Empathy and Writing

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of interactions on social media on some pretty difficult topics. Sometimes opinions and viewpoints conflict with others, which can lead to lots of arguing, hurt feelings, and, sadly, sometimes loss of friendship.

Other times I’ve seen kind exchanges where respect of others’ ideas happens. These are my favorite to read where the conversations aren’t laced with hate and “you’re wrong, I’m right” undertones.

I really enjoy observing people, listening to their thoughts, watching their interactions, and how that makes up who they are as a person. I try to understand what makes people tick, what motivates them, and perhaps even what life experiences led them to where they are now.

So, how does this all relate to writing?

Writers must have empathy.

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Without empathy, it becomes really difficult to get inside your characters’ heads and write them authentically. This also applies to nonfiction, but it’s more along the lines of being able to write in a way that’s relatable to others so you can impact your readers on a deep and personal level.

Being empathetic is more than feeling sorry for someone’s situation—that’s sympathy. Having empathy means you know what it would be like to walk around in another’s shoes because you can feel it. You can put yourself in another’s situation and understand what that would be like. It’s an ability to see more than your own narrow point of view, often with accompanying emotions.

What if I don’t have empathy? Then what?

Some people are naturally more sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, but some of us are not. But, I believe it can be developed.

  1. Try looking outside yourself. Imagine what it would be like if your life experience was that of someone else’s. How would you feel? How might that impact you life now and in the future? How would it alter your beliefs about yourself, others around you, and the world?
  2. Seek to understand. When opinions differ from yours, try to understand the other viewpoints. Ask questions for more reasons why they feel the way they do. Talk less, listen more. Think about others’ views until you can fully understand why someone would think that way.
  3. Read books with characters from diverse backgrounds (and make sure they’re an accurate representation). Reading is a wonderful way to visit other places, hang out with different people, and experience things you have never yourself experienced—all from the comfort of your favorite chair. It’s a great way to get inside the head of another person and experience their thoughts and feelings.
  4. Be compassionate. Having compassion means really loving those around you. Love opens the gate to greater empathy because you care about others on a deeper level.

The world needs more empathy and compassion. As writers, we can spread more of that by using empathy to create authentic characters with real emotions and motivations. Be a writer who learns about people, their thoughts, feelings, emotions, motivations, and experiences not just from a sympathetic view point (though that’s a good starting point), but from a more intimate standpoint of empathy.

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576A6469Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 500 articles-family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about–helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Writing (or not) After Loss

This post is going to be difficult for me to write. Difficult, because that’s what all writing has been for me lately–difficult. And for a very good reason. . . .

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For many people, writing comes as a solace during difficult times. When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, for instance—like I did this summer—writing can be a way to either escape or process emotions. I actually felt like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t even journal. The thoughts and feelings running through me were stuck inside my body and refused to exit onto the page. Fortunately, I had friends who were there to tell me this was okay, and not at all abnormal. They told me to take a break, take all the time I needed, and when I was ready to write again, I’d know it. And now I’m here to tell this to you, along with some other things that surprised me about writing after loss.

When I did eventually get back to writing (sporadically) about a month ago, I found I had a completely new perspective on my story and my characters. Interestingly, my main character’s father has died a month or two before the story begins, and oddly, it’s in a similar(ish) way to how my own dad died. This was not something that I added to the story after my own loss. Nope, it’s been that way since I first started writing it almost a year ago. Complete coincidence. However, I’ve been in my character’s shoes now, and I’ve realized the way my main character felt and acted in that first draft no longer resonates with me. It isn’t realistic anymore. So in the rewrite, I’ve been fixing that. And it’s (I hope) making my character so much richer. I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled about having this new perspective. If I could have gained it any other way, I would have preferred that. But I am grateful that I’m able to take this horrible experience and use it in a positive way. Silver linings and all that, I guess.

You may also find you’ve gained a new perspective toward your characters. You may find yourself adjusting things in ways you never would have thought to before. You may even find the story you’re currently working on doesn’t fit you at all anymore. That’s okay. Run with it. Fix it. Set it aside, if that’s what you need to do. My last finished novel—one I’ve queried and debated going Indie with, no longer fits me. At least, not right now. I’ve outgrown it, I guess you could say. As I see things now, I’m not likely to ever publish it. Or maybe someday, if I’m up to it, I’ll go back over it and make some major changes. And either way, that’s perfectly fine.

One more thing that has surprised me is how much less I’m censoring myself as I write. And by that, I mean I worry less about how my writing will be received by agents and publishers, and just write what I want to write. I write more for me now than I ever have before, and though I’m not completely oblivious to my future plans for this story, I’m pushing those concerns aside for dealing with when I actually get there. And what’s funny is, I thought I’d been doing this all along, but now I can clearly see that I hadn’t been. I’d been far too occupied with the dream of being published when I wrote my previous stories, that I’d become an anxious drafter, which made writing less fun and less satisfying. Now, the anxiety is gone. I’m not going to get into the psychology behind this, because I don’t completely understand why this has changed. But it has, and I’m good with that.

