One of the writing organisations I belong to is conducting a membership drive. To that end, we-the-committee divided up the lapsed members’ list and began the task of sending out personal emails to let people know what was happening in our community, what programmes and activities were on offer, and to ask them what we could be doing to get them to come back. And while everyone who’s replied to date has been polite, the responses have been interesting.
First off, there were the folk who gasped in horror. I’ve let my membership slip? There were exclamations of ‘oh no’ and ‘eek, how did that happen?’ and then they hopped online directly to rectify the situation.
There were the people who really wanted to support the organisation, but were struggling right now due to illness, study commitments, or unemployment. Well, of course, we understand. Life happens. Circumstances change. We discussed what might be done. Some opted for the reduced rate, while others decided to defer their membership until sometime in the future when they’re better able to participate.
One former member was apologetic, but she’d elected to leave because the local meet-ups she’d been looking for hadn’t eventuated. A quick look at the membership database confirmed she was correct: there were no other members living in her area. I let her know that I’d contact her again if the situation changed.
I got a delightful note from a well-known writer who’d made a switch to another genre and is now enjoying a flourishing career writing under a penname. Could I keep her details on file though, please, because she might still come back.
One person was honest enough to say their priorities had changed, they were no longer writing, and their interests lay elsewhere. Perfectly fine. There’s no point being part of something that no longer interests you.
And finally, there were the people who said they couldn’t see the benefit.
And that’s where we differ.
This notion of joining an organisation for the benefits simply dumbfounds me. That interminable question: what’s in it for me? I don’t understand it. I guess it’s because I was raised by parents who were members of the school PTA, the church, the rugby club, the sailing club, the netball club, book clubs, Rotary, Toastmasters, St John Ambulance… they were everywhere. Mum and Dad coached kids’ sports teams, did accounts, baked cakes and ran bottle drives. They rolled up their sleeves and got involved. And although they never said it outright, their example taught me something important: joining an organisation or professional group shouldn’t be about the benefits, it should never just be about what you can get. Instead, it’s about identifying a group or an activity you believe in and deciding to get behind it. It’s about belonging to a group of like-minded people who are passionate about seeing something happen.
My dad, a former competitive swimmer and surf life saver, truly believed everyone should be able to swim. New Zealand’s surrounded by ocean and he’d seen a few tragedies. So, he joined the swimming club and gave free swimming lessons to kids. He believed in it so much you didn’t even have to be a club member, he’d teach you anyway. I don’t know how many people he taught to swim over the years. Hundreds probably. What did he get of it personally? Nothing. Other than seeing people enjoy the beach without drowning.
Mum and Dad joined other organisations with less altruistic goals. For a while, they were into line dancing. Yeah, yeah, I know, not exactly my cup of tea either, but they made a lot of friends, stayed fit, and most importantly, they had fun.
Naturally, they couldn’t possibly be active-active-active in every group. There’s only so much time, only so many weekends, and they had four kids, all with sports games and music lessons to get to. Sometimes there were years where they kept their memberships ticking over just to keep in contact with a group. Dad used to say it was a donation, so other people had the funds to do the things he believed in but didn’t have time for right now. I can relate. Right now, I’m a member of lots of writing organisations that promote writers and literature ‒ the HWA, AWHA, NZSA, SpecFicNZ, Freelance, Bookrapt, and Tauranga Writers’, New Zealand’s longest-standing writing group. Clearly, I can’t be active in all of them all the time. Happily, there are other hardworking individuals willing to step up and carry the banner. And if I don’t like what they’re doing, then it’s up to me to suggest changes, or jump in and get involved myself.
That’s another thing that irks me about people who say they can’t see the benefit. Sometimes it’s not until you wade in boots and all that you get to see the real work an organisation does behind the scenes: things like lobbying, advocacy, and mentoring. Quiet things that add value, without the trumpets and the cake stalls.
Recently, the SFFH community in New Zealand were kind enough to award me a Sir Julius Vogel Award for Services to Science Fiction, and Fantasy, and Horror. Which was overwhelming, humbling, and completely unexpected. Because I didn’t join the community for the benefits. I joined because there’s all this amazing creative talent in New Zealand, but, stuck out here on the edge of the universe, it’s going to take some critical mass for people to sit up and take notice. We haven’t quite managed world domination yet, but there’s a bunch of committed folk who are working hard on it. I have no doubt they’ll conquer it eventually ‒ they’re speculative fiction writers, so they already have the blueprint. In the meantime, I’ve made a lot of fantastic friends, learned some new things, gained a few readers, and had a lot of fun. And I never have to ask what’s in it for me; the benefits come anyway, and it’s so much more than I ever put in.