Several years ago I took a course on writing creative non-fiction. The students were a varied group, and the things that they wanted to write about were all over the map. We read one another's work patiently, all hoping to get some sort compliment from our instructor. One woman was working on the challenging subject of battling cancer while in the midst of a complicated affair, and her work became the most-discussed piece in class.
Her story was unusual and she wrote beautifully, but for the first couple of weeks I found myself at odds with her when I read her work. Instead of being pulled into the story, I was arguing with her. The problem? She had a habit of pulling the reader into the most intense moments of the story and then telling: "You can't imagine what I felt." Everything about her writing up to that point had been helping me imagine exactly what she felt, or what I might feel in similar circumstances. Moreover, her honest emotions were able to get tangled in with my own, and though I had never battled cancer while sleeping with a married man, I had felt that in some oblique way that my experiences were linked to hers.
But, of course, as soon as she put that blockade between her experience and my empathy, I could no longer read as one with her.
It is, naturally, difficult to speak or write about one's most extreme moments or thoughts without characterizing them as unique. This is exactly why we want to talk or write about them. But to connect with our readers, we must sacrifice some of that lonesome status for a communal experience. We must pierce the wall and allow a reader, no matter how naive or inexperienced, to be a part of what we are, to benefit by being carried as part of us through our experiences.
Op-eds and similar newspaper and magazine pieces often drive this wedge, generally in response to some ongoing conversation about a subject. The writers are responding to a set opinon, which may or may not be held by the readers, and their arguments are framed around and in contrast to a single viewpoint. Their arguments may be well formed, but they tend to assume that there are only two minds about a thing (though I doubt the writers or readers would usually feel that way). As with my fellow writer in class, what could be magnetizing instead becomes polarizing.
This week the New York Times published a charged and heartbreaking essay by the mother of a little boy with Tay-Sachs, a disease which will end his life by the time he is three. I have seen this article posted and reposted on Facebook in the past few days, and it is put forth as a contrast to the intense parenting that was much publicized when Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out earlier this year.
You needn't bother catching up on the debate. In summary, Chua's memoir is about being a Chinese mother raising her American daughters. She is of the mind that it is the parent's duty to push their children hard in order that they have opportunities to excel and to make their families proud. I have not read the entire book, but I followed the debate that ensued, and from what I gather Chua was somewhat dismayed at the fact that many people didn't understand that she was to some extent poking fun at herself, examining her own assumptions about how to properly bring up children. Hers was not a parenting book urging her methods, but it was taken as such in the media and amongst parents who used the debate to examine and defend their own practices.
In the piece published this week by NYT, Emily Rapp contrasts her experience of motherhood with that of parents whose children will, presumably, live to adulthood. She calls herself a Dragon Mom, and she makes the point that by being unable to affect the future of her son, her pure duty as his mother is to love him entirely and fully for the duration of his all-too-short life. It is moving, and it is a good reminder of how trapped we can be in the future. But because Rapp wrote this piece as a response to the Tiger Mother approach to parenting, she made assumptions about her readers. She projected onto parents of non-terminally ill children a set of expectations and behaviors that she will not participate in. She writes that parents enroll their children in music lessons in hopes that "they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart."
Here is where I am cut out, where instead of joining her, I am pulled into an argument that is entirely beside the point. I want to tell her: I educate my children not in hopes that they are "set apart," but so that they can take part in a part of human experience, that they might find pleasures for their time on earth. I have gone entirely off-track, and my affinity is dampened. Her essay is a reminder of the importance of loving today rather than deferring pleasure for tomorrow's success. But I will not share or recommend this article among the parents I know because I am now engaged in debate rather than in compassion.
After our last Typetrigger reading, I had the chance to tell Sparklepony what most awed me about her writing, and it was this ability to bridge the gap between unique experience and universal feeling. In writing about things I will never physically expereince, I am encouraged to realize how much my emotional landscape might resemble her own. The singularity of her revelations are not presented as superior, so I am able to set my own ego down and consider our sameness while viewing her difference. She does not hold back from writing about what is different, but she refrains from isolating herself in it.
When I write, I doubt I think often enough of this. I try avoid repugnancy by avoiding writing about how I feel. I don't think it always works. As writers, we must at some point come to peace with the fact that our audience will be specific. Very few of us write in such a way, especially about personal experiences, that we will be universally liked. But no matter who our niche audience is, we must take care to keep them close.
How much do you consider this in your writing? Whose work do you admire for being able to transport you into an experience very different from your own? What are the limits of empathy, and how much should a writer strive to work toward that?