Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Provoking Empathy in Memoir

One of the potential powers of memoir is to bring readers deep into a life they otherwise would not experience. For someone who has never thought of themselves as an addict, reading a very real and raw depiction of drug addiction is more powerful than reading journalistic reports or statistics. 

However, it is also challenging to read - and write - such a thing. By how we write about our trauma, we can distance our readers - or encourage the further distancing we are prone to doing when we encounter someone else's discomfort and don't want to get close to it. The more difficult the content of the story - violence, extreme isolation, trauma - the more the writer has to do to develop safety so her readers will keep reading and relating to her without exploiting the tale.

One of my students is writing a memoir about a time in her life when everyone she had been close to for decades left her. Because of their misinterpretation of her health, people suddenly disowned her: canceled their friendships, and otherwise cut her out.

The effects, as you can imagine with even the smallest amount of empathy, were devastating.

As we have discovered in our intimate and supportive group working with her on the manuscript, even we who know and sympathize with her are doing our own distancing. It's an unfortunately common human way to subconsciously pretend we don't understand in order to not connect. On the one hand, this is because we don't actually understand - if all your closest friends and family have never given up on you, it's almost impossible to imagine it. Really. No matter how empathic you are.

On the other hand, "I can't even imagine what that was like," is not an uncommon thing for us to say to someone like who has been through horrific experiences. When I hear someone or even myself say this, part of what I hear is:"I don't want to imagine."

We want to keep extreme suffering at a long distance from our seemingly stable and companionable lives. By thinking someone os not like us, by making their experience separate enough, we can keep ourselves safe - or so we think. As if suffering is infectious by some imagination osmosis.

So, as readers, as humans, we can try to relate more. We can try harder. All of us.

As memoir writers, often our stories ache to be told BECAUSE others did not understand or relate or hear us when we are suffering. So from our end, what can we do to help people develop empathy, understand us, and see the whole picture in our story?

We have little control over how readers receive our work, based on their own neuroses or fears. But there are things we can do within our writing - mainly in framing and narration - to help readers relate as humans, even if their experiences have been dramatically different. We can help close some of that socially sanctioned gap between "me and you" or "us and them." Here are some suggestions of how:

Write in a voice that includes both a strong sense of then and of now.
Full immersion into the physical and emotional experiences of the past with sensory awareness is crucial for helping readers to feel present in your story. However, with trauma, we also need a "now" narrator who can see now what was going on then, that the person then could not. This helps ground us, give us a bridge, let us know that somehow things do get resolved, even if not completely.

As the narrator, acknowledge how you changed your view of others in your situation. 
Show the growth, change; acknowledge the gap in yourself. This can help others to not feel so ashamed for wanting to push away the story. If you used to think that homeless people were desperate and you judged them for "not getting a job," then suddenly you find yourself without any of the resources you are used to having, your perspective changes. Seeing you go through this process helps us understand in a deeper way that this can happen to anyone, including us, and helps facilitate our own change in perspective.

Don't assume that people will get you or automatically side with you.
I wish it were the case that somehow memoir just created instant empathy in the readers, but it is not the case. Wouldn't it be nice if that were the case in life? It's not, not very often, anyway. So be prepared to explain, through showing and telling, why you made the choices you made at the time. Know you will face judgment - EVEN IF YOU WERE A VICTIM - and prepare yourself for how to redirect that, both in the book and, if you get published, in the public eye.

Make sure you are showing yourself as a whole person, who has gone through suffering.
It can get easy to just focus on "what went wrong" in memoir - focus on the stories that show how everything fell apart. Make sure to show a balance - life before and after, even if it is not your entire life story (which it shouldn't be - that's autobiography). A long time ago, when a student of mine asked her mother one too many times about a traumatic incident she didn't want to discuss, her mother replied, "Why don't you ever ask me about anything good?!" When the student did, she unlocked a lot of her mother's memories - things she knew were accurate and a part of her life at the time, but she had shut out due to trauma.

In the end, of course, you have no control over whether someone will walk away from reading your book judging you to the nth degree. However, there are ways, especially working with people you trust as you write and edit, to test out what angles and voices and stories help provoke empathy in your readers. Stay open to noticing when you feel judged by your readers, and if they are people you trust (please don't share your work with people you don't trust!) engage them a bit deeper to explore their and your tendencies to distance and judge. See if your readers have intuitive suggestions - and you can find some in your own life or experience - for how to help someone cross the bridge between their story and yours.

It can be quite painful to work through the gaps in our lives where others don't empathize with us, then write about it and find you are still struggling to elicit or find the empathy you need to heal. Know that memoir writing is not automatically healing - it often takes us deeper into the pain - but with the right support and perspective, you can apply all you learned to help others better understand not just your story but the whole of our shared human condition.

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