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Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

Nikki Giovanni

When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.

But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.

I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.

Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations.  And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.

The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.

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I ran across an excellent article on an economics blog I follow called “Amateurs versus Professionals.” It very much applies to what I’ve observed about writing, and I imagine it holds true for many other pursuits and professions as well. I thought it would be fun to expand on some of the points made. (Yes, this is totally what I do for fun. Welcome to my mind.)

After reading this list, it occurs to me that much of the difference between an amateur and a professional is a state of mind. This means that even during the earliest stages of a career, we can aspire to professionalism. And I believe this state of mind will make it much likely to eventually find success.

Here are some points I find particularly relevant:

Execution: Amateurs don’t see their work through. They don’t finish. They don’t find the time, or they get distracted by other shiny ideas, or they allow themselves to be held back by their own fears. To a professional, execution is paramount: “Sure, they occasionally abandon a project when they see further effort is fruitless, but the mark of a pro is someone who begins and ends.”

Image: Amateurs are concerned with image, whereas professionals are concerned with their work.

It can be fun to be involved in the industry, to network and name drop and know “important” people. And knowing writers definitely livens up my social life. But it doesn’t matter who you know if you’re not doing the work. It doesn’t matter how connected you are if you are not finishing any of your projects. The work trumps everything else. And professionals know this in their bones.

Confidence: This one is interesting, because if there is any profession in which professionals are insecure, it’s writing. But professionals tend to express it differently. They are less likely to express their insecurity publicly on the internet. They are less likely to make extreme self-effacing remarks in public. They are more likely to be matter-of-fact about their insecurities if they happen to come up. And they are more likely to deal with their insecurities with their close friends instead of with whoever happens to be around.

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

 

Empathy: Professionals recognize we all have to pay dues, we all have to navigate a series of “breaks,” and we all have our own set of problems.

I wince whenever I hear one writer talk about a professional difficulty, only to have another, usually less experienced writer say, “Oh, I wish I had your problems.” NO. Just NO. First off, problem comparing is not helpful. Second of all, that other writer just passed up a golden learning opportunity. Who knows when this “coveted” problem might be your own? Third, the writer sharing the problem is going to notice the lack of empathy offered and the relationship might be weakened as a result.

Talking/Listening: Amateurs interrupt; professionals listen. Amateurs tend to go on and on with a minimum of prompting. They talk for twenty minutes straight about their current project and then never ask about yours. They inadvertently reveal ignorance because they are so busy filling the space with themselves.

One of my favorite things to do in a professional setting is find someone whose knowledge and opinions I respect and get them talking. And then I sit there asking questions and soaking up everything they say like a super-absorbent sponge. The amount of information I get from doing this is priceless. I already know what I have to say; I want to learn about what other informed people think.

What do you think are important marks of a professional?

 

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Definition of kindred spirit:

“A bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I’ve dreamed of meeting her all my life.” – Anne to Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomerie

Theodora Goss recently wrote about soul mates, and when I read her post, I recognized what she was talking about. Her idea of the soul mate is my idea of the kindred spirit. And when we use either of these phrases, what we’re really talking about is connection.

I really like the idea of practicing being a kindred spirit, both to yourself and to others. Because if you are not a kindred spirit, how can you expect anyone else to be? And being your own best kindred spirit plays right into the idea of loving ourselves, which is incredibly important.

And there are so many different kinds of kindred spirit. One of the things I like about the Anne books is that we get to see Anne discover many different types as she grows up. There is the romantic kind, the kind we’re most likely to think of when we say soul mate. And there is the best friend kind, in whom we are perhaps most likely to confide. But there are many other kinds as well, just as there are many different ways to support and appreciate each other.

Some of them run deep, right through the core of who we are. Others (like Mrs. Josephine Barry in the Anne books) are closer to the surface but still marked by the hallmarks of a kindred spirit: a sense of understanding or kinship, along with a sense of appreciation for who the person is. What this sense of understanding revolves around and how widespread it is will vary from relationship to relationship.

