Saturday, March 13, 2010

Writing what you know through empathy, perception, and projection

Years back, I went by a friend’s house to visit her, while on my way to somewhere I don’t recall. I was dressed nicely, had on make-up, et cetera. I was as I am now: Healthy as the clichéd horse. My friend, however, had cancer. Her hair was falling out. She was pale and tired. I took something to her and we chatted a while.

But what I want to focus on was the moment I stepped into the door. I walked in, smiling and strong. I walked in with all this HEALTH surrounding me. My pinked cheeks, my sturdy body, my clean-and-free-from-cancer insides. I walked into her house and she sat in her chair with cancer eating at her, what was left of her hair and her partially bald scalp showing through a little from her scarf, her pallid complexion.

Before she said a word, the look in her eyes said, “I want to be healthy again. I want to be strong again. I want to have on my cute clothes again. I want my hair back! I want this fucking cancer out of my body RIGHT NOW! I want to be ME again.” And maybe even, “I’m glad my friend is here, but . . .” But, she’s making me feel sicker. But, she’s making me feel ugly. But, she’s making me feel hairless and sick and pale and pukey and weak.

For that moment before we chatted and were just the friends we were, I’d put myself in her place (and maybe she in mine)—what I thought I would feel if I were sitting in that chair and she had come breezing in with all that gawdamm Health I used to feel and wanted to feel again—whether I’d hit it on the nail isn’t important for the purposes of things from a “writer’s perspective.” What matters is—

Empathy. Perception. Projection.

I could sit down and remember that moment of clarity. That “look” I saw in my friend’s eyes. The feeling I suddenly had that made me feel as if we could so easily trade places. The feeling that somehow I made her just a little sad or uncomfortable or maybe even a bit envious of my good health—for why should she be sick and I be healthy? Who or what decides these things?

I could sit down and write something from HER point of view—easy to write it from mine, how I perceived that day, but in “writing what I know” I can also use that moment of recognition to write something from my friend’s perspective. Will I get it exactly right, will I know everything she thought or felt? No way, but that one moment of that one flash in her eyes, the wistful sound of her voice, the energy charged in the room, the sickness and the health, all of it I can recall. And from that could come a story written from “what I know.” Empathy. Paying attention. A knowing. A guessing. A projection. A perception. A learning. A reaching into and out of. I could take what I’d think I’d be feeling and pass it onto her (on to my character).

Sometimes that’s what Writing What You Know means.

By the way, my friend is fine now. Healthy and feeling wonderful. Pinked cheeks and shiny hair. No one would ever have to know, except her.

Have you had an empathetic/projecting/perceptive moment that has stayed with you? Perhaps spurred on a story, or, maybe just changed the way you thought about things/a person/a situation?


Glynis said...

You expressed your moment so well. I am happy your friend survived. The loss of my best friend made me emigrate. To do what we always spoke of doing during our 33yr friendship. I am living the life she dreamed of and cannot do. I live a good life because I can.

Inspiring post, thanks Kat.

Shrinky said...

Oh gosh, so many, particularly the painful ones! (I have a rich seam; my mothers mental illness, her suicide, nursing my father with his terminal cancer, my autistic son - wheeeeee, so blessed I've been (wry smile)!)

I don't believe any fictional writer can successfully craft a tale without the perception of empathy, "walking" in someone else's shoes. Incidentally, it also is the best aid to forge true, lasting friendships, something I suspect your friend is very grateful for.

Judith Mercado said...

Kathryn, through sheer serendipity or something, you and I have written about Writing What You Know almost at the same time. My post is scheduled for next Saturday, and it was interesting to see your approach to this; very well written, I might add. And as for changing my perspective about something, I find that every moment is an opportunity to do that. One of the most memorable changes in perspective occurred for me while meeting a former government official once he left office. He seemed so ordinary now! Before, he could rule on life-changing issues. It was a reminder for me that we are human beings first.

Anonymous said...

Glad your friend is here, healthy and strong again. I'm glad she didn't miss the nekkid reading or the joys of being your friend. Good reminder to reflect and have empathy towards others and their situations. :O)

Lady Glamis said...

I get these moments a lot. I think this is what makes us writers feel things more deeply than other people who don't write. This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Karen said...

I'm happy your friend is doing well. Yes, every time I see a military homecoming, or leaving-I know exactly what they feel.

