Be helpful

In the only writing workshop I’ve been a part of since my college days, the facilitator insisted on a single rule, and it was a great one: Be helpful.

That is, we were encouraged to praise, criticize or otherwise respond to one another’s work, just as long as we were being helpful. Not nice, necessarily. Not authoritative or even correct — just helpful.┬áIn other words, don’t use the workshop as an opportunity to air your pet peeves.

You scorn the spongy “deal with” in place of a stronger, singular verb? Good for you. Keep it to yourself, unless you have a pert or otherwise preferable action word to suggest.

You didn’t like what you just heard or read? OK, that’s fine, but explain what you didn’t like about it. If you’re not prepared to present reasons for your feelings of dislike, well, to quote The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” you know where to put the cork.

Conversely, simply saying you enjoy something is kind. But it’s also kind of unhelpful to the budding author who didn’t turn up just for strokes. Just down the street from the athenaeum that hosted said workshop is (or was) a Chinese massage parlor, helpfully (though unimaginatively) named Chinese Massage. Any manner of strokes to be had there, I suspect.

Be helpful. Great advice, inside or outside a writing workshop.

The reason I remembered this is because of a friend who epitomizes that philosophy. During a recent dinner with our respective better halves, he immediately suggested how I might perform a minor repair. What struck me, though, is the way he said it. “When it gets warmer, we’ll …”

The details are unimportant, but the way he said it, his unhesitant use of “we” in connection to helping me got me thinking about the myriad times he’s helped me and always helps others. From constructing a garden shed in my backyard to marshaling his family to cook for and serve the homeless on Thanksgiving Day, my friend is always Johnny-on-the-spot to lend a hand. It’s as if the first thought bumping through his brain as he wakes each day is, “How can I help somebody?”

That’s a way I’d like to be. Helpful.

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