When I’m not delicately editing other people’s scientific articles, tearing apart my friends’ writing, or crying into my laptop as I try to write my own work, I help college kids with their writing projects. In fact, it has gotten to the point where if I hear someone say, “I’m not sure how to say/write this,” I go into full-on writing tutor mode and cannot rest until I help them come up with a viable solution. I practically have to restrain myself at coffee shops if I hear someone at the next table trying to write a paper.
Yesterday I heard a colleague tutor a woman about a creative writing project involving four alternating first-person points of view. Colleague carefully suggests that this is difficult to pull off and advises Student to differentiate the voices well. I could tell from the words Colleague used that the Student was not differentiating very well.
Colleague told the student about an acting trick where you walk across the stage in one character and then walk across the stage in the other direction as another character. (She said something about grid lines, but this poor former English major had no idea what that meant.) I recalled that during a Schlock-Novel–Writing Winter, I would walk the dog and try to see the world and comment on the world the way my character would. It seemed like good exercises to get into someone else’s head.
This past Thanksgiving week was a test of people and boundaries. My sister treats Spouse with the same lack of boundaries with which she treats me. There was a lack of empathy as some people were too busy defending their own interests to imagine what it was like to pull together a meal for 16. I had to corral my antisocial guests who were hiding to talk to the people they actually knew. I love my weird friends, but sometimes they are a pain in the ass. They couldn’t imagine what it was like to be in a different viewpoint.
And of course we are living in a time where empathy seems lacking entirely. Our new America is the same as our old America, except the masks have been ripped off. It seems like no one knows how to understand someone else’s voice, and people pride themselves on their intolerance. But it’s the writer’s job to put ourselves into each other’s heads and get the words on the page. So much of what I learned about empathy, I have learned from books. So keep writing, my friends. Write the hard stuff. That and call your state representative.
And as my dad used to say when I called home to complain about writing a college paper, “Get in there and fight.”