Eryl Shields said...

I think I write as a way of dealing with excess empathy, I have these moments so often.

Titus said...

Moving post which broadened into a very interesting question.
It happens more to me with strangers than intimates - an imagined past, insight into current mood, why they're in this place right here, right now...
Thank you for the happy ending to this one.

Teresa said...

I'm glad everything worked out for your friend and she's healthy again. That's a beautiful story.

I think that's why I have trouble writing stories sometimes. I don't like writing about "events" or "things" but people. That's why I think I have trouble communicating that while my story is set in this really cool world where magic happens, that's not what it's about.

It's about a guy who has lost his place in an environment where he should be comfortable and his struggle to mend fences and find his way home again. I know about that, so it's easy to write. ;-)

Thanks Kat!


Barry said...

I could probably write about Friday when I was still feeling a little weak from my own battles with cancer and pondering what to do with my life now that the doctors have given me a three month reprieve from the onslaught of chemo.

And the mail man arrived with a totally unexpected package from my favorite author who had so kindly sent along two stones from her mountain and a wonderful and very moving note of encouragement.

Thanks Kat. When it comes to empathy, I think I know now what makes a great writer.

Terri Tiffany said...

Good post! And yes I have. In fact the book I just finished is based on a friend's POV who lost her husband at an early age. I tried hard to listen when she spoke of how everyone around her went on with their lives and she couldn't, she was stuck with memories that would haunt her at night.

Deb@RGRamblings said...

Oh yes, lots of those empathetic/ perceptive/projecting moments. Often the only way I can process and move on, is to pour it out on paper.

Vicki Lane said...

Good post! And even with a happy ending!

I know what you mean about those moments of empathy -- I've had it happen with total strangers. Though whether I'm actually feeling what they feel or my mind is working creatively, I couldn't say. But those moments are what make writers able to write outside their own experience, aren't they?

arlee bird said...

I had a long time "friend" --actually part of my circle of friends, but someone who I didn't especially like--who, in his fifties, was sticken with amputations of his legs and kidney failure as a result of diabetes and years of abusing his body with drugs and alcohol. He ended up in a nursing home. I began to visit him every year at Christmas duing my visits "home" and accept his phone calls every few weeks throughout the year. On my last visit to see him, he was out receiving dialysis so I missed him.
After vacation, he called me to thank me for stopping by. He sounded so grateful that I was always willing to talk to him and go out of my way to visit him. I couple of weeks later I received word that he had died. Though I had never liked the guy much, I sensed so much loneliness and pain in him that I realized if I were in his place, how important the little gestures like I was showing would be and he became important to me and a focus of my prayers.
Thank you for your meaningful post.

Debra said...

Perception. That is a word that has come up a lot in my world lately. Enjoyed this post!

A Cuban In London said...

No, you won't get it right because you're not her. However, you will 'get something right' because you're starting point was empathy and not financial gain. That's the difference between your post and any page from any of those so-called 'empowerment books'. They see a cancer sufferer as a commodity. You saw your friend as a fellow human and doubted as to whether you ought to write about it or not. Good on you. It's a coincidence that I finished a post last week about cancer that will be published next Sunday and will be dedicated to a blogger who has sadly died of the disease.

Your post touched me profoundly. Many, many thanks for being so honest.

Greetings from London.

Suldog said...

Well, sure.

I was relentlessly teased and picked on as a very young child. I was the youngest in my neighborhood gang, and had bright red hair, tended toward tears rather easily, etc., so I was a prime target.

Fast forward to high school. I'm not the most popular guy, but I'm by no means the least popular, either. And I see the kids who ARE the least popular being picked on. I made it a point to befriend them as they'd let me, walk with them, talk with them, be a real friend if I could, just anything to get them through the hideous time.

I'm still that way and will probably always be the underdog's best friend. I hate it when the strong lean on the weak, and I always cheer when the little guy, after taking as much as he can, decides to pop the big guy in the mush.

Debbie said...

I think that only a small percentage of people really understand empathy. Lucky for us, you are one of those people.

Deb Shucka said...

I love this story. It helps me remember why being a writer is such a healed and life-changing thing to be. Paying attention, being connected, caring. That you could tell this story in this way is one of the reasons VK is so compelling.