A Gift That’s (Almost) Free

Girl readingLast month, I promised that I’d let you know what should be on every great writer’s gift list. I’d no sooner hit “Publish” on that blog post than I thought of about ten very expensive things. A room of your own. A Mont Blanc pen. One of those Italian coffee machines that make the strongest coffee taste creamy. How about a private income?

So what, I wondered, can you ask for that’s free? And that might make a big difference to you as a writer?

I know it sounds naff, but I’m going to suggest time. Because it takes time to discover other people’s stories, and time to tell them.

You may have a hundred reasons to put off talking to yet more people (and ninety-five of them may be the unread emails in your inbox). Many charity writers find it almost impossible to get away from their desks long enough to visit a support group, attend a lecture, or hang out in the grant-funded lab.

Far be it from me to recommend yet more ways of procrastinating – but great writing often starts when we do just that: leave our desks and spend time with other people.

Earlier this year, I was sitting in a high street coffee shop listening to a mother describe the moment when she heard that her child had won a much-needed scholarship. She and her husband had already been through so much. They’re professionals who emigrated to Britain in difficult circumstances and are slowly rebuilding their lives. They’ve struggled with illness and loneliness and the weather. When she got the good news, she was in her kitchen making supper and she actually fell to her knees from sheer relief. Her description of how she felt was so much better than anything I could have made up at my desk.

Sooner or later, if we take the time to ask questions and listen to the answers, we’ll come up with pure writing gold. Maybe you, like me, struggled with GCSE maths, so you don’t want to pester clever grant-funded scientists in their lab, even if you are the one raising the money. Do it. Pester them. They love to talk about what it takes to cure cancer or grow drought resistant crops or whatever. You may not understand the finer points of biochemistry, but you can find out how they built their team, what the biggest technical obstacle has been, or what one question they’d really like to answer in the next three years.

What if your charity’s stories are about vulnerable or young people, and you have to honour strict confidentiality rules? It’s so tempting to fall back on the same well vetted stories on the shared drive, but if it feels stale to you, it will feel stale to the reader. Perhaps you can ask for consent, or change names and identifying details. You might want to let the people you interview review your drafts. The mother I just described changed two or three details in my fundraising copy, and I’m sorry to admit this, but she made it better.

It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? It’s our job to tell stories. As story-tellers we may not get everything right, but we can’t let that stop us, because if we’re listening and if we care, we won’t get anything really wrong, either. And yes, it really does take time — time to meet people, to ask questions and listen, to take notes and write them up, and to write draft after draft.

So give yourself time. Loads of it. Once a week, talk to somebody new who’s doing something for your charity, or who’s been helped by it. Ask lots of open-ended questions. Keep going until there are tears in your own eyes, or you finally grasp what the researcher actually does, or you’ve dared to ask the questions that you thought might make you look dumb.

And here’s a special year-end message for any manager (or just your own conscience) who thinks you don’t have the time to wander off to chat to people. Your time is worth a great deal. And great stories from the front lines? They’re worth even more.