So, you’ve decided to put on the armor of imagination, have you? To wield the pen? To battle the white page and all its opposing, blank-faced forces?
Well for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to say you’ve chosen one of the most enlightening crafts because writing deals with life and all its richness. Most importantly, it requires an emotional understanding of the life you’ll be attempting to imitate and animate, which means you must cultivate and nourish your ability to empathize through reading and observation. Both acts will reward you with bountiful insights into the minds of your fellow people and their behaviors. By seeing characters, or people, in action, you’ll then be able to vivify your own, making them so real, even you will marvel at the shape they’ll take on the page.
A mantra of four words floats around many writing circles. Some of you may be familiar with them, or have heard your English teacher shouting his praise of them to the heavens as if it were a decree from the gods.
“Write what you know.”
While the advice is sound, it’s widely misinterpreted by novices, like myself. It implies a need to know your material, and that if you have any doubts regarding your understanding of the content you’ve chosen for a piece, you should shy away from writing it, entirely.
Sure, it has its merits. It allows a writer to stay within their comfort zone, to pull directly from experience and use it as foundation, building your story from there, the operative word being “experience.”
I can already hear the words of agreement and the questions. How can someone expect to write a character who has lost their mother, when the writer has not lost a mother? The writer has no idea what it’s like to lose a mother, let alone a parent. How the hell could the writer expect to make that character real? The author might run the risk of writing inaccurate reactions, incorrect emotions, and false dialogue.
Though it’s a “safe” way of writing, it’s probably one of the most limiting approaches to creating a story, because you severely stifle your ability to explore, to use something I refer to as: speculative empathy.
Experience is, without a doubt, one of the necessary things to have, when creating anything. But there will come a point where your own experience only goes so far and you’ll then have to use it as reference point, a sort of platform from which you’ll take a leap of faith----and speculate----based on your own intimate experience with similar emotions.
Using the previous example of the character who has lost a mother, let’s take a brief walk through the door of speculative empathy, and what it will bring to your writing.
Think for a moment. If you’ve never lost a parent, ask yourself a few questions. Have you lost a grandparent? A close friend? Do you have any friends who have lost either? Do you know anyone who has lost someone close to them?
Someone you’ve seen or known has experienced death and all its sadness, knows all too well the veil of grief. If you do not know someone, however, fear not. Look to the stories that have already come before you, written by the masters, and read how they’ve characterized people within such situations.
Now, if you do know someone, look at what they went through emotionally. If you can, ask them questions, as long as they are comfortable with talking about it. Or if you’ve lost someone yourself, take a close and honest look at your own experience. The truth is that loss, sadness, grief, on a basic level, is the same, no matter who you are, no matter whom you’ve lost. Sugar comes in many forms, though it tastes no less sweet. Do you think Kafka knew what it was like to transform into a cockroach? Did Bradbury know what it was like to live on Mars? Or what about Saramago? Did he know what it was really like to be blind? Of course not! But they all knew about certain emotions that are excited by similar situations, and they also observed those same emotions in others, then used them to their advantage. They speculated.
By using the information gathered through others, or from the ups and downs you went through during your own period of grief, you can reach outside of yourself and explore other people, which is what writing is all about----embodying the minds of others and living through their eyes. All you have to do is use what you know as the foundation, and then speculate as to how another person might act or feel, building that speculation around your own emotional experience.
Speculative empathy will open up an entire realm of characters, experiences, and ideas for fresh and original stories. It will strengthen your ability to understand, because you’re making an attempt to comprehend another person, to feel how they feel, to see what they see, to taste what they taste, and to hear what they hear. If writers were only allowed to write on the experiences they themselves have acquired, they’d either have to be immortal, or widely-cultured, with the ability to travel and do all kinds of things that are costly and time-consuming, both of which are impossible. Besides, everything you need is already around you.
So go out and take that risk, speculate and use your own experience to guess accurately. Use it to explore life and all its richness. Go be something you’re not and take pride in the fact that you’re quietly learning more about your peers, paving the way for a much deeper understanding of mankind, all the while.
Writing Outside of Yourself: Thoughts On Speculative Empathy