It interests me that with many people, we never have the opportunity to share our entire souls, or even a large portion of them. But we often have the opportunity to share a piece of our soul, to shine a ray of ourselves or open one of a hallway of doors. Even if it’s a very little door, its opening still has meaning as it creates its feeling of connection.

I wonder if this is why we sometimes think it’s harder to make friends as adults. With old friends that you’ve known since childhood, we share the understanding created through a shared past. When we make friends in school, it is often also through a shared context and experience (taking place during a period of transformation, oftentimes), which can persist for the rest of our lives. When we’re adults, we have to work harder to find that shared understanding, but it is often still there if we decide to go looking for it.

Of course, now I know many kindred spirits with whom I’ve bonded because of writing. A shared passion can be a powerful magnet. Shared passions or interests, shared past experiences, shared personality traits, sometimes even shared social groups can be enough to light the first spark. I even have my blogging kindred spirits: Rahul Kanakia and Theodora Goss. I rarely get to speak with them in person, but I often talk about their posts here, sharing my own thoughts on their ideas.

One thing that most of my kindred spirits have in common is that they LISTEN. Some of them are better at it than others, but at least some listening on both sides is key. That is the only way to create the necessary understanding. It is the only way to actually get to know someone, and we can only truly appreciate someone if we know at least some part of them. Similarly, we can only be a kindred spirit to ourselves if we learn to listen to ourselves and pay attention to what we hear.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” -Anne in Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomerie

What does being a kindred spirit mean to you?

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I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

Photo Credit: jorgempf via Compfight cc

Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and then today I saw Stina Leicht’s beautiful post about empathy and the fine balance required in remembering that everyone is simultaneously different and the same. So I decided I’d write about empathy, and then I surprised myself by how vulnerable I feel writing about the topic.

Heart in hand

I’ve realized lately that I have a high amount of empathy. This is not something I’ve known about myself all my life, so I still don’t feel completely easy with the knowledge. It makes a lot of sense, though. One of my strengths as a music teacher was my ability to make my students feel comfortable and supported, even while they were exposing themselves with their singing. As a writer, I enjoy delving deeply into the heads of my characters. And certainly for my adult life, it’s generally been fairly simple for me to put myself into other people’s positions and to see many sides and perspectives of an issue. It’s comfortable like slipping into a broken-in pair of shoes.

Having high empathy is a very mixed experience. My empathy has brought me many of my greatest joys and also many of my hardest challenges. At its best, it truly is a gift without compare. Being able to create connections and be truly present with people is a deeply meaningful and satisfying act. On some level we all want to tell our stories, and there’s a powerful resonance that can be achieved by being a loving witness to that.

But high empathy is tricky to manage. I’ve talked to other people with high empathy, and it appears that many of us have a chameleon-like ability to be who is required. We are the people who can figure out the right thing to say. We are the people who know how to smooth everything out. We can turn our own emotions and needs off like a switch if that’s what we think is necessary. We are the people who can sit quietly and reflect the other person back at themselves without the judgment that would make that too painful.

Unfortunately, we are the people who need the strongest boundaries, and we are the people to whom those boundaries come the least naturally.

Without those boundaries, we become people-pleasing, codependent, or emotionally drained. We can see the other side so clearly that we can accidentally neglect our own perspective or place less value on it. Being so aware of different options and viewpoints can paralyze us into indecision. We can lose ourselves in trying to be who someone else wants us to be. Nothing good lies down that path.

I’m going to tell you a secret about highly empathetic people. We want what we give. Sometimes we want it desperately. We want other people to see us the way we see them. We want other people to listen to us the way we listen to them. We want people to slip into our shoes sometimes too, and we want our experiences to be validated the way we’ve validated so many other people’s experiences.

In the end, we’re just like everybody else. We all want to be recognized for who we are.

The blooper photo: Nala really wanted to be involved.

The blooper photo: Nala really wanted to be involved.

