Author Donna Cameron explores the power of kindness in her new book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You.
Donna recently talked with Rose City Reader about her book, the concept of kindness, and her life as a writer:
How did you come to write A Year of Living Kindly?
I’ve always been awed by kind people and wanted to be kinder myself. It’s not that I was unkind, but I think for most of my life, I settled for nice. At the beginning of 2015, I decided to make a year-long deep-dive into kindness. I wanted to explore it, both from a personal, experiential perspective and also an investigative one. I saw that science was finally looking at kindness – measuring, testing, and coming up with solid evidence that kindness has quantifiable benefits. I shared my research as well as my experience and observations in my Year of Living Kindly blog. For me, the blog was a good way to stay accountable and committed.
I called it “A Year of Living Kindly,” but saw very early on that kindness isn’t something you adopt for a year and then decide to move on to learning how to salsa dance or play the accordion. I knew I was making a lifelong commitment to kindness. With some encouragement from the incredible community that was following my blog, I decided in 2016 to turn what I had learned and shared into a book.
What is your background and how did it prepare you to write a book about kindness?
I spent my career working with nonprofit groups and causes. It was there where I really saw kindness in action on a daily basis. People who work with nonprofits – whether they’re charitable and philanthropic groups, or trade and professional organizations – don’t do it for the money. Mostly, they volunteer their time and talent because they believe in a cause and they want to give back.
That undoubtedly influenced my interest in kindness. I saw its power and also saw that a lot of people mistakenly think kindness is weak or insubstantial, when, in fact, it’s a strength – a superpower.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
With regard to my subject, I learned that the deeper I delved into kindness, the more kindness filled my world. It really reinforced the oft-spoken notion that what you look for is what you will find. Wayne Muller says it best: “Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” And he also said, “When we do what we love, again and again, our life comes to hold the fragrance of that thing.” My world is now fragrant with kindness.
With regard to writing, as frivolous as this may sound, I learned the importance of fun. I’ve always been a writer and loved writing, but I saw more clearly than ever while writing this book – and also while promoting it – that for me, fun is a huge part of the process. Playing with words and ideas really is play, and the more I bring a sense of adventure and fun to it, the freer and more powerful the writing.
What will readers learn from your book?
I hope readers will recognize that kindness is a strength and it often takes courage, and also that they possess that strength and courage. I hope people will see what might sometimes get in the way of their kindness and how to avoid those potholes. I hope they’ll understand the skills of kindness –they’re all fairly simple, but they take practice and paying attention.
I hope people will see that there’s no such thing as a small kindness and that our kindnesses create ripples that go out beyond our imagining. I hope people see that even though we seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of unkindness and incivility, we can spread kindness and change the epidemic. Because kindness really is contagious. I hope they’ll see that they always have a choice – and they can always choose kindness.
And I hope they’ll be entertained. While the book is under the broad umbrella of “self-help,” I’m not telling anyone how to live their life or claiming to have found the “true path” to anything. I’m sharing what I’ve learned about kindness and how it’s transformed my life, in the hope that readers will customize it to their own lives.
You have said that you are inspired by the idea of “pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” Can you explain that a bit?
This is a notion the amazing Rachel Naomi Remen put forward and as soon as I heard it, its truth resonated for me. I love the power of mystery – of not-knowing and not having to have answers to every question. The enjoyment is in exploring ideas and what-ifs, and doing it with people who also share that desire – who don’t always have to be right or have certainty. While many things are black and white, the most interesting ideas are the nuances, the shades of gray. Curiosity is one of our most powerful tools – both as writers and as human beings.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
I majored in Russian literature, and still have a passion for the great Russian authors, but my more contemporary favorites in fiction include Ann Patchett, Elinor Lipman, and the astonishing Robertson Davies. In non-fiction, I love great essayists, among them Rebecca Solnit, Meghan Daum, Anne Lamott, Nora Ephron, and many others.
I think I am influenced by everything I read. Everything deepens the well. I enjoy seeing how authors put words and ideas together – a fresh metaphor, a phrase that captures the essence of a concept, crisp dialogue. Fifteen years ago, I attended a four-day intensive workshop on storytelling with Rachel Remen, and what I learned has served me in myriad ways. Rachel’s two books (Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings) are two of my all-time favorites – books I reread every couple of years and have given as gifts countless times.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I love well-crafted fiction. I love reading both memoirs and biographies. I am captivated by good essays. I also enjoy a good, character-driven mystery. My TBR list is voluminous and I keep adding to it. Currently, I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, Unsheltered. Her books are a master class in the crafts of writing and storytelling.
You have a terrific website and blog, and are also active on Twitter and Facebook. From an author's perspective, how important is the internet to promote your book?
As long as we don’t succumb to addiction and sacrifice writing time to social media compulsion, these tools are vital. My website and blog are a place to connect with thoughtful, like-minded people. And I’ve found Facebook and Twitter to be marvelous places to create community. While there’s plenty to avoid on both platforms, the generosity of other writers and other kindness advocates is consistently inspiring. While the act of writing is of necessity solitary, the community of writers is a treasure beyond measure that many writers may overlook.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
With the holidays upon us, my book events have come to a temporary halt. I do have a few speaking engagements in the new year and hope to have a few more bookstore appearances (my events are posted on my website). During these quiet weeks, I’m looking forward to more time for reading.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
The tried-and-true advice on butt-in-chair, just-write-even-if-it’s-crap, and writers write, are all obvious, basic, and also truths we need to continually remind ourselves.
One piece of advice that came to me sort of through a back door happened when I was talking with another author a few months before my book came out. She said she wished she could have a do-over because she was so stressed during her publication year that she didn’t enjoy it. She said she was miserable, worrying about all the things she should be doing and all the things she didn’t have time to do, as well as all the things she might not be doing perfectly. I decided then and there that I wanted to be able to look back on this year and say (or sing), “I had the time of my life!” So I tried to have fun in everything I did and didn’t worry about the things I didn’t have time or bandwidth to do. As a result, this has been one of the most joy-filled years of my life.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Number one: discovery. For me writing is a process of discovery. It helps me clarify my thoughts, and come face-to-face with new ideas. There is magic in rereading something I’ve just written and wondering, “Where did that come from?” and even saying (modestly, of course), “Wasn’t that nicely put!”
Number two: touching lives. Nothing compares with the feeling one gets when a reader takes the time to comment – to say they liked your book, it made them laugh, it touched them or in some way changed them.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
These last six months of book promotion have been pretty intensive. I’ve continued to write blog posts and to write quite a few articles that have been placed in a wide variety of publications. As the book promotion settles down, I am looking forward to getting back into a more regular writing routine. Right now, I am feeling drawn to shorter forms. I love writing essays have several topics I’m eager to dive in to. I feel like this year has prepared me to be more bold and courageous in my writing, and also to be more playful. I’m eager to see what’s next.
THANK YOU, DONNA!
A YEAR OF LIVING KINDLY IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER TO ORDER IT!