Discovery and Empathy: Great Writers on the Duty of the Writer
Like most people during this pandemic, I'm half-heartedly attempting to get ‘real work’ done while finding it a challenge to stay inspired creatively. So, when I received an email from Book Passage, my favorite area bookstore, announcing a series of author interviews they were hosting via video, my heart leapt for joy. A few in particular piqued my interest and I quickly marked them on my calendar.
As expected, the interviews were intimate and rich and enlightening, and I found myself profoundly grateful for the strange, particular set of circumstances that brought this unexpected gift to my inbox. In the spirit of gift-giving I thought I’d pass along a couple of writing tips that have stood out to me in these interviews. Both are direct quotes from two different authors that actually began with the same words: “The duty of the writer is to…”
As a writer myself, I’m intrigued by how other writers characterize their calling or purpose.
Isabel Allende, author of the semi-autobiographical memoir, House of Spirits, said, “The duty of the writer is to be the other.” She was once asked how she, a Latina woman, could possibly write a book from the point of view of a black Haitian slave (referring to one of her earlier books.) Her answer, in a word? Empathy. When creating characters, she said, empathy means getting over our fear of ‘the other.’ We are all human first - not classifications of color or religion or gender, etc.
If we can erase those borders and enter into the humanity of the character, we can write them as fully imagined, complex and believable.
Colum McCann, author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Let the Great World Spin, said, “The job of the writer is to allow readers to experience without telling them what to think.” He went on to discuss how
...a writer creates landscapes for the reader to inhabit and interpret, and that he never underestimates his readers’ intelligence, or their ability to draw their own conclusions.
His recent book is based on the true story of two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who form an unlikely friendship after they both lost their young daughters in the conflict between their two countries. It was important for him to tell their stories, he said, unbiased and unburdened by the weight of his own opinions.
I see a connection between these two authors' ideas. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read books in which I feel so strongly led by an author’s agenda that the characters come across as contrived and the story almost doesn’t matter—as long as it reinforces what the author wants me to think or believe. This kind of writing cheats me out of my favorite thing about reading—discovery.
I can only discover new ways of thinking about the world if the author has invited me inside the mind and heart of someone who's worldview is different from mine.
Challenge yourself to incorporate these two philosophies as you write: create characters who live outside of your ethnicity or socioeconomic background, knowing that the best research is talking to, spending time with, and trying to understand people with whom you might not otherwise associate. And hold your own bias cards close to your chest. Don't underestimate your readers' ability to draw conclusions and form opinions for themselves,
If you’re interested in tuning in to these author interview sessions, which are also archived, check out the Book Passage series HERE.