Columns > Published on December 12th, 2014

Give: Volunteer Your Cow Fart Knowledge As A Writer

I have a system that proves I'm a bad person. It works like this:

Yesterday I ate my girlfriend's leftover chicken curry. Which is one point in the negative. And it was really, really good. Which is minus another point. If it'd been lousy, I could have justified eating it and thought, "Well, now she doesn't have to." But it was great, so here we are.

I have a system. This isn't just some arbitrary nonsense.

We don't have to get super philosophical to explain this point system I've got going. Just know that I've come to accept a truth about myself: I'm going to do bad things. For the rest of my life, probably, but absolutely for the near future.

I wish things were different. I wish I could sit in the most sage-like place (top of a mountain), in the pose that's most full of wisdom (seated, criss-cross applesauce), with a haircut that betrays my years of calm (bald or very long, one extreme or the other). I wish I was a person who never did bad things, who said, "Perish the thought" if someone even suggested it.

I'm not that person.

I sit on a couch. And I slouch. And I don't even really have a haircut to speak of. I never say, "Perish the thought." Instead I tend to opt for something that involves at least one curse word. One of the really bad ones.

All of this means I have two life paths to choose from. They aren't the traditional choices: be a good person or a bad person. I can do the bad stuff and just live with it. Or I can do the bad stuff, plus some good stuff and hope that makes a difference.

The thing that's tough about it, the bad stuff comes easy. It's natural. The good parts, I have to work for those. Or volunteer anyway.

Since early last year I've been volunteering at a non-profit that teaches writing workshops for kids. This last month was the first time I actually led the workshop. Made a curriculum. I can't spell that word right, but I had to make one and then teach young writers with it. If everything went according to plan, it would get me far, far on the positive side of things. Or at least far enough to carry me through the holidays, a time when I find it awfully easy to be an ass.

You should give as a writer. You have a talent, something you've worked hard on, and passing some of that on to someone else makes it even better.

On the day of destiny, early on a Saturday morning, I seize the day. I seize it by the throat and try to choke it with all the worst words I know. I seize the blankets and a pillow, which are PART of the day. -1 point for the behavior, minus another for the justification. Remember, there's a system here.

I shower too long and hurt the planet. Seriously, if you're reading this as a parched person of the future, I'm glad you still have the internet, and I really am sorry for using an entire year of drinking water because I just can't wake up. -1.

I take the time to scrape my windshield, which prevents me from striking a child with my car. Which might be a +1 but also might just be in the expected behavior category. No points awarded.

Then I drive to my volunteer gig. It's an hour and change. Or, to put it another way, about 18 swears. -18.

And just to make it sweet, today I run a red light just before I park. Sort of. Technically, it wasn't running a red light because the light had no color. The power went out. And because I'm a -21 guy at this point, I don't even notice. I follow the car in front of me. And cars on all 3 sides honk. -3.

I'm about 10 minutes late. -1 point.

Are you keeping track of my points still? I'm down 24. But I carry two heavy bags of books and supplies the few blocks to the coffee shop, so that's +2. And I've got a whole curric...class idea thing. I went over it and over it in my head the whole way here. Which might be part of why I ran the red light, but it's still an easy +1.

I'm down a mere 22 points at 9:30 AM when I arrive at the coffee shop where we hold the workshops, and the head instructor lets me know the power is out. Just like it is on the street nearby, the spot where I ran the light. It's bad news. We hold class in the basement. No windows, no lights, no way.

I put on a brave face and let her know I don't need electricity for anything. That the cuh....LESSON PLAN doesn't require anything besides what I brought. +1 for lucky planning.

We wait to see if students will show up. In my head, I think maybe none will come and I won't have to do it. I have a sickness, a disease where no matter how small the obligation, no matter how much I enjoy something when I'm in the thick of it, there's always a moment where I imagine riding off into the sunset without a care in the world. Or walking back to my car and going to get a Bloody Mary, which is my version of a horse and a sunset.

I don't know why my brain is always trying to sneak away from stuff. And also looking for any excuse to incorporate booze at every turn. -1.

Of course, writers show up. Their parents are with them, and the parents aren't super happy that the coffee shop can't serve them any drinks with the power outage. Except Italian sodas, which they are polite and decline. I start wondering why the baristas are even offering Italian sodas at this point. I'm really overthinking how someone else should do his job. -1.

No power means we move the class across the street, to a patio at an unopened restaurant. It's a little cold, but the sun's out. The students mostly have jackets. I start teaching. I start teaching kids a tiny part of the tiny things I know about writing. While they pull their arms close and sit with their legs up on the chairs to stay warm.

My lesson is about science. Making the impossible possible. The students all get two index cards, part of the supplies I went out and bought. +1. On one index card they're supposed to write a question. On the other, something that's impossible.

The questions can be about anything. I tell them questions that start with Why or How Come are really great, but any question works, really. They can ask anything they want.

