So Christmas is nearly here, this great celebration of loving and giving – the perfect time to talk about the third gift that writing gives us, the gift of empathy.
When I wrote my children’s book about writing, How to be a Brilliant Writer, I asked my friends in the Scattered Authors Society if they would like to send me a few sentences on what they loved about writing. This is what Enid Richmont sent me:
A writing game I sometimes play when I’m trying to bring one of my characters to life is body-swapping! I pick a stranger – in the bus perhaps, or the supermarket – then I try to become that person. I feel the wrinkles on my skin, I walk with a limp, I look at my long scarlet fingernails or I run my fingers over my shiny bald head. Right now, I’m being a squirrel! I like to think, as well, that ‘becoming’ other people, or creatures, also helps me to understand them.
In fiction, we create characters and give them big problems to deal with. There’s always going to be struggle, conflict, pain because if everyone’s happy there’s no impulse for change, no movement, no story.
As we imagine what it feels like to be homeless, or orphaned, or bullied, or bereft, we feel everything our character is feeling – we have to, because otherwise we can’t know how they will behave, and our story will feel hollow and unconvincing.
It takes emotional toughness to do this work, and everyone has to find their own way. I personally have usually opted to put my characters in situations that are difficult but not overwhelming, and I use humour to leaven the hard parts. If my reader – and I – feel like crying at times, I want to make them feel like laughing too.
Other authors I know are braver and tougher than me, going into dark areas of experience such as criminal gangs, drugs, self-harming, eating disorders, abuse – which are part of real life that older children need to know about, and reading serious fiction by responsible authors is probably the safest way of gaining this knowledge.
Writers are used to imagining another person’s story, looking beneath the surface, feeling their joys and pains. We do it in imagination, and that spills over into real life. I think that’s why most writers I know enjoy hanging out in cafes on their own, people-watching.
I like to think, as Enid says, that ‘becoming’ other people might help us to learn to be less quick to judge and more aware that sometimes it can take real courage and faith to get through the vicissitudes of even an ordinary life.
So there they are – stillness, awareness, empathy – the three greatest gifts I think I get from writing. What does writing give to you?