By Jan Vallone
Eleven years teaching writing. The best years of my working life.
The writing teacher is confidant. The writing teacher is mentor. The writing teacher is cheerleader. The writing teacher is the center of a community composed of people striving to reach others, the facilitator of human connection.
My students figure out rather quickly that their teacher is an idealistic and sentimental person. I tell them their goal as writers is to enable readers to live vicariously and gather insights about life. I explain that writers can’t reach this goal unless they block imposter voices—the voices of teachers, parents, friends and others that whisper in their minds and tell them how and what to write, smothering the unique perspectives they alone can share with readers.
I urge my students to write from their hearts. They must let their writing be inspired by what moves them, both intellectually and emotionally. If they do, their work will impact other people.
I assure my students that if their work stirs, enlightens, or comforts just a single other individual or prompts the tiniest positive change, it’s a success.
I’ve meant what I say to my students, and most seem to believe me. Take, for example, Zach. For a high school class I taught, he wrote a memoir about his brother’s death and then submitted it to a contest. After winning, he reflected:
Winning is fun but not exactly a soccer game; the thrill of winning is not the same.
But my story will be published. If just one person reads my story and is consoled or gains an insight from it, then I will have done what I thought could not be done: bring hope and optimism out of something I thought could only be sad and depressing.
Knowing that, the excitement of winning becomes secondary to the idea that I might be able to help someone who otherwise may not have been reached.
Lately though, I’ve lost track of my own words, lost tract of Zach’s echo of them. I’ve entered the blogosphere.
When I first wrote a blog post, I practiced what I preached: I wrote from the heart, trusting that someone would read my essay and be moved. That single imagined person would make the work I’d done worthwhile, rendering it successful.
The day my piece was posted, though, I noticed something curious. At the end of the piece appeared a row of icons: F Share, Tweet, Email, Share, F Like, Google+. And above every icon was a number: 23, 1, 20, 71, 15, 0.
Since I’m a baby boomer, this took a moment to process. Where these statistics counting people who’d found merit in my essay? Inwardly, I smiled. Success: 130 shares.
Then I made a mistake: I checked the number of shares other contributing bloggers had earned for their posts that week:
Post 1: 249.
Post 2: 179.
Post 3: 1573.
I was a terrible failure, the uncontested loser of the pack.
A few weeks later, I tried to write a second post, but I couldn’t focus my thoughts. Imposter voices were rampant, relentlessly babbling in my brain:
Write about something in the news; that should prompt prolific sharing. A music post might lead to even more.
Chuck the idea about prayer; it might turn off secular readers. Ditch the yoga concept; it might hinder Christian shares.
Compose a sophisticated essay to capture erudite readers. Better yet, write a witty, chatty memoir to trigger millennial tweets.
Passing gargantuan gallstones would have been less painful than writing that post.
On the publication date, I checked my post as soon as it went live: 7:00 am: three shares. Not a propitious beginning, so I checked each quarter hour of the day:
10:00 am: 21.
5:00 pm: 149.
I frowned at the computer screen. Come on, can’t you make it 150?
All throughout the day, I tried to ignore the blog site, but it was a mammoth horseshoe magnet and I a tiny metal flake. I berated myself at bedtime because in the race with that week’s bloggers, I was in only third place.
Recently, I vacationed in Austria. High on a hill overlooking Salzburg sits Hohensalzburg Fortress. From 1871 to 1918 it housed Archduke Rainer’s 59th Infantry Regiment, branded the “bravest of the brave” for its exploits in World War I. Visitors to the fortress can see mementoes of the regiment’s life and work: uniforms, helmets, boots, buckles, military musical instruments, regalia, and flags.
While exploring the fortress, I was captured by an exhibit of the brigade’s medals of honor: badges with red and white ribbons and dangling metal coins, crosses, wreaths, or birds. Above the display cases were photographs of the regiment, each man with a row of medals pinned upon his puffed-out chest. Among the photos were scattered paintings of the regiment in battle, men bleeding and dying in the snow, their badges still appended to their breasts.
Had these soldiers squandered their lives seeking a row of ribboned medals?
Was I misspending mine pursuing a row of blog post shares?
In one of my favorite parables, a man going on a journey calls his servants and entrusts his possessions to them. To one he gives five talents, to another, two.
Then the master leaves. The servant who received five talents trades them, making another five, and the one who received two makes another two.
When the master returns, his servants bring him what they’ve earned, and he says to each of them: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.”
The master didn’t distinguish between the servant who presented ten talents and the servant who presented only four. Each talent had yielded one more. Each talent had earned just a single share.
Yet the master was satisfied.
The next time I post a blog piece, I hope to remember what Zach did: a single share is enough. A single share should suffice to occasion gratitude and joy and render work a success.
Jan Vallone is the author of Pieces of Someday, a memoir, which won the 2011 Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award and will be re-released in fall, 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Seattle Times, Catholic Digest, Guideposts Magazine, English Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Writing it Real, and Curriculum in Context. Once a lawyer at a large law firm, and later an English teacher at a tiny yeshiva high school, she now teaches writing and literature at Seattle Pacific University.