Friday, August 16, 2013
Empathy 102: What I Learned Outside My Door
At least that's my conviction based on years of reading other author's stories, both good and bad, both CBA fiction and general market. We all hope our writing will entertain you and challenge your cherished assumptions, entertain you and make you a kinder person, entertain you and change the way you vote. And the novels I have loved the best have done all these things for me and more.
The ones I have loved the least have only tried.
And they have failed resoundingly enough to make me cautious about what exactly I would try to do beyond telling the best story I could. The thing I landed on was this: A good story would make the reader see through another person's eyes. It would give her a sustained, 300 page experience of deep empathy.
To do this, I had to climb inside my character's skin while I wrote, to flesh out the way I would feel in her circumstance, to experience the empathy I wished to pass on to my reader.
You yourself may have read something you've written, knowing you've accomplished the thing you'd set out for... but not entirely. I've done that: read my work and known I'd given the reader a 300 page experience of empathy - but not deep empathy.
I believe my year of working at a Resource Center and soaking in all the training my job requires has shown a bit of where the problem lies in my fiction. It begins in the "crawling into the skin" part. I've only ever crawled in as far as my own lifetime experience can take me. My work and training has shown how far that falls short of the mark. This year I have learned a simple, profound lesson:
Lot's of people don't think like I do.
For instance: a person whose parents and grandparents held a socio/economic status different from mine would hold un-questioned, so-obvious-they-never-even-notice-them values that differ profoundly from my own un-questioned values. Not only that, but their values might make perfect sense from where they stand, and untill I manage to stand in that place with them I'll know nothing about empathy.
The extent to which I flesh things out from my own experience is the extent to which I create a character like me, and, probably, like my reader. I could easily bump into Dara at church. I could stand next to Bertie in the checkout line and never notice. Couldn't you?
I'm not sure when, but one day I want to show you the world through the eyes of someone you've never been before. For now, I'll just show you a highly-watchable video from a woman who has changed the way I see the world.
I'd love to read your reactions. Please do share.