Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.38: Volunteer Opportunities for Writers, with Jared Quan

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Jared Quan

Jared Quan serves as a volunteer on several non-profit boards, and joined us to talk about the opportunities that exist for writers. Administration, leadership, writing and editing, and teaching are just a few of the many kinds of roles available for volunteers.

Credits: This episode was recorded live at LTUE by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Research writing organizations, and their events. look for volunteer opportunities.

Thing of the week: Changing Wax, by Jared Quan.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: What do writers volunteer to do? All kinds of things! Leaders, treasurers, secretaries, teachers. Conventions, writing groups, organizations, fanzines, everybody needs volunteers, and you may be just the right person. To help getting resources and putting skills to use. Institutional memory, historians! Reading slush. Be a zero first — come in, help maintain the status quo and understand it, then help make positive changes. Most writers don’t need a volunteer intern. What do you get out of volunteering? First, be excited enough about it that you are willing to volunteer. Second, don’t go in looking for exposure or a chance to meet your heroes. Do go in to learn about other people’s problems, and ways to help solve them. Interns want to advance their career, volunteers want to change the world. Volunteering in science fiction/fantasy fandom — if Isaac Asimov can help staple fanzines, you can too. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 38.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Volunteer Opportunities for Writers with Jared Quan.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry. 

[Howard] And I want to volunteer.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan. 

[Howard] I’m kidding.


[Brandon] That’s your best one in a while, Howard. Nice job. We’re live at LTUE science fiction convention.

[Whoo! Applause]

[Brandon] We have special guest star Jared Quan. Jared, tell us a little bit about yourself.

[Jared] For sure. So, I’m currently a volunteer on five nonprofit boards. I work four jobs. I have five children, one of which has been in a heart transplant for about a year now.

[Brandon] You offered this opportunity to us to talk about volunteering, which is not something we’ve ever even approached on the podcast. So, I’m really excited for this. So I just want to say, like, “Writers volunteering? You have writers volunteering for you? What do they do?”

[Jared] They do just about everything. Thankfully. Actually, every convention, every writing group, every small or large writing group needs volunteers in order to succeed. So, writers we have fulfilling roles from leadership capacities to treasurer to teaching classes. Depending on what’s needed at the time.

[Brandon] Awesome. How do writers find these opportunities? How do you find these writers?

[Jared] Well, writers often times hide themselves away in small basements…


[Jared] So we go through the streets, beating wild gongs, and have them come out of their free will. Oh, we post opportunities. We put them online. We have them come out to our groups. We let them know what opportunities are available. Writers, often times, very curious about things, will occasionally volunteer themselves out. Very hesitantly…

[Mary Robinette] I’m just going to_what he’s saying, that everybody… Every organization needs volunteers. Like, I am… I do a lot of volunteer stuff effectively with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. So, at the time of this recording, I am currently running unopposed for the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Which means, by the time you’re listening to this, I will likely have been a year into volunteering for this organization. Aside from two employees, everything that SFWA does is volunteer run.

[Dan] A lot of people ask, because Utah has so many writers, so many best-selling writers, such a massive and successful writing community. My answer is always that it is people like Jared. It is the people who are organizing all of these fellowships and writing conventions, and all of the support groups. It’s the volunteers who are forming that very supportive community that helps create all of these writers and give them the tools that they need to succeed.

[Mary Robinette] Wait a minute. You said five boards?

[Jared] Yes.


[Jared] Yes. Five boards. All with the blessing of my wife, thankfully. So I’m on the Cultural Arts Society of West Jordan, which is the West Jordan Arts Council. I serve with the South Jordan Arts Council, the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance, the League of Utah Writers, and Big World Network. So I’m very diversified on my opportunities. Now, I used to volunteer on other boards, like the Association of IT Professionals, as well as some other city boards. But five tended to be my limit.


[Jared] It might be a little different for everybody else. I don’t recommend that everybody rush out and try to get on to five boards. Try one out first. See how that goes. Then see if you can expand from there.

[Brandon] So, on average, like, I don’t know if there is an average, but like what is some examples of some of the things you do on some of these boards? Talk a little bit about the challenges that these boards have.

[Jared] For sure. When it came to the League of Utah Writers, I was a two-time president. In its 83 year history, the constitution would allow for a president to serve one term, be a president-elect president, and then they move to past president. I was very fortunate, the board had voted to amend the constitution to allow me to be the president for a second year in a row in its 83 year history. So, I was very honored to have that. But then it was because I was leading over the group of volunteers, and trying to figure out the best way to utilize their resources and help them both find the resources they were looking for and put their best skills to use. There’s other instances, where, with the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance, where I’m on their grants and fundraising board, where I have to go out there and try and help get the funding for the arts to be successful, which can be very difficult. Getting authors, we often refer that to like herding a bunch of chickens. That same thing is exactly true when it comes to getting them to volunteer for things. We have many very dedicated, hard-working volunteers, and many that want to be dedicated, hard-working volunteers, but most of the time, they try hard. We really appreciate them, regardless.

[Brandon] Mary Robinette, you have served for SFWA before. You were the treasurer, I think?

