Friday, August 16, 2013

Empathy 102: What I Learned Outside My Door

We writers like to say that a novel's job is to entertain, and nothing more. But few of us really believe it.

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.

5 comments:

Megan Sayer said...

58 Minutes!! I watched 20 before I had to go out. She's good, very interesting, and the whole thing made me think about my own background and assumptions. I'm a funny hybrid of different socioeconomic backgrounds, all of which have influenced me somewhat, so I've taken forgranted a level of understanding and empathy with all manner of people my whole life...BUT...
Now that I'm such a seasoned (hehe) world traveller I'm understanding just how much of what I considered universal to be specifically Australian...or even specifically Tasmanian. Funny bits of thinking and cultural baggage, things I've blogged about that have struck a deep chord with fellow Aussies but have left my American readers scratching their heads somewhat. Its made me realise I may never, ever be able to write a character that isn't an Aussie without a stupid amount of in-depth research, and even then I'd get it wrong.
It also helped me understand why i've not enjoyed some books where the author has tried to write a character from a different culture to his or her own - I couldn't put my finger on it before this, but sometimes there's just something in the word choices, in the langage, that doesn't fit. I think now it's because the author hasn't recgnised how much of his or her cultural background is influencing the work.

Karen Schravemade said...

"The extent to which I flesh things out from my own experience is the extent to which I create a character like me" - BOOM! I'm challenged. This is so true. Thanks, Katy.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

The video took me all day to watch but I am very glad you posted it. I will be thinking about this all weekend.
My gift/handicap is empathy. I know better what other people are thinking than my own thoughts. This must be a survival technique of a nomad. To survive I must fit in, I must please you to fit in. The faster I know what pleases you the more likely my survival.
At the same time the video made me aware of my perspective. More tomorrow?

Cherry Odelberg said...

This is HUGE. I pride myself on being self-aware and others aware; and yet, I learned volumes. Yes. Things that affected my past relationships. I didn't mean to watch, I didn't really have time to watch. This was very valuable.
And your essay also speaks!

"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. "

Kathleen Popa said...

Yes, it's long, but really good stuff.

Megan, I think it's okay to write from an Aussie POV. I know so many Americans, but only one Tasmanian.

Henrietta, yes, it's both a gift and a handicap. But mostly a gift, as evidenced by the lives of people who don't have it.

More later.

Karen and Cherry: Mwah!