College Coaches -- What How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and My Service Internship Have In Common
I imagine that the way I feel writing this blog today must be the way that romantic comedy writers in Hollywood feel every time they begin a new project: cursed with a case of the Been-There-Done-Thats.
Think about it. Romantic comedies are, with few exceptions, all the same movie. This is why they are successful—they follow a predictable formula. Girl meets guy, they embark on some kind of complicated and funny adventure, and then end up happily together. This is why we buy the ticket. We know what we want, and we know that we’ll get it in this lovely cinematic package.
This, I think, is the same conundrum that is encountered when writing about service. It is so easy to sit down and share something entirely heartfelt about giving back to the community, or connecting with people different than us, or making a difference. It is easy because this is a language we understand; more than that, it is a language that satisfies. When we go to a volunteer event or work with a service organization, we’re expecting them to use this vocabulary, to validate what we have come to understand service is. We buy the ticket. We know what we want.
I do not think this is always such a bad thing. There is no reason that a volunteer should not want to feel a sense of accomplishment in giving their time. They should be motivated by the thought of supporting an initiative whose work might not be accomplished without countless donated hours. Indeed, I believe volunteers should have some sort of conception of what they want from an experience, be able to evaluate their time commitments, and apply their particular skill sets to an organization in a thoughtful and productive way. This is simple and practical wisdom. Volunteers are giving for a reason—that reason is to see some sort of betterment in the project, task, or relationship they are involved in.
Yet I’m a little perturbed by the thought that my own experience in the Whitman service community could be described in a narrative path so laden with cliché that even I would be bored reading it. I know that this is not an accurate reflection of my story. I’ve had so many rich experiences and encountered and explored numerous opportunities for growth, all of which have beautifully informed my current self and my passions going forward. Why can’t my words express that in a way that doesn’t make me cringe as I read?
This disconnect between experience in service and writing about it is a phenomenon that, for my purposes, I’m going to call the diction of service. Diction, simply put, is an established pattern of speech, composed of words and phrases rhetorically employed to create particular forms of meaning. Like all devices of writing, diction serves a purpose. It establishes voice and connects that voice to a particular audience. In so doing, it forms an argument implicitly within the language itself, one almost as potent as the actual concrete ideas that are expressed. Words speak not just in Oxford English dictionary definitions but also in lived realities that prompt memories, associations, and very particular feelings as we read. Knowing what those extra, invisible meanings are and how to negotiate with them is the task of the masterful writer.
However, when employed haphazardly or thoughtlessly, diction becomes useless: it enters the realm of the cliché. In the words of the New Oxford American Dictionary, it “betrays a lack of original thought.” This may sound a harsh condemnation. In some ways, it is. I would argue that these patterns of describing service, verbally and in writing, limit our ability to conceive of service as anything other than “making a difference.” Should service encompass these abstract and idealistic ideas? Absolutely. Should a romantic comedy talk about love? Of course. Yet how do we explore these questions in such a way that breaks from our comfort zone, that treats each service experience as unique, original, and fraught with human problems and concerns absolutely inherent in the process?
I’m posing a question without an answer. I’m simply grateful that I have been afforded the opportunity to work closely enough with a strong service community that these questions have become so meaningful to me, questions prompted by a valuable two years with strong volunteers, community partners, and fellow staff members.