[Mary Robinette] No, god, no.


[Brandon] You were something else.

[Mary Robinette] Secretary.

[Brandon] Secretary. That’s what it was.

[Mary Robinette] And vice president.

[Brandon] What did you do? Like, what were some examples of things that you participated in?

[Mary Robinette] So, I was the secretary, and then the vice president. My role, as the secretary, was to make sure that communications went out to the members in a timely fashion, and then to take minutes. We have since usually, I believe that the current board actually has someone else to take minutes. So they don’t rely on a secretary who can type fast. Which, weirdly, for a group of writers, is actually difficult to find sometimes. Then, as the vice president, I supported the presidential… The president’s initiatives. So that’s involving helping set policy. Then, I also did volunteer coordination. Which, at the time, with SFWA, was paired with the vice president. But the reason that it was paired with the vice president was that originally the vice president was someone who enjoyed doing volunteer coordination. So then that got linked. I also enjoyed doing volunteer coordination. But subsequent vice presidents have not, so there is a separate volunteer coordinator. I think that’s one thing that you should know when you go to volunteer for someone, is that you should know what it is that you enjoy doing. The other thing that I say is also to look at things that you want to improve on, because this gives you a great opportunity to practice things and do some good.

[Howard] One of the things that I’ve noticed with a lot of volunteer organizations with which I’ve interacted mostly from the outside is the absence of a strong institutional memory. That, from year-to-year, things will change. Something got done really well one year, and then it’s like they forgot how to do it all together. The thought that I had, and I’m running this past you, I’m vetting this idea with you, writers who want to volunteer might consider volunteering as historians. Creating institutional memory, perhaps, by documenting things that are working and things that are not.

[Brandon] Mary?

[Mary Robinette] I have so much to say about this. So, the thing is that most of the time actually people are documenting these things. That’s what the minutes are. The problem is training incoming board members to actually read those minutes and to look at the institutional history. So, a lot of boards solve this problem by having an executive director who does not turnover. That is a paid position. SFWA has an executive director, who’s Kate Baker. Then, the associate Executive Director, Terra LeMay. They are the only two employees. But they exist predominantly to provide institutional memory. We also have an operations policy and procedure manual for exactly that thing that you’re talking about. But you do have to train incoming board members to read those.

[Jared] Exactly. That’s part of the problem. I mean, people really want to jump in there and volunteer. Sometimes you train them really well, but they’re just not very good natural leaders. Sometimes they’re just tremendous leaders. But when it comes to volunteering, I think the most interesting question for people is typically like, “Why would I volunteer? Why would I give up gobs of my writing time to go out and volunteer?” It’s not a completely unrewarding piece when it comes to volunteering. As it turns out, it’s very rewarding. Often times, it gives you access to tons of resources and opportunities that you would never have had the opportunity for hedge you not volunteered.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is Changing Wax.

[Jared] Yes. Changing Wax, it’s my favorite book. It’s a… Kind of like an homage to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. It’s a world ruled by dark and light, dictated by a book of magic. The book’s become so powerful, it lets the leaders of those two factions know exactly who’s going to kill them, who’s going to end their reign. So it’s a story about how sometimes you meet your destiny on the road to escape it, as well as a story of unlikely heroes pursuing it.

[Brandon] Awesome. So, I think we would be remiss if we didn’t mention while we’re at a science fiction convention that one of the great ways for writers and fans to volunteer is to get involved in your local science fiction convention. Most conventions, like LTUE, are fan run, fan created. They need tons of volunteers. These conventions provide avenues for aspiring writers to meet other writers, to listen to panels, and things like this. I mean, it’s not the only thing that cons do, they do a ton of things. But, me personally, my entire career was helped greatly by the people who were willing to volunteer and run conventions. Something I have a lot of experience with was also volunteering on a science fiction fanzine. The local fanzine at my university… Although we wouldn’t call it a fanzine, we called it semi-pro-zine, because we did pay a few cents…


[Brandon] But, really, it was the same sort of thing, where it was, “Let’s gather as a community. Let’s try and help other writers by giving them feedback. Let’s create something. Let’s see what it’s like to publish.” I tell you, if you’re an aspiring writer, going for a little while and sitting and reading slush and learning how a zine works. Even a semi-pro or very small magazine. It will help you understand the business and the industry so much. It’s one of the most foundational things in me becoming a professional writer, was me seeing what other aspiring writers were writing.

[Mary Robinette] So, I want to talk to people who are thinking… Listening to this going, “Oh, I think I may want to start volunteering for something. That’s a great idea.” I’m going to talk about something that Chris Hadfield says in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He talked about becoming an astronaut, and that his goal, the thing he wanted, was to be exceptional. That, if you’re an astronaut, that’s kind of one of the drives. But that what he actually learned was that he needed, when he came into a new situation, to aim to be a zero. That sounds offputting at first. But what he meant was that you come in, the situation is stable. You can either be a positive force or a negative force, or you can be neutral and you can help maintain status quo. When you first come into a new situation, you don’t actually know exactly what the status quo is. So you can try to make changes that are actually making things worse. Or you can just try to help maintain the status quo until you understand it, and then you can aim to be a force for positive change. So, one of the things that I recommend when people come in… Usually people come in and they’re like, “I want to change everything. I want to shake up the system.” It’s like, “Come in. Just work with the system for a little bit.” Figure out why things are that way before you start diving in and trying to change things. Just aim to be a zero for a little bit.

