on writing

Art: A Workout For Your Empathy Muscles

What if I told you that you can solve all of the world’s problems by writing a story?

First you’d need to accept that I’m exaggerating. No short story can clean up the Pacific garbage patch, drop the global average temperature, or get Kanye back on his meds, and even if it could your chances of convincing anyone to read the thing hover around one in 7.5 billion. The short story as mass entertainment has been dead for over a half century, supplanted first by episodic television and now by YouTube clips of people playing video games or applying makeup. Or both.

Short fiction is like opera now: A once popular art form now enjoyed by the few rather than the many. So how can a story that no one will read and can’t do much anyway change the world? The magic lies in how its creation affects you, the writer.

Good creative writing requires the author to get inside each of his or her characters and walk around for a little bit. Sure, you can pick your characters off the shelf, but they’ll read like paper dolls: the bigoted country sheriff; the vapid teenager; the wise old man; the alcoholic detective with a chip on his shoulder. In order to write a realistic character, one must be able to walk, talk, think, and react as the character, at least in one’s imagination.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to write a short story based on the “gay wedding cake” news cycle. We need a minimum of two characters–the baker and his customer–and one setting, the bakery. Everything else is up to the writer’s imagination: time of year, the weather, time of day, how the shop is decorated, etc. Is there a bell on the door, or is it on the counter? Did the bakery open recently or has it been there for decades?

These sorts of details only matter if they reinforce the sense of the story somehow. What really matters are those two characters standing center stage. You probably started the short story because you harbor a bias in favor of one of these individuals. Maybe you’re a very conservative person, or perhaps you’re gay, or maybe you’re a very gay conservative person.

Regardless, one of these two characters is likely a proxy for your worldview. The danger here is that you will carefully render that character and leave the other one a cartoony sketch. The baker reads like a real person while the customer sashays through the door screaming, “Girl, bake me a cake shaped like a rainbow ding-a-ling,” or alternately the polite and unassuming customer is ushered outside at rifle point by a middle-aged rageaholic wearing a John 3:16 apron and a MAGA hat.

In order to avoid these sorts of two dimensional cliches, these characters’ creator must become them. What does it feel like to be so resolute in one’s faith that you are willing to risk your livelihood, and if not that then what’s it like to be so homophobic that you’ll burn down your own business rather than bake a “gay cake”? How does it feel to be in love when the only bakery in town is unwilling to serve you, or perhaps what is it like to be so committed to social change that you’re willing to turn your wedding into a supreme court case?

These kinds of thought experiments lead to realistic characters, or at least we hope as writers that they will. What started as a hero/villain story in the headlines or on social media is now a set piece about two people with real motives and real feelings. And although no one may ever read your finished story, it has worked its transformational magic because it has changed you. Writing stories exercises your empathy muscles.

Empathy might be a bit misunderstood these days, so let’s make sure that we’re on the same page here. Quite simply put, empathy is our ability to understand how other people feel. It’s a soft skill that we teach young children and then neglect for the remainder of their education as it doesn’t translate well to standardized tests. But that which is not testable is essential to our humanity, to our society at large.

Math and science scores mean little in a culture whose citizens lack empathy. That may sound like touchy feely mumbo jumbo, but mathematics without empathy can equal atrocity. Kill 100% of the buffalo, control 100% of the Indians. Arrange the bodies just so, fit more chattel on a slave ship. Publicly separate X children from their parents, and illegal immigration will drop by Y percent.

And it’s not just government. Crash tests on the first generation Mustangs demonstrated that a rear-end collision would collapse both the car’s gas tank and backseat, spraying gasoline into the cabin and turning the pony car’s passengers into toasty marshmallows. Ford calculated that the cost of settling burn victims’ lawsuits was less than the cost of a recall, so they sat on this information. Unfortunately, this is just one of thousands of examples of corporations applying math without empathy.

It’s no surprise to me that American culture has coarsened over the last 30 years as the arts have been stricken from public school curricula. Writing is hardly the only creative outlet by which empathy is exercised. Actors, for example, must become other people, at least for a little while. They must experience their characters’ joys and hardships. That has to be transformational. Representational art can have the same effect on the artist whose job is to visually portray his or her subjects’ emotions. Andrew Wyeth really captured something with “Christina’s World,” for example, as did Norman Rockwell in “The Problem We All Live With.” Math and science teach us skills with practical application in the marketplace, but art teaches us the skills necessary to be a decent human being. One is not more essential than the other, test scores be damned.

Even popular music can be an exercise in empathy for its writer. Story songs in particular explore character, but we should never mistake the singer with the song’s speaker. Songs are musical short stories, their singers the actors who bring them to life. Whether it’s “Eleanor Rigby” or “Pink Houses,” the art of writing that song forced its author to view life from someone else’s perspective. That changes people.

While I encourage you to sit down and write a song or story, draw a picture, or try your hand at local theater, I understand that you may not want or be able to do so. That’s okay. You can exercise your empathy muscles by consuming art, too. Can’t write the “gay cake” story? You can read it, and if you do so with care you will inhabit those characters for a little while, too. You can feel what it’s like not to be in Kansas anymore, or what it’s like when doves cry. Art has the power to transform both its maker and its consumer.

Turn off your screens for a little while–the social media and cable news that reduce human beings to caricatures of heroes and villains–and pick up a pen, guitar, or sketchbook. Go buy a novel, or watch a movie lacking car chases and superheroes. Throw on some blues, or grab a box of tissues and cue up “Cats in the Cradle.” Let the arts help you practice being someone else for a little while. It’s a simple yet subversive act that just might change your perspective, and that’s the first step toward changing the world.


1 reply »

  1. The Big Orange One gives us daily examples of the danger resulting from equating math with right/wrong decisions. When asked if there would be consequences for apparently killing and dismembering a resident of our country, he made it clear that potential profits to corporate America outweighs murder. I wonder how many residents of the US could be slaughtered before they diminish the importance of profits.


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