The power of empathy

As March comes to a close, I bid farewell on the period that is Mad March and my foray as a culture vulture.

For most of the month Adelaide Writers’ Week, the Adelaide Festival and the Fringe Festival have dominated my time. A wonderful way to have the creative well replenished and energised.

Now that these events have called a wrap,  I usually go through somewhat of a grief period. However this year the withdrawal process will be somewhat easier thanks to a significant number of new additions to the ‘to read’ pile.

In reading them I will be able to once agin ponder on the many wonderful words, thoughts and discussions that permeated, particuarly at Writers’ Week, making it the great event that it known for.

This year was no exception with an array of writers who entertained, provoked, delighted and/or pushed me to a deeper understanding of why writing and books are still so central to our culture.

In 2018 a dominant theme emerged from the diversity of topics covered during this year’s event. Empathy.  Not just by writers as they discussed their stories, but among readers as well.

So since then I’ve been musing on what is it about empathy in reading and writing that makes it so powerful?

First of all what exactly is empathy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to identify with a person or object. However when considering it in the context of writing and reading I think the Scrivener dictionary definition – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – hits the nail on the head.

Empathy, I believe, is therefore at the heart of any writing and reading. In fiction however it is vital.

As a writer I need to be empathetic to my characters in order to achieve a depth and complexity in their creation. While at the same time I’m doing this I am also inviting you dear reader to transcend your thoughts, worlds and own lives to experience another’s.

Story therefore provides both us as writers and readers with a pathway to connect with the rest of humanity. It’s powerful stuff.

That central role of empathy in literature for me further illustrates the importance of books, writing and words to society and why ignoring them is at our peril.

In an interview with the New York Times as he departed the White House in January 2017, President Obama described how reading fiction and the associated empathy was important to his decision making.

“I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful…And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. ”

— Barack Obama, “President Obama on What Books Mean to Him,” New York Times, January 16, 2017

Given our current political climate where division and divide are increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception, just think what it would be like if all leaders were avid fiction readers?

However I digress. It does however lead me to believe that by promoting empathy, and in turn the opportunity to experience someone else’s world through writing and reading, provides a way to counteract the propaganda, misinformation and intolerance that is now so pervasive in both mainstream and social media. When we walk in each other’s shoes, it is harder to misunderstand or hate one another.

So as a writer I feel there is a sacred duty to promote empathy in my work. It also means that I am required to reach a level of empathy that goes beyond what is necessary for reading.

The best way for me to achieve the writers’ empathy is through the creation of my characters. While I’m well aware they aren’t real people I nevertheless need to empathise with them as if they are so I am successful in their creation.

It is why I spend so much time in working on the backstory as I need to know my characters inside out, consider their lives and their choices from their perspective. Ultimately I need to allow them to take control and choose their own path.

Even if I don’t personally agree with their choices I must be empathetic to that decision and direction.  Let’s face it isn’t that what a part of being a creative is all about, to push ourselves out of our comfort zone?

Once away from the desk and the computer screen, that writerly empathy, can then assist in our interactions back in the real world. It makes us more aware that others are strugling with the same joys, pressures and mistakes and in some cases their situation could even be worse. It forces me to consider how my choices can effect someone else.

Powerful stuff indeed.

Looking back at Adelaide Writers’ Week, words and their power is truly what this event is all about. To hear a group of wonderful writers to tell their own and others’ stories and all for free. We are truly blessed here in Adelaide.

As Australian author Robert Drewe mentioned while discussing his latest novel Whipbird during one of the Writers’ Week session. “Everyone talks about the death of the novel but you only need to walk into the book tent to see that’s not right. Fiction is very much alive in Adelaide.”

If that is the case empathy is also very much alive here in Adelaide.

Until next Mad March, happy writing and reading.

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About crossbordertales

A former journalist and frustrated author currently working in media and communications based in Adelaide, South Australia. This site is a collection of my writing, the people I have met and photos that have come from living and working in both South Australia and South West Victoria a joy. I hope you enjoy these cross border tales.
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