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Fiction, The Writer's Life

The Writer’s Role – Staying on the Outside

A couple of weekends ago I pulled out one of the old suits and accompanied my wife, who is a VP for United Way, to a gala benefit dinner for a local nonprofit. I hadn’t been to one of these dinners in almost a year. I used to attend them on a fairly regular basis when I owned a small business.

More than a thousand people crammed the ballroom. And not just any people. I feel comfortable saying a substantial percentage of Detroit’s richest were in that room. After dinner, they began an “auction” that offered no prizes. Just give us the cash, they said, and we expect everyone to participate. The opening bid was set at $50,000, and they worked it down (thank goodness) from there. Get your paddles ready.

The event honored the nonprofit’s founder, who had recently passed away, and soon became more of a revival meeting than a fundraiser. Gospel singers, tearful testimonials from corporate officers and the charity’s clients, hand holding, giveaway pens with lights at the ends that we all waved like teens at a rock concert, and pressure, pressure, pressure to give, give, give. Until it hurts. Because the poor folk whom you would never deign to talk to in your daily lives need it. Because our dear, departed Eleanor expects it.

Apart from massaging the bruise in my wallet, I spent much of my time not getting caught up in the fervor, and instead thinking about the writer’s role in philanthropy and society in general. Why didn’t I become wrapped up in the emotion of the evening, or the one-upmanship of live video check writing? The nonprofit does valuable work with young people, and yes, there is a part of me that aches to join the euphoria, and be accepted into this little world of good feelings. But I couldn’t. I saw the money flowing, and yet I knew that at least half the people in the room live in places where if they saw the people they’re supposedly helping coming up their driveways, they’d call the cops. I knew the event was about creating a heartwarming façade to cover the wealth and greed that keeps this once great city divided, and being able to give more than the couple on the other side of the table and about doing it in front of that live video feed.

So I remained outside. I am a writer, and my role, as distasteful as it may sound to some, is to observe (although I do plenty of volunteering for programs that promote writing, if that helps) and write about what I experience in a way that subtly illustrates the way things really work. Because my fiction is committed to an impartial truth. (And fiction tells a hell of a lot more truth than journalism, baby.) Because writers are our conscience—sometimes suppressed, and always nagging.

Sorry to be so heavy this week, but stuff like this bothers me.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


21 thoughts on “The Writer’s Role – Staying on the Outside

  1. It also bothers me when celebrities come down from the hills to promote giving to the latest disaster cause. They especially show up for the telethon or 2 hour CNN event, and I wonder how many of them are actually opening their own wallet? Then again, there are the Sean Penn’s and Brad Pitt’s of the world, who work for Haiti and New Orleans, and are not about getting their face plastered on the screen to say, “Look how great I am.”

    Posted by Jeff Dexter | March 24, 2012, 1:11 PM
    • I do respect the big names who give of their time and work for good causes. Those who use events like the one I attended just for networking or publicity, not so much.

      Posted by jpon | March 25, 2012, 11:26 PM
  2. You’re writing about two things.
    One is the nature of the event and other events like it, and in that mode you are being a good reporter.
    The other thing is your reaction to what you saw. I think I know you well enough to imagine you and I at a Lions game. We’d cheer (Yay. Yippee.) We’d stand and fist pump at a great play. We would NOT paint our bodies Honolulu Blue and Silver. We would NOT bring an air horn secreted under our home made Lion heads. It’s part of our nature to not display or preen.
    If you’re “outside” you’re not outside alone.
    (Of course I could be wrong, and that would certainly explain that can of blue spray paint that rolled out of your car last week.)

    Posted by jonzech | March 24, 2012, 3:57 PM
  3. Preach, brother. I’m on the outside with you.

    Posted by Averil Dean | March 24, 2012, 4:40 PM
  4. I understand your trepidation. People can assuage their conscious by donating cash but do nothing to change the system that keeps people poor. Also, I don’t like emotional manipulation, even if it is for a good cause. Your experience reminds me of funerals where the minister tries to convert people instead of focusing on the deceased. Sometimes it’s good to be the outsider; you don’t get caught up in the guilt.

    Posted by Felicia Elam | March 24, 2012, 11:50 PM
  5. All sounds like good material for a story, Joe.

    Posted by miriamagosto | March 25, 2012, 1:13 AM
  6. thank you deeply for this thoughtful sincere post. I go to events like the one you described, and a part of me hates them, and then there’s the part of me that reads terry eagleton and thinks any good we do is just that: some good. if the extremely rich can be made to feel guilty enough to cough up some cash, well then that’s something, and it’s not pretty and it’s not free of capitalist elitist clap-trap, but if it helps, it helps. and maybe one of those people will downsize and sell their house and give away the money. here’s hoping. and thanks for bruising your wallet.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 25, 2012, 4:57 AM
    • You are right, of course. Whatever it takes to get people to do good shouldn’t be criticized. But then, it’s my nature to do so. I admit, I am a purist about such things, and I hate to see ego play such a large part in a function that should be without it.

      By the way, Stephanie has blogged on a similar subject. Check her out at http://bit.ly/GOO2i8

      Posted by jpon | March 25, 2012, 11:38 PM
  7. 15 comments later, there’s not much to say except I admire your honesty.

    Posted by Christine Purcell (@cpurcellwriter) | March 27, 2012, 2:11 AM
  8. Blogs aren’t supposed to be heavy. What is this? I can’t even stand up out of my chair.

    Posted by Ross Gale | May 20, 2012, 7:06 AM

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