In April of this year, two writers, Matthew Quick (author of The Silver Linings Playbook and Sorta Like a Rock Star) and Alicia Bessette (Simply from Scratch), decided to make a blog to help promote their efforts, and, in the process, they began offering space to fellow writers of their acquaintance in which to compose stories of kindness.
I was alerted to the site, now called Quest For Kindness, a few months later, by a contributor who thought I would appreciate the old world charm of the thing. Indeed I was moved, and somewhat taken aback, by the wide-eyed innocence of the endeavor, and by the overt reasonableness of some of the posts. Quest for Kindness seemed, to me, like career suicide, but in a warm and self-sacrificing way. I asked the co-creators, who happened to be a married couple, to submit to a battery of questions on their intentions, and some weeks of silence ensued, in which I came to believe they debated internally whether they even wanted to continue with the work of the blog at all. And yet, as the answers below attest, they have not yet given up their quixotic endeavor, happily so.
Here are some answers to the questions that every thinking web surfer would ask Bessette and Quick.
The Rumpus: Can you tell us how the web site began and what prompted you?
Matthew Quick: It seemed like everywhere we looked on the Internet people were taking shots at each other, complaining, ‘critiquing,’ forming cliques, etc. There was also a lot of snarkiness. When we were deciding what type of blog we would use to help promote our work, we asked ourselves two questions: What’s not already out there? What will best represent us and our work?
Alicia Bessette: Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with snarkiness. Snarkiness done well is hilarious and incisive. But I tire of it easily, because at its root is mean-spiritedness. On the other hand, I never tire of kindness.
Rumpus: Are you guys both kind in daily life? Or is the site somehow a corrective on your malice and selfishness?
Bessette: I was raised Catholic; perhaps part of me still believes that the malice and selfishness deep within me has no known corrective! I really don’t know if I’m kind on a daily basis. I try to be. I hope I am. The other day I helped a wobbly old lady out of her kayak. Does that count? Should it “count,” or should it just be what it is?
Quick: I try to be kind. The narrator of my first novel practices “being kind rather than right.” I read that notion in an Anne Lamott essay a few years ago and it took on a special significance. I recently read this paraphrased quote on Twitter: If you want to be kind and gentle to others, you must first be kind and gentle to yourself. I think those are smart words. I’m no saint. I’m trying to live a healthy life and kindness is part of that effort. I think we are all prone to bouts of malice and selfishness. Quest for Kindness is not an attempt to repent, but to underscore the importance of kindness.
Rumpus: Do you think the fact that you are married is a part of what drove you to make the site?
Quick: It’s a nice team approach to blogging. Alicia and I support each other. Her success is my success and vice versa. Creating the shared blog seemed a natural step to take.
Bessette: I know some couples who really aren’t very kind to each other, who in fact don’t seem to like each other very much. It’s strange that sometimes, when you have a bad day, it’s easy to be unkind to the people closest to you in your day-to-day life, while you’re on your best, kindest behavior for others who don’t know you as well. Matt and I wanted to blog together but we didn’t want it to be, “this is what we did today.” We wanted to offer people something substantive, and something that hasn’t been done to death.
Rumpus: Do you ever quarrel about the site?
Bessette: Seldom. Something’s either about kindness, or it’s not. There’s not much to quarrel about.
Quick: Not that much, actually. We did a little when we were setting it up, but once we got into the rhythm of it, we didn’t/don’t really fight about it at all.
Rumpus: Is kindness a difficult thing to program week after week?
Quick: It can be. It sometimes seems as though the people who practice kindness succeed the least. It’s often daunting to see what gets writers attention. It can be hard to believe that a kindness-promoting site is important.
Bessette: Keeping up a weekly blog can be difficult. Too, it can be difficult to convince people to write about kindness. Some of the writers we solicited said that writing for Quest For Kindness was almost terrifying. In fact, many Quest For Kindness essays were delivered with an e-mail that expressed concern—If you don’t like my essay or can’t use it, no problem. We loved and used all of those essays.
Rumpus: Are you ever tempted to make a companion site that is just darkness and unpleasantness?
Bessette: There’s enough darkness and unpleasantness on the internet. I indulge my dark side by watching the nightly news. I also watch kung fu movies. I love ass-kicking movies.
Quick: There are writers that I admire greatly, writers whose books promote positive things, and yet I sometimes find these writers taking shots at other writers or picking fights in the name of some political cause or in defense of the type of writing they think is most important or whatever. When true dialogue occurs, it is seldom forwarded in e-mails or posted on Twitter or Facebook. But when the conversation gets mean and ugly, the drama usually attracts an audience.
