Writing as an Act of Empathy
Reading fiction has given me strong feelings and opinions about things I’ve never actually experienced. My ideas of how it felt to wear a corset in the 1800s, of how WWII affected Japanese workers, of what it’s like to have a cheating spouse, are all things I learned, and felt deeply, because of reading fiction. My empathy isn’t always my own; it is a response to someone else’s imagined description of that experience.
Fiction shapes our worldviews, often without us even being aware of it. It gives us the lenses and prototypes through which we see and experience the world. Fiction is the first place I encountered marriage—and difficulties in marriage. It allowed me to glimpse countries I had never been to. It’s the place I discovered sex, religious conversion, drinking, drugs, deep and lasting grief. It gave me a reassurance that I wasn’t alone in my emotional experiences, my moments of change. I wasn’t even alone in feeling alone.
As part of my experience in an MFA program, I often find myself reflecting on the ways that fiction gives me a chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Writing fiction gives me a chance to ask myself hard questions—how might it feel to be a different gender, different stage of life, a different sexual orientation? Writing fiction makes me pay attention to place, to gesture, to interactions—to what goes on while a conversation is happening, to all of the details we take in subconsciously. Writing fiction forces me to dig deeper into my own motivations, to question the stories I think are “true.” Am I really such a selfless person as I want to believe? What might my hidden motivations be that are influencing my choices?
Writing fiction doesn’t let me stand in judgment. Writing believable characters means getting inside of their heads—total honesty about the good and the bad of who this character is—and learning to see the world through their eyes, to ask myself questions about the whys and hows of motivations I’ve never considered before. Strangely, even though most of my writing time is spent alone in front of my computer screen, I’ve found that writing is a form of deep emotional empathy, a way of looking for beauty and understanding in dark places.
In its own way, fiction has a transformative power. It changes the way we see the world, the way we see each other, even the way we see ourselves. Not everyone can write the next bestseller; however (for me at least) reaching for that power is enough of a reason to keep writing, regardless of the results.
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