How Can We Write Now?

Sun Oct 07 2018

Image © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

I am Pissed. Off.

I rarely get political on this blog. This is a writing blog, and I aim to keep it that way, even today when I'm going to get political.

The Senate just confirmed drunken party boy and multiply-accused serial sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. As Senator Kamala Harris said shortly thereafter:

Millions of people all across the country stood up and denounced Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. Yet Republicans in Congress have decided to play partisan politics and confirm him anyway.

So, yeah. Along with the people in the photo at the top of this post and millions of others nationwide, I'm pissed off.

Fighting fires

My twitter feed is full of outrage. It is full of calls to remember your will to fight, to volunteer for your local progressive campaigns. To donate to candidates who oppose the Senators who voted for Kavanaugh and all who enable the Trump agenda. And to vote, Vote, VOTE!

These things matter. They really do.

And they are all so very NOW.

I feel such an incredible weight of responsibility to do my part to help save my country, as I am sure so many of my readers must also feel.

In such a climate, how can we write? How can we find the space within our minds to create fiction? How can we justify--even if only to ourselves--taking the time to write when so many other things demand our pressing and immediate attention?

How did we get here?

We may well ask how things came to be in such a state. How did our country come to this?

Ask ten people and you'll get ten answers, but here's mine:

We came to this through a deficit of empathy. A massive, widespread inability to think about how other people feel by (let's not pussyfoot around it) mainly white people, and mainly white men.

That's how we came to be here.

Because people who bother to think about how other people feel don't do what the Senate just did.

Because people who bother to think about how other people feel don't force themselves on women at parties.

Because people who bother to think about how other people feel don't vilify immigrants who just want a better place to live than where they came from.

Think of your own dozen horrible things from the past couple of years, and I promise you, every one of them eventually comes down to a failure of empathy. A failure to give a shit about how other people feel.

What is writing?

But you know who does bother to think about how other people feel? You know who goes out of their way to think about how other people feel? You know who makes such a special effort at it that they invent whole other imaginary people just so they can do more thinking about how other people feel?

Writers. That's who.

You can't write a compelling and believable story if you don't understand how the people in it would feel about everything, and therefore, how they would act. What would matter to them. Why they would do the things they do.

Done well, writing is nothing more than an exercise in the deepest empathy.

So is reading.

When we read, we have to form mental models about the characters in the story. (Something I have talked about before: here, here, here.)

As readers, we track what each character knows, what they like, what they believe, what their goals are, what plans they're pursing, etc. And as new events happen in the story, we use those mental models to anticipate how the characters is going to feel.

It's the same thing. Reading is also an exercise in empathy.

From the perspective of the necessary mental-modeling that reading demands, this may seem obvious. Still, that didn't stop several researchers in 2013 from testing the question and concluding that, yes, reading does improve empathy.

How can we write?

I know. The world is screaming at you right now to do a zillion other things besides write. It's screaming at me, too.

But I've always been a fan of treating root causes rather than just symptoms. You can spend all your time fighting the world's many immediate fires, and you will accomplish some good, but remember that each and every one of those fires is just a symptom of the empathy-deficit root cause.

So write. As much as it's your duty to help fight the immediate fires, as a writer it is also your rather more unique duty to help heal the root cause beneath it all.

Write, both to maintain your own empathy for others and to help build that skill in our readers.

Because holy shit, if the world needs anything right now it's more empathy.