I remember when I was in junior high a friend of mine created something called ‘The Busters’ Club.’ Two classmates would trade increasingly mean insults until one would quit. I always quit early and used to think that there was something wrong with me, because I couldn’t be the meanest seventh grader. Twenty-some years later, when some joker unfairly trashes someone I admire on Goodreads, Amazon, or whatever, I start to feel the same way. I’ve heard other writers say they won’t write reviews because it’s a conflict of interests, and I’m pretty much in that camp. I just want to write my stories and allow others to do the same.
It’s so hard to be a published writer these days. I don’t want to make it harder for anyone than it already is.
Rumpus: Favorite posts on the site? Why?
Quick: We’re grateful for and proud of all the posts, but posts by Heather Leah were particularly powerful, perhaps because I know those writers personally and they really allowed themselves to be emotionally vulnerable. I think one of the reasons many people struggle with the idea of celebrating kindness is because they are terrified of emotional vulnerability. When you act detached or like an asshole all of the time, you sort of put up a force field that keeps people at bay. When you practice being kind, you open yourself up to many difficult emotions, especially when the people around you don’t value kindness. You have to be strong to be kind—stronger than most people can be on a daily basis. I often struggle with my inability to be kind. I think most people do.
Bessette: Is it unkind to pick favorites? Hilary Parkinson’s essay about being abandoned by family, then lifted up by strangers, makes me cry every time.
Rumpus: Do you worry that the site will result in a reputation for excessive amounts of squeaky clean for you both?
Bessette: Our books have been described as earnest and wholesome. But I’m really not worried about us appearing excessively squeaky clean.
Quick: If Quest For Kindness results in any lasting reputation whatsoever, I’ll be pleased. We’re not squeaky clean at all. We’re just two writers trying to live life the best we can.
The Rumpus: Are either of you evangelical?
Quick: Hardcore Protestants raised me, so my upbringing definitely colors my worldview. But what we do on Quest For Kindness (and in our work) doesn’t align us with the philosophies of my religious family members. Alicia and I don’t belong to or attend a church. We don’t claim any one faith. Almost all of my writing heroes are atheists. Kurt Vonnegut has always been my number one literary hero. He was an atheist, but his work almost always underscored the need for kindness. So I’d say I’m no more or less evangelical than Vonnegut.
Bessette: I have a knee-jerk resistance to anything that’s presented in an all-or-nothing way, even if it’s good. I hope Quest For Kindness isn’t perceived as evangelical, but as an invitation to join a conversation.
Rumpus: Is there a particular kind of prose that is kind? Do kind writers all write the same way?
Bessette: You don’t have to be a kind writer or even a kind person to write about kindness. I think the beauty of Quest For Kindness is the variety of stories, all the different ways kindness affects people, and how it’s expressed in various settings and circumstances.
Quick: When I was a high school English teacher I used to remind myself that I worked in the humanities department and therefore I should teach my students to be humane. I also had a picture of Kurt Vonnegut front and center in my classroom. Vonnegut was holding a baby. Underneath KV was a quote about infecting young people with humanity before they grew up and stopped reading fiction. I think that’s what all the great writers have and will do, in one way or another—infect people with humanity. I’m standing by Vonnegut on this one.
The Rumpus: Is Kindness inevitably married to the memoir form?
Quick: Absolutely not.
Bessette: We ask for true tales, and so far, the responses have been memoiristic, which suits me fine. I wouldn’t mind featuring philosophical or journalistic takes on the subject. A photo-essay would be cool too.
Rumpus: Is kindness a political act for you guys or just a literary act?
Bessette: It’s neither political nor literary. It’s just something that interests me, as an antidote to the negativity that seems pervasive.
Quick: It’s more of an ideal that transcends political and literary labels. We really wanted Quest For Kindness to be inclusive. We definitely have beliefs and ideas, but we find that labels often prohibit dialogue. Deep down we all know what’s kind and what’s not.
Rumpus: And why a “quest?” Does it feel like a quest to you? In the old sense of the word?
Quick: In some ways it really does. We wanted to search for and illuminate acts of kindness by giving writers an opportunity to promote their voices in a positive and uplifting manner. We were curious to see if people would rise to the occasion, if there was an audience for this sort of weekly experience.
Bessette: In an age that celebrates cynicism, sometimes it does seem that I need to actively search for kindness, in order to celebrate it. To me the word “quest” connotes a personal journey, and as far as one can undertake a personal journey on the Internet, Quest For Kindness feels like one. But, for it to be a true quest, I would require a sword. Or at least a dagger. Preferably with a bejeweled handle.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.