Writing Other People’s Stories, Part I: Empathy in First Person

underwater

Why is there a fish photo here? Keep reading. You’ll see.

Writing about other people’s lives is an exercise in trust and empathy, and ideally, in self-awareness and humility.

Nobody gets it right every time. But it’s our job to keep trying.

This series was adapted from a talk I gave at a delightful WNBA Nashville Chapter gathering one blustery November night.

When I first meet someone, after the requisite “what do you dos,” they usually say, “Oh! What do you like to write about?”

I’m never sure how to answer. Sometimes I tell them I’m “a generalist;” I don’t have a beat. Other times, I say that my favorite subjects are bad@$$ women who make the world a little bit better. Women who help teen girls and female inmates find their creative voices. Women who take to the skies to fight Nazis. Women who survive war and lose everything, then return home to help other women lift themselves out of poverty.

It’s a non-answer answer really, because that’s what most writers do: visit a life and report on what they find there.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Beginning to Write: Empathy and Isolation

When my husband Hal and I first dreamed up the idea of becoming writers and radio producers, we told our own stories. Our first published article was a co-authored travel piece about a trip to Belize in which everything went wrong: multiple strandings at sea and on land, a wild hitchhiking venture, veiled threats at a late-night village wake—in other words, a splendid series of adventures. I wrote about subsequent Belize trips and our many home renovation disasters. But we soon realized that there were more and better stories to be told than our own.

In Belize

At our favorite bar in Belize MANY years ago.

As we ventured into radio, I gave tours of worlds I knew (e.g., a conference of female pilots) and plunged into unfamiliar ones (a lawnmower race!). I got better at interviewing and somewhat faster at composing articles. And I soon figured out that visiting other people’s lives was the best possible lesson in empathy for a self-absorbed only child like me.

I like exiting my own head for a few hours and entering someone else’s. Interviewing someone is like traveling: you upend your assumptions and learn new worlds. And I  prefer the person I become as an interviewer to the person I am day-to-day. When I sit down with someone and ask questions, I feel the judgmental me sloughing off like an old skin. The ironic smirk falls away. For an hour or two, I step outside of myself and inhabit that person’s point of view as completely as I can.

Of course, that out-of-self feeling doesn’t last. After the interview, when I go home to write, the self-examining, overthinking version of me grows back like scar tissue.

It’s unavoidable: Writing by its very nature is a self-absorbed endeavor. In composing and editing mode, I’m back inside my head, all that fear and arrogance ricocheting in the silence as I summon the writerly strengths and circumvent limitations, in an effort to summon the best words and get the thing right. Self-knowledge helps, but the emphasis here is still on “self.”

Maybe self-absorption—if properly managed—isn’t all bad. Call it the cursed gift of the only-child mindset: I crave attention but am uneasy when I actually receive it. I love the company of humans but am tortured by social anxieties. I think things through—possibly too much at times. But overthinking is the writer’s task—a very solitary one. And after a day of working on something dense and difficult, it’s sometimes hard to come back up for air. Like a SCUBA diver, surfacing slowly, letting the solitude bubbles dissolve into the bloodstream.

Sometimes Hal comes home while I’m still underwater and haven’t yet rediscovered the ability to speak words aloud. It frustrates him a little; he feels trapped on the outside, knocking on the glass of the sealed vessel I inhabit. Sometimes, he tells this joke:

How many Kims does it take to screw in a light bulb?

One. She holds the bulb, and the world turns around her.

It’s OK: he grins when he says this. It’s his way of gently tugging me back to the surface. Hal is the opposite of me in many ways. He spends hours a day visiting, calling, or messaging people, just so they’ll know he remembers them. He has a natural gift for seeing other people’s points of view, and he interprets their actions with generosity. He doesn’t idealize people; he just likes them.

Living with Hal has been a two-decade lesson in radical empathy, an important course of study for a writer—and a human. Lessons which are, in my case, much needed. And over the years, they have (I hope) found their way onto the page.

In this series, I’ll share three excerpts—each, an example of trying to put aside my biases and understand another person’s worldview. Each moves a little further from self and into another life, with variable success.

A Battle for Empathy in First Person

The first example is a first-person essay about a shift in perspective: how, in the middle of an argument, your brain fills with anger and blots out the other person—even when it’s the person you love most in the world.

In this story, Hal and I are on the penultimate day of a 500-mile walk across Spain. He’s exhausted, hurting, and on the verge of giving up. A deceptively optimistic mile marker is the last straw: Hal has had it. He curses and throws his walking poles. F this! he shouts, I’m getting on a bus. I’ll ride the bus to the Atlantic!

I’m tired too, and on the verge of dressing him down. Oh hell no, I’m thinking. After 500 miles, I’m not getting on any buses. I’ll walk to the ocean alone if I have to. And then I wake myself up and remember my own meltdown 400 miles before, when my ankle had swollen purple and I couldn’t walk at all. My tantrum was different: all tears, whimpering, and despair.

As I shrank and wept, Hal went into Big Strong Man mode. He put me on his back and carried me to a hotel, then brought me chocolate and pretended he was thrilled for a day of rest.

Now, three weeks later, it’s my turn to be big and strong.

I looked at Hal and, finally, really saw him, sweaty and limping, his walking poles tick tick ticking along a colorless stretch of hot asphalt that hadn’t changed for hours.

This wasn’t about me. This was about Hal, exhausted and hurting, shattering into tiny pieces. 

He’s in no way tiny. He’s a broad-shouldered, confident and hirsute fellow, potentially intimidating upon first contact. And in preparation for our journey across northern Spain — from France to the Atlantic Ocean — he’d cultivated a truly magnificent beard, pilgrimesque in its lushness.

In a word, the essence of Hal is bigness, of person and of personality. And the meltdown he had that day was similar in scale: a fur-flying, thundering ursine wonder of sound and fury. It was a cover for pain, weariness and fear. In a word, smallness…

Big Strong Man was the role Hal was made for, but he shouldn’t have to play it all the time.

That afternoon, with two kilometers to go, he needed me to carry him the rest of the way…

Excerpted from “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” (Nashville Scene, 2013). Read the full essay here.

muxia

Upon reaching the sea, 2015. No buses. No meltdowns.

Marriage saved. Two years later, we walked across Spain together again. No meltdowns.

The takeaway: Even when we write about ourselves, it’s often about someone else. This one is from my POV, but it’s also about Hal, and about how, in a close relationship, you have to climb into the other person’s brain sometimes and feel their pain. You actually see the perspective shift in the story, which is why I used this example.

That shift isn’t so hard to do with your favorite person. But in a profile—a story in which you play no part—you’ll need to move outside your own worldview and into someone else’s. And usually, it’s someone completely different from yourself.

We’ll talk about profiles in Part 2.

Coming soon:

Writing Other People’s Lives, Part 2: All Features Are Profiles. Leave Your Biases at Home.

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