Empathy & How to Write (from) What You Know


Empathy is defined as the capacity for understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.  The only real difference between empathy and sympathy are the words “vicariously experiencing.”

It took years for my daughter – always a bright, capable reader – to see the “moving pictures in her head” when she read fiction. Naturally, she didn’t enjoy reading fiction; at an age when most kids are enjoying fairy tales, my daughter was discovering biographies – stories about “real people doing real things.” That, she could relate to. I can’t even imagine the drudgery of reading words on a page, and not getting the full, cinematic experience. One day, she excitedly announced to me that she finally saw them – the moving pictures in her head. It was an epiphany. I think that empathy is similar; until you’re able to access that space within the brain that allows you to see through someone else’s eyes, to feel what they feel through the nerve endings in their skin, it’s impossible to feel empathy. And some people, when they do feel it, are so shocked – frightened, even – that they build up walls in self-defense. Perhaps it terrifies them to imagine others crawling into their mindspace that way, too.

Today’s “E word” was suggested by Jason Mathes, while I was slacking off in the hospital. He provided a monthful of great blog post ideas, but I loved his comment on this one: “even though I’m a dood I can still empathize.” I’ve found that to be quite true of the “doods” who read this blog – and who continued reading through my posts about having breast cancer and a hysterectomy. You guys have laughed with me, offered support and encouragement, and even given me helpful, practical advice. And I’m completely unsurprised, given how I cringe and tear up whenever some dood gets kicked in the crotch, or treated badly by the woman he loves – even though I don’t have balls and haven’t been cheated on. I have my tender bits, I’ve loved and been loved, and I’ve experienced the shock and dismal disappointment of betrayal. If we can imagine, amplify, and extrapolate – it’s only a question of whether imagination lets us switch gender, travel in time, or briefly be someone we’re not. We’re all human – and empathy is a matter of humanity, life experience, and imagination.

It’s also about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and connected, to feel things, which is not to say that guys have to cry at the drop of a hat or that women should drop all their rational defenses. But life’s more fun when you tear down the walls – or refuse to build walls in the first place. I grew up in an open neighborhood, and now live with 8′ fences around my yard. I’m not sure it’s true that “good fences make good neighbors.” I kind of liked it the old way, when we were kids and could freely run across three blocks full of grass and trees and flowerbeds, yelling, “Ollie, ollie oxen free!”

I can only think of one crotchety old neighbor lady who didn’t like that – and she was probably behind the movement to build and require fences. I think that a fenced-in, boxed-up, delimited imagination is the start to a stunted empathy.

Write from What You Know

Lyndi, the Wonderdog, in the Cone of Shame Poor writers, constantly admonished to “write what you know.” If we did that, we’d have no flights of fantasy and no science fiction. Readers would rightfully run in terror from the authors of murder mysteries and horror thrillers. Writers of erotica would probably all die an early death of exhaustion. Writers would closet themselves at home, terrified of being unmasked as idiots. Libraries would be full of dusty, unread tomes promising countless hours of deadly dull dreck.

I urge writers, instead, to draw from the well of what they know and extrapolate. That’s what empathy is all about, really, and if you don’t have it, it’s exceedingly difficult to write believable fiction.

If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

~ Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

It’s not enough to simply consider the other person’s viewpoint; real empathy demands that we “climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Tight fit? Stretch gently. Before you gasp in horror or start snickering, I’m not talking about that creepy Silence of the Lambs thing – no going out and making yourself a suit of human skin – just imagine yourself inside the other person’s head, seeing through his eyes, feeling what he feels. Amplify that with similar experiences, but imagine how your own real feelings would be different under other circumstances.

Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

~ American Indian Proverb

Try it – close your eyes and imagine yourself as one of the following characters (pick the one who is least like yourself and try hard to feel the connections that lead to empathy):

  • a middle-aged butcher in a neighborhood that is undergoing a transformation towards health foods, yoga studios, and vegan cafes;
  • a young [opposite gender from you] biology teacher who drew the short straw on teaching the unit on “human reproduction” to a rowdy class of eighth graders;
  • a conservative, Catholic mother or father whose daughter confesses to having had an abortion;
  • a liberal freethinker whose conservative seventeen year old child announces that they are about to become a mother or father, despite the certainty that it will – at least temporarily – derail their plans for university (and a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League college).

I challenge you to write a believable, empathetic scene or a short story around your choice, then leave it or a link to it in the comments, below. Remember, the goal here is not to change your philosophy, but to seek understanding of an opposing view in such a way that you can eloquently and compassionately express it through your fictional character. You get to crawl back out of his or her skin when you’re done. So don’t argue with me about it – just give it a go. Add a note describing what experiences you drew from your well to help you get into your chosen character’s skin and write credibly. Was it easy? Hard? Did you learn something about yourself in the process? Let me know.


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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3 thoughts on “Empathy & How to Write (from) What You Know”

  1. Thanks to Bruce Tankleff for allowing me to use this photo of Lyndi, the Wonderdog, to illustrate my post. She’s so charmingly photogenic, and is one of the most empathetic dogs around. I empathize with her post-op restrictions, but as I said to Bruce, I stop short at licking her face. Even empathy has its limits!
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