Can we write without empathy?

ask a writer

This is part of the “ask a writer” series. I received the following message from an aspiring writer named Doug. A lightly edited version is reproduced here with his permission.

I’m in Suzy V’s Seductive Beginnings [writing] class, and Chuck Palahniuk is doing a Q&A for us. In one particular question, he talks about emotional stakes in writing:

“A clever idea is amusing, but unless you have a personal stake in it, the charm evaporates.”

I’ve got pretty severe Asperger’s. I recently took an empathy test with a health care professional and scored almost ZERO. So, I’m basically a robot with a heartbeat, and I hate it.

When writing fiction, as Chuck alludes to in his answer (the above being just a small excerpt), and as we all learn in “Fiction 101,” you’ve got to delve into your hurts and pains if your fiction is going to resonate. The problem is, I love writing fiction, but it’s hard for me to dredge up past woes because shit just doesn’t seem to bother me–death, other people’s pains, the normal trials of life, etc.

And I don’t mean to be a braggart, like “look at me, I’m hard.” I’ve been wishing for years I could have a good cry. And I think this is why I enjoy well written fiction so much: I can immerse myself in someone’s life and see what emotions they’re experiencing.

Anyway, I know you’ve done articles in the past about mental health, so . . . my questions is: Have you ever heard of anything like this occurring amongst other writers, or know anywhere that something like this is discussed? I feel like maybe this is holding me back a little in my writing (not to mention in my relationships with others).

I know you’re not an expert on this, but I figured I should start somewhere and you came to mind because of your past articles I’ve read.

-Doug

Here was my response:

“So, I’m basically a robot with a heartbeat, and I hate it.”

Odd. Robots aren’t usually taught to hate. While you may lack natural empathy, it sounds like you’re not emotionally checked out. You hate being un-empathetic, and that’s a powerful emotion. I can’t tell you what “people” would want to read, but I know I would be interested in hearing someone speaking to that type of struggle in fiction or creative nonfiction.

And then there’s trained empathy, which is sounds like you’re already working on through reading. That you’re aware of situations where you should experience empathy indicates you’re aware that the other person is in a difficult emotional place, even if you don’t naturally resonate with it. Getting inside someone’s head to write from their perspective is a tremendous act of empathy, but I don’t view empathy as just the natural emotional resonance. I’m on the opposite end of the empathy scale as you; I feel empathy to a heightened degree that can sometimes be dysfunctional. Sometimes, I don’t know which emotions are mine and which belong to the people around me. That sort of shared emotion has proved problematic for me as often as it’s proved helpful.

Empathy is about imagining the experience of others, and good fiction always forces us to explore perspectives different from our own. I can’t feel the specific emotions of living life as a woman—or an elf, an outlaw, or a miniature giant space hamster—but I can imagine what it might be like if I had that different experience. And part of that imagined experience can be emotions tuned toward a higher state of empathy.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic by saying this, but I think being disconnected from the surface-level emotions may allow you to skip past a common writer’s road-block: Telling the emotions rather than showing them. What you know best is what emotions look like and sound like, rather than just what they feel like in others. And you know what situations trigger emotions, but your vision isn’t clouded by being deeply invested yourself.

Emotions matter in the reading experience, but you can have investment that relies on the emotions of your readers rather than the emotions you intentionally put into the page. Describing things in detail and ensuring that the stakes are high in other ways—in connection to other people, in risk to life or liveliness, etc.—will get much of that work done. There’s an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that explores that specific theme, actually. It’s been a solid decade since I’ve seen it, but in your case it may be worth a viewing.

Okay. I think that about covers it. I feel like I’ve missed important things, but hey . . . I always do.

Write on,

Rob

Note: This post was originally published in October 2013.