Yours Is Not the Only Story – Empathy Exercises #2

It takes some hubris to be a writer. You have to convince readers that you’re good enough to bring them a true picture of the universe you’ve created, and of parts of human nature that they may not know themselves. In other words, you have to be sure you’re good enough to show, entertain, teach a reader something new.

But it takes the opposite of hubris to get ready to do this job. It takes the humility to recognize that you’re not the center of the universe – that everyone is, in fact, the center of his or her own universe, and that each of your characters reliably feels the same way. To present those characters well, you have to be able to think your way across the gap between one person and another, to briefly occupy the center of someone else’s universe and bring back interesting reports of the scenery there.

The first step is to accept that yours is not the only real story.

WARNING: The process of learning about others, especially others who have different life experiences than yours, is necessary to being a writer. But be aware that it will impact you. Gaining empathy and education has the consequence of threatening what you thought you knew, of widening your world view, of damaging your bigotry. If you’re certain that you have no bigotry, then this warning applies to you twice.

Here are some exercises you can do in your own life that can help you accept that other people’s world views are as real to them as yours are to you.

Most writers have someone they love, and have contact with people who are different from themselves. People you love will be easier to understand, because you’ve already done some of the spadework. But people who are very different from yourself will stretch your abilities better.

The first exercise is simply this: ask, then listen.

Find people whose backgrounds are different from your own and find the courage to ask them their life stories. Or, if that seems too awkward, ask for a smaller story and try to feel as if it were your own.

If you’ve never climbed a mountain, and someone has a mountain-climbing story, listen without judging, without thinking what you’d do in the same situation, without wondering whether they’re crazy for undertaking this life-threatening thing. Silence what’s in your own head, and try to fit their story into the resulting space.

Ask people you’re sitting next to in line, or on the bus, or whoever looks bored when you have a few minutes. If you mention, “I’m a writer, actually” it will open many doors. If people look worried about it, let them know you’re just asking for general stories, not putting them, specifically, into a story. Don’t let them draw you out about your work: you’re here to get their stories.

Listen, listen, listen. Don’t translate in your head into your own experience. Try, instead, to think your way into their head. When they’ve told the story, ask for details: how cold was the wind on the side of the mountain? What process did they use to choose their equipment? What were they afraid of, and how did they conquer that fear? Try to make connections: are they fit people who do this all the time? Could this have been their first time? Did a relationship with someone else cause them to do this challenge?

Learn as much as you can in the time you have. Do this again and again.

The second exercise is seek, then read.

There’s no way to overemphasize this. Find and read stories that are very different from yours, listen to the authors and what they do and don’t say, don’t translate, don’t make the story your own. Be outside yourself, place yourself in other people’s stories, rather than bringing their information into the safe haven of your own self and making it about you.

Empathy is the process of being about another person who is very different.

Next week, we’ll talk about practicing using empathy in stories, and using stories to enhance empathy.

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