Writing for Community Organizers & Leaders
© 2019 Gregory F. Augustine Pierce
This blog is an
attempt to convince community leaders and organizers that writing can be
another tool in their power toolbox. It offers examples and suggestions on how
to write both artfully and effectively. I have been a publisher for over thirty
years and a community leader and organizer for almost fifty years, so the combination
of these two topics is a natural for me, as in this piece.
When my wife, Kathy, and I need some work done around the house, I tell her, “You call a professional and I’ll write an article about it.” So here it is.
We recently needed a bunch of carpentry done in a new loft we are building out in a 100-year-old warehouse where I have run my publishing house for over thirty years. The woodwork we needed was funky, difficult, diverse, and…oh, we didn’t have much money to spend on it.
So we asked Dave the Plumber (that’s the name for him on my cell phone) if he knew a good carpenter who could “fit the bill,” so to speak. That’s how we met Tony the Carpenter (cell phone name) and I learned ten things about writing, some I had forgotten and some I had never thought of.
Normally I wouldn’t get to spend a full day closely observing someone like Tony. Usually plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters, and other craftspeople charge extra if I want to help (smile). But in this case, to do his work Tony had to have someone—anyone—watch his tools on the busy city street outside the apartment as he ran (sometimes literally) back and forth, measuring, cutting, finishing, and installing the wood. He was worried about two things: someone getting hurt on one of the many electric saws and sanders and nail guns he was using, or some passerby stealing the same. (He had twice had his equipment stolen in this way; once he lost $38,000 in tools and the other time a guy went to prison for fifteen years.)
And thus I became the designated security guard for about ten hours on a Saturday, sitting on a chair on the sidewalk outside the building, drinking coffee, and noting how Tony goes about his business. I eventually began to realize I was learning several lessons—not so much about carpentry (I’d be terrified to try to do what Tony does with such confidence and art)—but about writing and teaching writing, which I do a lot.
Here are ten short lessons about writing I learned from Tony the Carpenter that day:
Love Writing. Tony loves carpentry. He told me this has been true since he was eleven (he’s now 39, married with five kids). He described how he used to be late for elementary school because he would stop by construction sites to watch the workers and lose track of the time. For us writers, if we don’t learn to love the act of writing, we won’t do it.
Write with Discipline. Tony has another full-time job as a supervisor for a masonry company, which he does not love but does pay well, but he still does freelance carpentry on the side because he loves it. As writers, we may well have other work that pays better, but if we love to write we have to grab time when we can to do it. And when we grab the time we should always make good use of it.
Value the Tools of Writing. Tony has only the best tools (mostly DeWalt brand), and he took about an hour to lay them out just so. (He told me that when he was a kid he had left his tool belt laying in the yard and his grandfather had found it and hidden it from him for a month to teach him a lesson.) Writers have tools as well: paper, pens and pencils, word processors, dictionaries, thesauri, books on writing, books of writing, the Internet. When we write, these should be laid out around us like DeWalts around a carpenter.
Write When and What You Can. Right now, Tony can only work part-time as a carpenter. Rather than bemoan that fact, he grabs whatever time and opportunity he can to work with wood. Writers are great bemoaners. “If only I had the time….” We’ve got to grab the time, even if it means skipping the latest episode of Game of Thrones or getting up an hour earlier to write (as I did today for this article).
“Measure Twice; Cut Once.” This is every carpenter’s first commandment, one I saw Tony follow many times in one day. I thought about how this relates to writers and decided our first commandment should be “Cut many times; measure at end.” This opposite-of-carpentry commandment comes from the different nature of writing. Our job is to get words on a page first, edit ourselves mercilessly, and only measure the result when we are finished. We must use as many words as we need, and not a word more…or less. This one needed 1399, in my opinion. (If you want more on this rule, read John McPhee’s fine book on the craft of writing, Draft #4.)
Create Work-Arounds. We had a special framed shelf we wanted Tony to make for our new place. The length of the four sides was a total of 16 feet and the depth was twelve inches, but Tony had brought wood that was only eleven inches wide. Rather than run out to the lumber yard (which I most certainly would have done), Tony simply cut four one-inch pieces of wood and glued, then nailed, and then sanded them smooth, making the eleven-inch boards into perfect twelve-inch boards. It took him some time (not as much as a trip to the store), but it was also more economical and more artistic. No one will ever be able to tell what he did, except me and him. Writers need to do the same kind of work-arounds with words instead of wood.
Take Regular (Short) Breaks; Get Back to Writing. Tony took a few minutes about every hour. That’s the only time I got to talk with him. He’d have a cigarette (not a break I’d recommend), accept a water or soda (no food), and went to the bathroom (a total of one time in ten hours). After 3-5 minutes, he’d go right back to work. Writers need to take regular breaks as well, but we don’t have to let them turn into distractions.
Finish Something. Tony had ten hours, and he was committed to getting our job done. (He stayed an extra hour to do so. He did so for his own purposes, but he also wanted Kathy and I to see a “finished” product.) Yes, there were a few things we still need him to do, but the job was “done.” Writers need to finish something: a chapter, an essay, a first draft, even a page or a paragraph so that we have a feeling of accomplishment every time we write. How do we know we have done that? We show it to someone—a spouse, a friend, a colleague, if necessary to a parent or sibling or adult child. Better yet, we send it off to a publisher.
Throw away the Junk. When he was almost done, I asked Tony if he wanted to take all the small pieces of wood that were left over. I meant it as an offer, but he took it as a task I wanted him to do. “It’s all junk, but I can haul it away for you,” he said. Sometimes are writing just isn’t that good. Or sometimes some of it is not that good. We don’t have to store it in the garage or our computers. We can throw it away, as I did with the wood.
Clean Up Immediately. Even after a long day, Tony took the time to clean up his tools and workplace. (I helped a lot by sweeping up the sawdust on the sidewalk.) It struck me that the next time he had the chance to carpenter, he was ready to go. Writers need to clean up when we are done as well. Save what we’ve written. Print out a copy. Send it by email, at least to ourselves. And, in Tony’s honor, clean up our desks and offices.
Gregory F. Augustine Pierce is the publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and the author of many books, including The World as It Should Be and Spirituality at Work. He runs “intensive immersion” workshops on writing for specific kinds of writers, such as the “Writing for Community Leaders and Organizers.” For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-397-2282.