Empathy in Creative Writing

How A Writer’s Craft can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 7

I’ve been reading Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World and thinking about how my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, can be used in a more anti-racist way. This series has been written against the backdrop of current events, including this week’s news of a guilty verdict on all three charges in the Derek Chauvin trial for the death of George Floyd, and the recent police killing of Daunte Wright. As Salesses’ title suggests, questions of craft and creative writing pedagogy never happen in a vacuum. We must respond to events in the real world in order to keep our craft relevant to our readers and our students.

The first section of Craft in the Real World is full of excellent advice for the fiction writing, yet the central idea I keep coming back to, especially in light of recent events, has to do with empathy. Creative writers like to argue that writing naturally creates empathy because writers inhabit the minds of their characters. And I agree that it can do this, though I also wonder if sometimes we don’t project onto our characters as much as we learn from them.

Salesses doesn’t write about empathy, instead, his focus is more on audience and how many of the craft terms that we take for granted and often do not define — terms like tone or pacing or relatability or believability — which Salesses describes as dependent on the shared experience of an audience. The tone of a piece of fiction might come across one way to an audience that shares the writer’s cultural context, and may be incomprehensible to those who don’t. We may miss the humor or the irony, or way may find a piece unbelievable or hard to relate to because we do not share this context.

To me, this is related to empathy: the ability to transcend our cultural limitations and identify with someone who is different that we are, not just to have tolerance, but to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to understand how they see the world and how they react, rather than understanding their actions or their views through the lens of our own biases.

In a creative writing workshop, this means reading the work the writer intended, rather than reading for how we would have written it. It means questioning whether terms like “relatability” and “believability” are valuable or to what extent they can be useful, as Salesses does in his discussion of them. It means considering other terms like “tone” or even “plot” not as certainties, but as relative to who is the intended audience. And therefore, it means trying to understand where a writer is coming from before giving feedback. This is why I always recommend reading a piece at least twice when making comments: once for enjoyment and to get a view of the whole, and a second time to make comments informed by that view of the whole.

With this in mind, how can A Writer’s Craft be taught in a more anti-racist way? I might add some discussion of tone in Chapter 7 on Character and Voice, where I do already discuss terms like irony and distance. When discussing character, I might bring in some of Salesses thoughts on characterization, and challenge the prevailing notion that psychological realism is the primary mode of literary fiction. Salesses’ discussion of the use of types in non-Western traditions can be helpful here, though the Western tradiation of folktale also relies more on types than on well-rounded characters.

Salesses point is that there is always more than one way to think of the craft elements we tend to take for granted. As writers, we need to be aware of the many options we have, and we need to view craft not as prescriptive, but as descriptive. To do so, requires us to think outside our own experience and to imagine other values and other ways to conceive of the real world. Isn’t this the same kind of empathy we need to see someone who doesn’t look or dress or act like we do, not as a threat, but as someone who may be in need of our assistance, to react not with violence but with compassion? Understanding other cultures does not threaten our own, but rather enriches us.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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