From A to Z: Imagination as Empathy

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

Mohsin Hamid empathy quoteSometime in the early 2010s, I heard an interview with a woman who was homeless. She lived in a car with her children, and she said the worst part was at night when she would try not to wake up the children with her crying.

This story stayed with me and eventually became the very real inspiration for a fictional story. Instead of writing the mother’s perspective, I imagined the experience of one of her children. In my mind, this teenage child was not sleeping but rather pretending to sleep while listening to his mother’s tears.

Writing is an intimate exercise in empathy. I would never claim to know the exact dimensions of another person’s experiences, but through writing, I can take what I know of life and use it to imagine others’ lives. For example, I have not been homeless, but I have slept in a car. I know the stiffness that comes from spending the night at crooked angles. And I have not faced food insecurity, but I have skipped meals. I know the dull ache and distracted attention that come with hunger. The specificity of the details is what creates the illusion of reality, so I start with my own experiences and extrapolate from there to create the landscape of my characters’ lives, inside and out.

And when it comes to the important things, to fear and jealousy and love and longing, I don’t have to stretch too far. I have felt all of these emotions myself, and although the reasons might differ, the result is the same. Much as an actor draws on her own personal history—her own moments of shame and pride, of joy and sorrow, of anger and calm—I unearth my own deep wells of emotion to reveal these feelings in my characters.

So when my main character, Ben, hears his mother crying in the car at night, I can feel not only the pain of being crammed sideways in the passenger seat of a car but also the pain of witnessing another person’s grief and being unable to do anything about it.

And if I have done my job properly, my readers will feel the same.

ElizabethCooke 200x200


This post is brought to you by Lizzie Cooke at ChiYAwriters.com.

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