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Seth Godin said something wise the other day:

“The hardest way to disagree with someone is to come to understand that they see the world differently than we do, to acknowledge that they have a different worldview, something baked in long before they ever encountered this situation.”

His suggestion for dealing with this kind of disagreement? To stop assuming the other person is ignorant or stupid or doesn’t get it, and instead focus on telling compelling stories. Stories, I’m assuming, that encourage empathy, that maybe crack open the door to give a glimpse of another worldview in a sympathetic way.

We’re telling stories all the time in our culture. We tell stories about the running of our government (politics). We tell stories to convince each other to buy something (advertising). We tell stories about how we do our jobs (annual reviews). We tell stories about how to live life (philosophy, child-rearing, religion). We tell stories about how the world works (mythology, pop science).

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I was thinking about a question on OkCupid asking whether you have a problem with racist jokes. My answer was yes, I do; but plenty of people answer that racist jokes aren’t a big deal. I’ve never been a big fan of racist jokes; I don’t usually find them terribly funny. However, I might have once agreed that maybe they weren’t a big deal.

But then I read a lot of stories that showed me how racist jokes can cause harm, how they perpetuate the status quo of privilege and racism, and how they tangibly affect real people. And because of those stories and the empathy they caused me to feel, I notice these jokes and I feel uncomfortable. And yes, I do have a problem with them. My worldview changed. So now for me, those jokes ARE a big deal.

A worldview doesn’t always need to change dramatically. Sometimes it’s enough to recognize other experiences, even if you’ve never had them yourself. Even if you don’t agree. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever agree. The respect of recognition goes a long way to allowing a dialogue to take place.

The bedrock of empathy is the idea that however different our worldviews may be, we are all human beings. We all suffer, and we all want to be loved. Sometimes stories are the key to reminding each other of this truth.

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Thank goodness for Jonathan Carroll and his Facebook page, because whenever my brain is feeling slow, I take a look at what he has posted recently to get my thoughts flowing again. Recently he shared this quotation:

People will kill you over time, and how they’ll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases, like “be realistic.” – Dylan Moran

This makes me think about how subtle an influence a person can have on us. So subtle, in fact, that often no one in the room is conscious of what’s happening. A comment here, a snort there, and a little body language thrown in for good measure, and our thoughts and emotions can be deeply affected:

“I’m not good enough.”

“Maybe I’m being stupid.”

“My career/life goals aren’t important/valid/valuable.”

It’s so easy to diminish, to de-motivate, to plant the seeds of doubt, to make someone feel lesser. It’s so easy to neglect to listen to what other people have to say in favor of listening to ourselves. It’s so easy to sting someone without even thinking about what we are saying.

As a writer, I believe that words matter, perhaps more than most. The written word matters, and the spoken word matters. Body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms matter, all contributing to the overall message that someone is communicating.

Because I think words matter, I pay a lot of attention. I listen. I think about what people say to me. I think not only about the words used, but about the manner of their delivery, the context, and other circumstances that are relevant.

For many years, I internally chided myself for my “sensitivity.” But now I recognize what a gift it can be. Because if I’m paying attention, then I can notice more of those small messages, many of them negative, that I receive from other people. And then I can work to counter them and lessen their impact.

Words matter. (Photo Credit: felipe_gabaldon via Compfight cc)

That’s why choosing carefully the people with whom we spend a lot of time is so important. Not only will they be affecting the activities we participate in, the subjects we talk about, and even the amount of food we eat, but they will be sending subtle unconscious messages that have a real impact (potentially either positive or negative) on our moods, our world views, our self esteem, and what we think is possible for ourselves. The more we notice, the more we can make deliberate decisions about whether to spend time with people who make us feel awesome, energized, and supported for being who we are, or whether to spend time with people who make us feel tired, drained, ignored, and not enough. The choice is clear, but only if we are able to track what’s going on.

Words matter. Our environment matters. The choice to be kind matters.

What tiny, harmless phrase have you taken to heart lately? What would you rather hear?

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