how to deal with it. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case in most schools or so it seems from the news reports and what friends who have children tell me.

Anonymous said...

This is a thought-provoking post . . . one I will share with my middle school Language Arts class :-)

Kristi said...

I love this post.

Writing is a superpower, and being able to concisely put thoughts into words, is a hard-earned talent.

Thanks for reminding me and for your great ideas on giving back.

Kristi Rhodes

Unknown said...

I've done the same. Written a few letters on behalf of my friends. Sorry to hear about the bullying though. So sad. I've written a middle grade series and my second novel (not yet released) that deals with some bullying issues too. My first book, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers, doesn't really have any of those social issues, but does try to bring back the family unit into middle grade genre. Ever notice that many of these books having missing parents? That's kind of sad too.