How Volunteering Helps My Creative Practice

Laura Leavitt is a writer, editor, and teacher in Ohio; she has a pet gecko and likes a good game of Ultimate Frisbee on occasion.

I love the creative challenge of a day of writing. I write about five days a week now, usually for 4–6 hours a day, and there is a major thrill from getting an assignment, devising a clever way to make it unique and exciting, and turning it in. Writing is rewarding, and these shorter pieces offer a little jolt of satisfaction every time I finish them.

However, I have two major issues as a worker: distraction and context switching. I get distracted easily; I wouldn’t say it is debilitating, but if you present me with a computer, 9 days out of 10 I’m going to scroll through an interesting news article rather than get down to business quickly. One part of the problem is that I’m “unsupervised,” so I’m the only person suffering the consequences of my procrastination, but it does result in some scrambling if I get too distracted.

The other hard part of this work is that I’m writing a lot of smaller things, so I end up feeling like I switch my focus very frequently, often a couple of times an hour. This lends itself to a bit of creativity fatigue. I try to keep some less creative work on hand (emailing, invoicing, light edits of in-progress pieces) in case I need a break, but the truth is that the context switching is the biggest reason why I cannot ever write for 8 hours a day. I eventually hit a “wall” and need to do something else to re-prime the creativity pump.

To inject more creativity back into my days, I’ve tried going to the gym, which is great, but it tends to contribute to me feeling tired (go figure!) and requires just as much willpower as writing itself, in my case. For me, it took finding a long-term volunteering gig to really rejuvenate my writing practice.

I spend 2 hours or so a week volunteering at my local food bank. Rather than a food pantry, where people pick up free food for their families, the food bank is a warehouse, a hub for large-scale food donations from major companies. In the warehouse, we unwrap pallets, box up donations, and pack out new pallets that will go to various pantries, schools, and other distribution points. It’s fun work: it feels very efficient, like every minute of my “donated time” is put to good use, but it is also repetitive and hard-to-do-wrong.

A few things happen while I’m volunteering that I believe contribute to my ability to return to my creative work refreshed:

  • I move a lot. I just don’t move much when I’m writing. The warehouse work does a great job of making me move around but without ever breaking a sweat. I think that my muscles have to move sometimes for me to reengage with the work I’m doing later in the day.
  • I talk to people outside my typical circle. This is surprisingly rare for me; as a writer I mostly talk to subjects I’m interviewing, in the interviewing headspace, so it’s really important for me to get out and talk to people about whatever is on our semi-idle minds. Most of the folks I volunteer with are retired, and I love picking their brains—especially when I’m working on a locally-based article or post. Often, they know about local legends, experiences, secrets, and other insider knowledge that I wouldn’t know to investigate.
  • I get into a groove. The opposite of context switching for me is getting into a groove; while I occasionally get into a groove with writing when it is something long, I really get in a groove when I’m making or breaking down boxes, moving flats of tomato cans, or filling packages of food for local school children. It is one of the only ways to make my brain take a break, and since it keeps my hands busy, it also keeps me off my phone, to which I am a little too addicted.
  • I “feel” productive and useful. There are many reasons why my writing work hours sometimes don’t feel productive: I’ll get extensive criticism on an article, I’ll have a bad-output day, or even just experience low energy. The work in the warehouse, on the other hand, pretty much always feels like it has an impact. It feels pretty cut and dry that getting nutrition to people who are experiencing food scarcity is a good use of my hours, especially since by donating the hours, I’m saving the warehouse on overhead. It’s also nice to have a few hours when I don’t analyze whether I’m being the best I can possibly be, which is a wonderful break for my occasionally-overthinking brain.

Due to these four qualities of this particular volunteering gig, I find that most of my shifts provide tangible benefits for my later writing practice. First, I often spark the idea for a completely new writing pitch. Getting a little “bored” making cardboard boxes is like emptying out my mind, a form of meditation that almost always leaves room for a new idea to fill it.

Second, I often solve a problem in another writing task that was bugging me but that I couldn’t face head-on. One time, I wanted my latest article to impress a new editor, and I knew it was good but not great; my brain worked out a way to really stand out through a new angle while I was filling boxes with peanut butter and canned peaches. I have a hard time stepping away from an article and going big-picture in the moment, but if I do something that uses a different part of me, like volunteering, I find the solutions bubbling up.

I think that creativity is boosted by some level of baseline satisfaction and joy in life; I know I’m more creative when I feel balanced and healthy. Volunteering is a nice way to snap out of some of my unproductive, unhealthy mental scripts: your work isn’t good, you should just goof off today, no one will notice or mind… Volunteering reminds me that, out in the world outside my home office, there are so many useful and interesting things going on. I want my creative ideas to be out there too, and volunteering is often the brain buoy I need to keep seeking those creative ideas with gusto.

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