Going to NerdCamp was like getting a crash course in Kindness 101. Since I came home, I’ve been thinking about what I learned–what kindness means–in the real world and for all of us, as we draft and write stories for young people. In this post, I want to think about this goal in order to enrich our lives, but also discover great plot turns that just might show readers what we mean when we tell them we want them to grow up to become empathetic humans.
Over the week, I experienced three levels of kindness–and all three are important.
The first level is the easiest to pull off. It’s the kindness we offer when we say hello to people we recognize…or don’t. It is the kindness that comes from smiling at people on the street, or getting out of the way when someone needs room. At NerdCamp I totally appreciated all the people who said HI to me–who made me feel welcome. Face to face networking–even a simple hello– can feel risky in the abstract! But in the moment, it is such a relief! And so easy! I LOVED sitting with and meeting so many people I didn’t know, just so I could say hi and pass around that good feeling.
The second level takes a bit more energy. It means not stopping at Hi. It means listening and getting to know someone else. This kind of dialogue happened to me in every session and in between and again after hours. When I received an invitation to join a panel of Jewish Women writers, I wasn’t just happy to be included. I knew I was making friends. I knew I had found a safe space. And as I’ve written before, we are all more creative and kind when we feel safe.
In that 50 minute session, we offered recognition. Thoughtfulness. Honesty. Support. Listening! To let people speak is one of the greatest acts of kindness! To hear and acknowledge…isn’t this why we started writing in the first place?? To give voice to characters that are often unheard??? To introduce them to readers, so that they can begin to experience empathy and kindness toward those not like them? When we say “We need windows and mirrors,” this is what we are talking about. It means giving VOICE to characters your reader may not have met.
Think about it: can you write a book without listening to your characters????
Now let’s address the third level. This is the level of kindness that takes effort. It’s about SHOWING. It’s all about action. It’s that invitation. It’s all about going beyond a conversation to actually creating a community. A friendship. It’s about risk.
In books, when our characters offer, receive, or even hold back kindness, we are showing our readers just how important kindness is. We are showing them what can happen when you take the chance to offer kindness. We are giving them hope that if they need kindness, someone will notice. And act.
For a moment, let’s think like readers.
How do you feel when a character in a story offers this level of kindness? Do you cry? (I do.) Do you keep turning pages? Absolutely. Why? Because that kind of action isn’t easy!!
When a story goes there…when characters see something and strive for the impossible…when their friendships are more than just passing conversations…when they need each other…when the stakes are high… whether the book is literary or funny or scary or silly . . . isn’t that what makes a story memorable?
We know our characters must be more than kind. We know we have to hurt our characters. We have to put them in tough spots. We have to make them yearn. We can’t give them what they want too fast.
But we must also give our readers characters that inspire!!! This week, I read Alan Gratz’s REFUGEE. (It’s a GREAT book.) There are many scary moments we can discuss, but one that made me pause (I won’t spoil it for you) was a moment when I expected FEAR and got some solid LEVEL THREE kindness! For me, this moment offered me hope. It offered me a surprise. It kept the story moving forward. It made me turn the pages faster. It said to me as a reader: you can hope for kindness ANYWHERE.
Are you ready to stretch???
When we create plot turns with this kind of growth, change happens! It feels authentic! Because it is risky emotionally.
Step away from your manuscript and think about it in terms of spontaneous action. Who is your LEAST KIND character in your story? Are they unkind for a reason? Do you know why they see the world the way they do? What if they offered an act of kindness? How would that change the momentum of your story???
Have a great writing week!