on writing and empathy

If readers can’t understand what a character is going through, they won’t feel for her, won’t give a damn even if she offs herself (So she throws herself from the fifth story of a high-end mall. Shocking. And so what?). Transcendence demands empathy, empathy demands understanding, understanding demands the skillful and authentic rendering of experience and memory and thoughts and emotional states, and the desire to communicate, to have words rise from the page and whisper to a reader’s ear, I know how it is, I know you understand me, know that you are not alone, no matter how sappy or hackneyed that may sound.

It took an explicit statement from Ted Chiang’s “Division by Zero” to make me realize this. Funny how I’d never thought this way about writing before. I’d thought writing was about expressing oneself; now I feel writing is about examining and expressing oneself, to better understand another—not to impose your views on them, but to let them freely identify with you, and you with them. Apparently in writing, as in life, I dwell on my self, especially on my internal world, a little too often a little too well, not so much because I care for nothing and no one else, but because one’s self is the least bothersome to understand—introspection has never been uncomfortable for me. I suppose I must bring my capacity for the relentless dissection of my character and experiences to writing about others. If only it were so easy to understand and truly render subjectivities not my own! Then again writing—the sort that matters, the sort that lasts—isn’t about nestling in what is comfortable and suckling on the warm, familiar milk always ready there—that too quickly runs out or grows sour. Always, there’s a different drink to try.

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One thought on “on writing and empathy

  1. Pingback: Meaning and morality in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations | tenant on the top floor

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