They write. The groups of them at the restaurant patio tables, it looks like a regular restaurant crowd was hit by a de-aging ray. Their menus all shrunken to index card size, possibly by another ray. I guess all my science is about rays that do things. I'm just about the worst person in the world to teach this class.

They share the questions they came up with. A question about time travel. They're getting it. +1. A question about life on other planets. +1. "Why are we here?" Whoa. +2. One kid asks if we'll be buying them lunch when the restaurant opens, and I laugh.

They share impossible things. Faster-than-light travel. +1.

Then comes the part of the lesson where we make the impossible possible. I tell them to take one of their index cards, and I say, "Now we're going to walk through these cards. Your whole body is going to pass through that little card you're holding in your hand." They all agree it's impossible. It's working. +1.

I show them how to fold the card and cut it along the seam. How to turn it over and back, cut ribs into the white paper all the way down until you have what looks like the spiny end of a toilet brush, the kind that's bent into a circle. Then you unfold the whole mess into one long paper chain. Then, put it over your head. Past your shoulders. And let it drop to the floor.

Mine is too small for me. My shoulders are too wide. -1.

They try. A couple failures, the cuts spaced too far apart to make a long chain. -2. A couple are cut nice and thin, but the chains rip. -2. Then, one girl, one girl who's good with the scissors, she puts her paper necklace over her head, shucks her shoulders through, and the ring falls over the rest of her, lands on the concrete. She stepped through her index card. The impossible made possible. Just this once, just for a minute. +1.

It's a long day with this math running in my head. Like it always is.

Some kids play with a newspaper machine, and that goes in the plus category. The power comes back on and we go back inside, down the stairs to the workspace. Another plus even though it wasn't really me.  A kid who doesn't want to write talks to me about Minecraft, and I convince him to write about that. +1. Another kid doesn't write much at all. -1. In the last exercise, I encourage them to answer a science question pulled from a book (see below): "If A Cow Didn’t Fart For A Whole Year And Then Did One Big Fart, Would It Fly Into Space?"

Teaching kids. +1. Relying on my old standby, farts, to do so. -1.

They write. And they share.

One cow explodes. -1. Although there's a pretty great description of the blast. +1 One cow ends up on another planet, surrounded by other cows who tried the same scheme. +1.

The time goes by fast. They write and write, and they laugh. They share a little more. The end of the workshop is always the same. You hear the parents' footsteps on the stairs that lead into the coffee shop's basement. They listen while some kids share. Then they hustle out to soccer or fencing or lunch or whatever's next.

I collect all the scraps of note cards and the scissors and the books I brought. Other volunteers help too, help collect stuff and sweep.

One kid asks if she can take an index card to show her sister at home. +1.

And then it's over.

I go and eat a late breakfast. A super fatty biscuit sandwich. -1. And boozy coffee. -1. I stick around in the city the rest of the day and pay for a $2 coffee with a card. -1.

And on Monday, it's time to take all the stories and put them together in a booklet. And I get this email from a writer:

Here is my writing from yesterday all typed up. Thank you so much it was really fun, I think this is my best Denver Writes writing piece!

I want to call that +1,000,000, but then I think about it. The writer did the work. Not me.

For the last several months, I've had a great time volunteering for a non-profit in Denver. The students are great, the other teachers are awesome. I'm not going to get into stuff about "No, they teach ME" because I know nobody wants to hear it. It's true, which is why it's so worn out, and I just won't say it.

What I will say is that you should give as a writer. You have a talent, something you've worked hard on, and passing some of that on to someone else makes it even better. It makes your skills sharper when you have to explain them to someone else. It's more time in your life devoted to the craft, and it's time that's not just you and a keyboard.

On a concrete level, here's some help getting started:

I found my organization through this list from

There are 826 branches in lots of major cities, and lots of other cities have similar organizations. It might take a little looking, and you might have to make a commute that's about 18 swears long. But there's something out there.

Most of the times I volunteer, I don't teach. I don't have to figure out how to make the impossible possible. I sit with the kids, and I write with them. It's as easy as modeling the behavior I do every day. Writing, and having fun with it.

You don't have to teach, and you don't have to work with kids. These organizations need people to do all sorts of things. Web work, setting up crowdfunding campaigns, managing social media, making supply runs, sweeping up after. You don't have to bust out your Dead Poet's Society aspirations to help. Talk to the people who run these things. Be honest if you don't want to teach. See if there's another way you can help.

If you can't find something nearby, figure out what's closest and see if you can help. What you can do online. The place I volunteer, we make booklets out of student work. Someone needs to put those in a template, print them up. The organization I work for needs a new template design, but most of the volunteers are just keeping up with what we're doing day to day. Tasks like that come up all the time.

I know, sometimes you might want to volunteer to get away from writing. You would rather do anything else. But think about it like this. You've got something great. And when you volunteer, it's not for you. It's for other people. You can help the most other people by volunteering your skill. By volunteering your strength.

And hey. Let me know if you're inspired to send an email or look around by this column. Even if it doesn't go anywhere. Because there's a carton of chicken lo mein in my fridge that most definitely does not have my name on it. I could use a +1.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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