I’m telling you all of these things, not to give you any kind of road map or template for “when you experience loss, this is exactly how your writing will change,” because everyone experiences loss differently, and everyone writes differently. I’m telling you these things because they surprised me, and you may have some surprising experiences too. But whatever your experiences are, they are normal for you. And you may need to adjust some things, and that is perfectly okay.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Exploring Your Writing Identity

Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I define myself as a writer?

We all ask ourselves these questions from time to time. Self-reflection is inevitable when we face frequent rejections and pour so much of our hearts onto the page for the sake of art. Our personal and creative identities are irrevocably linked.

Your voice is unique. Think of the countless influences and experiences that have shaped you. You are a complex, glorious being made up of every hardship, heartbreak, disappointment, desire, joy, and triumph you’ve ever known.

Your distinct writing identity stems from an endless list of factors: where you grew up, your socioeconomic status, family dynamics, belief system, schools, friends, jobs, favorite books–even the TV shows and movies you enjoy.

Are you writing the kind of books you want to write? How about the ones you have to write? Perhaps there is a certain type of book you longed for growing up, one you wished someone had written that spoke to your dearest hopes, your deepest fears.

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If you find yourself examining where you are in your writing journey and where you want to go from here, try these five simple questions:

  1. What are your strengths as a writer?
  2. What genre do you enjoy writing (and reading) the most?
  3. What do you want to say to potential readers?
  4. What are your long-term writing goals?
  5. How would you like to grow or change as a writer?

My Happy Place is writing for middle grade readers, preferably with healthy doses of adventure, humor, and the paranormal. Moving backward through time I can clearly pinpoint several touchstones on the path that led to this point: the children’s lit class in college; the bleak novels we were force-fed in high school English; the stacks of ghost stories I devoured as a young teen; the steady diet of earnest, cheesy 1980s TV shows I adored as a kid.

I used to believe that my Happy Place was static and unchanging. But as I grow older, as I read more widely and interact with other writers, as we as a nation wrestle with our values and face our shortcomings in the struggle for social justice, I realize that my writing identity is still evolving.

As writers we owe it to ourselves and our readers to learn, to soul search, to expand our minds and hearts.

Consider writing something outside of your usual comfort zone. Read something completely new and unfamiliar. Seek out news from a wide range of reliable sources. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Plan a trip or a simple change of scenery. Wander through a new neighborhood. Observe people in new places. Engage with them. Hear what they have to say.

You will become not only a better writer but a better person, more qualified to explore, understand, and represent the human condition. You will learn to write from a place not just of sympathy but of empathy. You will speak not from secondhand knowledge but from firsthand experience.

I firmly believe that you should embrace what you feel called to write—compelled to write—without fear of judgment that your work isn’t important. When you write from a place of authenticity and a well-examined life, there will always be an audience for what you have to say.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Sparking Empathy: How to create character connection

Several years ago I dragged my nine-year-old son to a therapist. Two years after losing the grandparents we’d lived with for most of his life, he wasn’t coping. Or rather, as I learned through his sessions, the coping he’d learned during their illnesses and deaths had now become unhealthy mechanisms for engaging the world. He was disconnected.
Through family counseling, I discovered my own unhealthy coping mechanisms, defenses tooled in my childhood to deal with the constantly hovering specter of my father’s cancer and imminent death. I remember sitting on the therapist’s slipcovered couch during one of my son’s sessions, picking at a nub in the fabric, unable to say the word “vulnerable.” I literally stumbled over it. It twisted my tongue each time I tried to spit it out as I worked through my own struggles, frustrated to find I wasn’t as heart-whole as I had believed.

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Some part of my brain already understood what empathy expert Dr. Brené Brown’s research has now codified: vulnerability is the state people fight because it forces us to acknowledge our fears. However, according to Brown, vulnerability is essential in forging real human connection. She says, “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” When people occupy an emotional space where they can connect to others, it’s because they have come to believe in their own worthiness. Brown refers to these people as “the Wholehearted.”

Characters must be vulnerable for readers to connect to them and ultimately experience a phenomenon I call “Reader Wholeheartedness.” It’s the sense of fullness and resolution when the reader recognizes the protagonist’s achievement of Wholeheartedness, the point where the protagonist engages her community from a place of worthiness. Reader Wholeheartedness is easy to confuse with catharsis, often defined as an emotional purge—especially of sadness—through literature or art. However, here I use the definition of catharsis meaning “a purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal.” Reader Wholeheartedness is a step before catharsis, and a key part of a specific vulnerability sequence which transitions the reader from an initial character connection to a deeper sense of catharsis or spiritual renewal.

While studying my own reaction to character-driven literature, I discovered my catharsis does not hinge on the protagonist’s vulnerability—it hinges on the vulnerability of the character the protagonist feels most disconnected from, a character we’ll call the Emotional Antagonist. This can be different from the story antagonist. For example, in a classic hero’s journey, the story antagonist may be the dragon standing between the hero and the treasure, but the Emotional Antagonist may be the hero’s disapproving father who is eventually won over.