[Jared] Absolutely. I think that’s one of the best things you can do, is get into the… To see… Because sometimes from the outside you have an assumption of why they don’t have a resource or why they’re not doing something so well. But when you get in there and volunteer, you can kind of get to see it firsthand and go, “Oh, I get it. The reason they don’t have that is because it costs $10,000 and nobody has that right now.” It’s being able to see those things and then apply the right type of advice or work towards something so that you can help them accomplish it.

[Brandon] So, kind of along these lines, this is an odd one to say. I get a lot of people asking me if I need a volunteer intern.


[Brandon] I don’t know if that’s happened to you guys on the panel, but I get this a lot. I understand this instinct. You’re an aspiring professional writer. Often times, in many fields, they’ll say, “Well, go intern,” or things like this and whatnot. The problem is I don’t need interns. I’m sitting by myself, writing my books. The things I could use you for as slave labor will not be helpful for you in your publishing. In fact, it would be irresponsible of me to take you on as an intern and have you do that because, as an intern, I should be teaching you. In fact, many cities and states have laws on what you can have an intern do and how much time they should be spent in learning. I hire people to do those things for me, rather than just using the free intern labor. So I feel really bad. People often ask if they can do this. I do know that a lot of publishers take interns. So you could try that. But generally, asking writers if you can intern for them is not going to be very fruitful.

[Howard] One of the things that you said earlier, Jared, the… You asked the question, “What am I going to get out of this?” My response, when we’re talking about volunteering, is that the first answer needs to be I need to not feel like I’m getting anything out of it. I need to be excited enough to do this that I’m willing to volunteer. The second piece, and I feel like this is pretty critical. If there’s an opportunity for exposure, or an opportunity to meet my heroes who are doing whatever, I need to never let that be the driving force. Because it’s probably going to incorrectly shape the way I behave. So what is it that I’m really getting out of it? The answer that I would give is I am going to learn the shape of other people’s problems, and then find ways to solve them.

[Jared] Absolutely. That’s the best answer you can give. There’s… As a conference organizer, having worked with volunteers across different organizations, nothing drives you more nuts than somebody who comes in just wanting to talk about themselves, wanting to brag about themselves, wanting to like insert themselves next to like their hero. I get it. I mean, I have heroes that I’ve… Could have had the opportunity, had I manipulated a situation, to be next to. But it’s a byproduct. A reward is just a byproduct. It’s not just filling your… You will be rewarded, but it’s not going out there just because you’re going to be rewarded. That’s just something that naturally comes, eventually.

[Mary Robinette] Just to draw a line under that. I think one of the big differences between an intern… With puppetry, we do intern all the time. Because there’s a direct exchange there. But the big difference between an intern and a volunteer, or even between an effective volunteer and an ineffective volunteer, is that volunteers do come in because they want to change the world. Even if it’s just a small microcosm. An intern is trying to advance their career. Someone who’s coming into a volunteer position to try to advance themselves is coming into it for the wrong reason. It’s not that you can’t also have that as a byproduct. But it can’t be the driving force, because your priorities at that point become the wrong priorities.

[Brandon] I think I’ll just close this out with one of my favorite stories I’ve ever heard about volunteering in sci-fi fantasy fandom. It was when Dan and I were at one of our very first conventions we were going to as aspiring writers. One of the World Fantasy conventions. I can’t remember which one it was at, but we were sitting in the audience listening. They were talking, the topic became volunteering at conventions and volunteering on fanzines. One of the authors there shared a story, where when they were a bit younger, they somewhat chagrinedly said, “You know, I got my very first professional sale. I sold to one of the magazines. I suddenly thought I’ve made it. I am now a pro. I have crossed the lane, so to speak. Their friends at the con are like, ‘Hey, do you want to come help us put the fanzine together?'” They said, “Well, you know, I’m a pro now. So I don’t think I need to be involved in this anymore.” At that moment, Isaac Asimov’s head poked out of one of the rooms and said, “Hey, we’re out of page 17. Can you send some more down?” This author felt like an utter fool. Our entire community is advanced by people volunteering and pitching in and together making science fiction fantasy fandom happened. So I want to say thank you to everyone who’s here at the convention, and particularly those who have volunteered. Give yourselves a round of applause.

[Whoo! Applause]

[Brandon] In some ways, you’re volunteering here by being our studio audience for us on our podcast.


[Brandon] Jared, I want to say thank you very much for coming on. Do you have a writing prompt for us?

[Jared] Yes. Absolutely. The writing prompt, my wife Lisa would be remiss if I didn’t kind of give this as a prompt, is to actually go out and do a little bit of research on the writing organizations or groups that are in your area, and what activities or events they have to see where there might be a volunteer opportunity.

[Brandon] That is the perfect writing prompt to have at the end of this podcast. So, thank you very much. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Or volunteer.

[Brandon] Or volunteer.