The post first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.
In 1939, Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina, founder of the St. Petersburg puppet theater and wife of a composer, traveled to a Russian village northeast of Moscow. Her young daughter had died seven years earlier, and the Soviet Union was at the time gripped by the government-sponsored purges. At home, gunshots would awaken her in the morning, and many of her friends and neighbors were arrested.
But, in the village, she found a sort of peace. The town was known for its icon painting, and she took heart in the small creative gestures the artists were able to indulge in when not churning out soulless painted boxes.
At the end of her trip, Shaporina sat in a restaurant having lunch, and watched three men at a nearby table. They downed multiple liters of vodka and bottles of beer as they chattered on in their jargon. They were “economic planners,” she noticed — some sort of “bosses.”
They drank and reveled in their authority. She couldn’t escape the reality of the state terror consuming her country.
In her diary later, she despaired.
“It’s terribly hard to build, but oh, so easy to destroy.”
Shaporina was right, I think. We demolish, smash, and tear down at a whim; we cut one another’s feelings to the bone with a word; we end decades-long relationships with a burst of anger.
But that’s not all we do.
Humans also create, build, and inspire. Literature and art are a testament to that impulse, and Shaporina’s own puppet theater was her greatest solace during years of agony.
Even during our darkest moments, people are escorting the injured from buildings, transporting homeless dogs hundreds of miles to find them new families, putting sweat and tears into restoring old churches so others can delight in them. People doing good are always building; sometimes, we need to be reminded of their efforts.
My heart is built of words and books, so my optimism naturally runs in those same channels. I’ll be writing this column to celebrate the kindness that people bring to one another using books and writing — even when the world is difficult, even when it seems like all anyone wants to do is destroy.
Because it might be easier to destroy, but humans are better than that.
Take Kelly Hopkins, for example. Hopkins is a creative-writing teacher and librarian and, in 2017, she began to wonder why so many writing contests were only for adults. She posed the question on Twitter and began chatting with Michael Mammay, a fellow writer and contest mentor.
Together, they came up with TeenPit, a contest for high school students that matches teens with experienced writers. Together, mentors and teens revise the first chapter of the students’ novel manuscripts (with 25,000 words or more). Last year’s inaugural contest matched 25 teens with mentors.
Five of the finalists, as top prizes, sailed directly into the final round of one of the online writing world’s most competitive contests, Pitch Wars. And one TeenPit contestant signed with an agent after completing the contest.
“I'm so proud of all of our students and how much they have grown through the process,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins and Mammay put a lot of time into rounding up mentors, soliciting and evaluating contestants, and working with teens. All so that young writers around the world feel more empowered to pursue their dreams.
“I think teens who write need to know there is more out there for them. This gives them an opportunity to connect with a professional writer — someone who knows the ups and downs of the professional writing life — and to engage with that life for a couple of weeks,” Hopkins said.
That effort seems to have paid off. One TeenPit alum, Bethany, told me that the contest opened her eyes.
“Meeting other teen writers and working with published authors encouraged me in my own writing. Working with a mentor on my opening chapters gave me a new perspective on editing and reading my own work that still helps me with my current writing."
I’m heartened by people like Hopkins and Mammay who devote their scarce time to helping young strangers become better writers. In that way, we build a stronger world. One bound by kindness and respect, with an awe of art.
In the coming months, I hope to share other stories about how books and writers brighten days. It won’t be maudlin because we won’t lose sight of the world’s cruelty. We won’t pretend that darkness doesn’t exist.
But we will remember how ordinary people build in order to hold the destruction at bay.
This is the first installment of a new column, Literally Kind. Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina’s diary entries can be found in Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen.