Words on the Street, Revisited #32: Help!

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.

I don’t recall how I learned that ThomMcAn was looking for help.  Did I see a Help Wanted sign on one of the featured shoe displays? Did Tara or Tammy or Tabitha in one of my classes at High School East announce it during homeroom one morning? (“Hey dirtbags, ThomMcAn is hiring so if you need a job tell `em I sent you. I quit last night. Too many smelly feet for me.”) Did I just walk in one day and ask if I could fill out an application?


I may not know how I landed the gig but I do know this: It was the mid-1980s in a small beach town on the Jersey Shore so when summer ended a lot of kids went from working on the boardwalk to working at the mall. I already had a job at the family gas station business on the other side of town but that felt too much like family (because it was) and I wanted to learn new stuff in new places with new people. And apparently ThomMcAn seemed to have what I was looking for at the time. I got the job and learned fast why people who sold shoes in those days pushed customers to buy socks, leather cleaner and shoelaces. Higher commissions!


I quickly came to love it and hate it. 


The pressure to sell stuff that hardly anyone wanted to buy coupled with the smelly feet (she was right) made for a situation that got old very quickly. But then there were the people who came in to buy their firsts which was adorable and endearing: first shoes (ever!), first pair of sandals with a “little heel” and first pair of high tops.


But the metal foot measuring device that I never learned how to use properly is what has the most ferocious staying power when I think back to that job and that time. The memory of it and my incompetence with it are nestled into my very own internal filing cabinet of stubborn stuff—sensations, stories, snapshots. Most of us writers possess a cabinet like this and, on good days, learn to use it.  To remember, reimagine, refresh. And, if we’re lucky, to write from that process. 




I always needed help with the foot measuring thing. Sometimes, I didn’t nudge the customer’s foot all the way back. This meant the sizing was inaccurate. Sometimes it wasn’t even and smooth on the flat part of the floor. And sometimes I had it backwards.


ThomMcAn taught me many things. I’m not a natural salesperson. I don’t have a problem if shoe boxes are stacked out of order. I don’t like jamming people’s feet into metal measuring devices (or stilletos, for that matter.) 


And it taught me that asking for help can help.




Let’s leap, in our sneakers, high heels or saddle shoes, to what really matters here.


As writers, how to we ask for, give and receive help?




  1. Make a list of the people in your writing circle who you can truly count on. Place that list in a safe place and pull it out when you find yourself saying things like: I have nothing left to say. OR I will never find the words I need to write what it is I want to write. OR I’m done.  Suggestions for safe hiding places: In the pages of a favorite book? Under a paperweight on your writing desk? On a blank NOTES page on your phone, one labeled with your lucky number?
  2. Call/text/email an instructor you had at one point along the way and ask them to remind you of their favorite writing charms and wisdoms.
  3. Go to a space that you find inviting and invigorating. A place that allows ideas, possibilities and potential to surface. For some this may be a museum, others a park. For some a church, a temple or a mosque. For some, a movie theatre or the beach. You choose. Go there and ask for help. Write your appeal down in a journal or on a piece of paper while you are there. Save it. (See #1 on safe place suggestions.) One of my favorite TED Talks is the one where Elizabeth Gilbert talks about finding and catching ideas. And talking to the muses. Check it out here.




  1. Donate to a Little Free Library. Find one in your area by clicking here.
  2. Write a review for a debut or lesser-known author. Here are some tips on this.
  3. Offer to provide childcare or dinner to a writer who could use help with kids and/or household tasks. We are all busy and sometimes these kinds of gestures kick into gear when tragedy strikes which is helpful, of course. But what about the everyday struggle to make new work, generate fresh pieces and just allow for exploration on the page. Even a meal or one hour of assistance can help a writer needing to write.
  4. Purchase a gift card for a class or a one-day writing event and give it to someone you know will appreciate it or donate that to a local organization that celebrates the arts.




  1. When given time to read, share and discuss your work, whether in a formal workshop or on a coffee date with a friend, restrain the urge to rush through and move along quickly. Give your work the attention it deserves and receive the criticism and praise with equal parts grace and curiosity. Being clear about how much time is available and using a timer, when necessary and appropriate, can help with this.
  2. Remember, that when people offer feedback you can listen, consider and discern. It is entirely possible to be grateful for suggestions from writer comrades and, at the same time, still be the person who is steering the ship that is your very own revision process.
  3. This is an oldie but goodie: write handwritten notes. Thank-you notes, No Occasion notes, I don’t know when your birthday is but Happy Birthday notes. It may seem like sending a note or letter is the opposite of receiving but I happen to think when we write to someone we receive something, too.




Ask, give and receive. A trifecta of helping ways bound to keep the writing flowing and going, no matter what shoes you choose.




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