Resolution happens when the protagonist achieves Wholeheartedness through a sequence of increasingly vulnerable moments and increased connection, but catharsis occurs when the narrative takes the extra step of restoring the last broken connection with the Emotional Antagonist. When this happens, the protagonist has already recognized her own worthiness; however, the reader sees it acknowledged by the Emotional Antagonist when the Emotional Antagonist makes himself vulnerable as a bid for the protagonist’s recognition of his worthiness, which is granted. This releases the final story tension and grants a “spiritual” renewal.

This isn’t necessary for every story. A reader can experience Wholeheartedness without catharsis, which is common in young adult novels. However, that extra moment of catharsis is particularly well-suited for middle-grade novels because it eliminates ambiguity, a story quality better suited for slightly older readers. Catharsis through character vulnerability follows this sequence:

  1. The protagonist must have a sense of unworthiness and a shield to hide it. The shield must reflect the character’s personality and relate specifically to her vulnerability.
  2. The protagonist exposes moments of vulnerability that call forth new connections and build a sense of community with everyone but her Emotional Antagonist.
  3. The protagonist attempts to establish an emotional connection to the Emotional Antagonist who then rejects her.
  4. The protagonist reaches Wholeheartedness despite rejection.
  5. The Emotional Antagonist is drawn to the protagonist’s newfound Wholeheartedness and shows his vulnerability as he seeks connection to the protagonist, which reinforces the protagonist’s sense of worthiness.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “When we were children, we used to think that when were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Children live in a state of vulnerability. Dr. Brown notes, “Kids are clumsy in their efforts to hide fear and self-doubt,” which is why the characters we encounter in children’s literature often become enduring companions as we grow into adulthood. We love the characters for their transparency and fall for them further as they take brave journeys toward Wholeheartedness.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

What Science Has to Say About Creative Types

Writing may be just the thing to save you.

Oh, I know that writing has saved me in a variety of intangible (but very real) ways. It’s allowed me to express myself, has given me an additional dimension to my identity, and has given me the power to put my demons to rest. But that’s not what I’ll be talking about here. Today I want to share what science has to say about being creative.

In my other life, I’m a biologist, and I’m fascinated with scientific research on creativity. For instance, did you know that all of the emotions that you experience when you read fiction (as opposed to non-fiction) allow you to develop more empathy as an individual? (For the original study, go HERE). Did you know that overall creative achievement may be related to how open you are to emotions, aesthetics, and fantasy? (For the original study, go HERE.) Science!

Scientific research also shows that when other factors are controlled for, creative individuals have longer overall lifespans. A longer life might be attributed to the fact that creatives keep our minds engaged, our neurons firing, and that this stimulation enhances the overall health of our mind and body. (For a summary of the study, go HERE.)

I know from personal experience that I’m a happier person because of writing. I think it’s sometimes easy to forget this because writing comes with its own set of stressors: deadlines, goals, queries, reviews, edits and revisions, and more, more, MORE! However, did you know that your optimal creativity is achieved when you (1) relax enough to trust your instincts and (2) are given more freedom to create with a softer deadline? (For a summary of the hot-off-the-presses study, go HERE.)

I have a serious case of Running Brain Syndrome. Note: “Running Brain Syndrome” is not an actual medical or psychological term, or if it is, I’m not aware of it. However, I am aware of the fact that my brain is constantly running to dream up ideas (or characters) and fix problems (or plot holes). You may have Running Brain Syndrome as well, which is why you may have to scramble to write an idea on a scrap of paper, a diaper, on your arm when you get that idea that “popped” into your brain at the most inconvenient times (like when you’re in the shower or on the toilet). You’re not alone; a lot of writers find ingenious ways to write on the go.

This is not to say that writing is all that we think about. I must engage my brain in my work (Science!), or in helping my sons plot their latest scheme for world domination, or in struggling to think about what the heck to make for dinner. But when I have those quiet moments to myself, I notice that if I am not engaged in something creative, my brain focuses on the wrong things. I specifically remember a time prior to when I was a writer (was that even possible?) when I would lie awake at night, thinking about some drama from earlier in the day, worrying about a scenario that hadn’t happened yet, running through dialogue that may or may not happen, speculating about what could happen tomorrow.

Creating drama. Forming scenarios. Running through dialogue. Speculating. The same thing we do as writers.

Now that I write, my brain still runs. I still take life events and process them, but not in a way that drags me and my mental state into a dark hole. Now my Running Brain travels along a more productive track. I still take notice of the drama, but I may or may not use it as inspiration 🙂

The thing about scientific studies is that while they are useful in revealing patterns, there are always other factors that could affect one single person’s outcome. Just like the *ahem* chemical reactions that Walter White utilized in Breaking Bad, there were differences in yield depending upon who carried out those reactions. So will being a creative individual help me live longer? The potential is there, but I have no idea how this scientific finding will apply to me. But I do know that creativity already saved me.

Do you have Running Brain Syndrome? And isn’t science cool?
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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both YA urban fantasy and NA contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. (Oh, and as an Associate Professor of Biology, she is also a big fan of SCIENCE). You can find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.