In his book Homegrown Democrat, Garrison Keillor tells us, “Prizes for brilliance are a dime a dozen: what’s really special is to write something that speaks for others.”
Speaking for others requires empathy: the writer has to have it, and he has to get it into his story and out through his characters so the reader has a chance to catch it. Being merely brilliant suddenly looks pretty easy, doesn’t it?
Sue Monk Kidd, way back in December 2005, wrote about the encounter with a reader that shaped her thinking on writing and empathy. A month ago, Tayari Jones wrote that she can sometimes tell which stories are going to fall flat because their writers don’t have empathy; she also offers an exercise for developing empathy for our characters.
I wouldn’t mind winning one of those dime-a-dozen prizes, but brilliance in writing doesn’t have the kind of shelf life empathy does. Romeo and Juliet and Casablanca aren’t still popular today because they were technically perfect. They last because they speak to and for the human condition. We care about the characters and perhaps think a little differently about some things after encountering them.
Powerful writing gets not merely into our minds but also into our hearts.
ADDENDUM: After posting this, the results of a study were reported: today’s college students test 40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of two and three decades ago. What this could mean for society is pretty scary. What does it mean for writers trying to connect to readers who don’t feel the same emotions we do, or at least not to the same degree?