Guest Post: The Art of Empathy

My friend Karen (you can read more about her at the end of this post) has written this piece, reflecting on why she writes fiction and how she answers frequent questions like “What is your book about?”

We all have questions that we have come to expect, about our work, lives, and loves. I imagine if you’re anything like me, you’ve found your own way to receive those questions. Perhaps you are consistently able to respond out of the moment, and share an answer that is spontaneous and honest. Perhaps you sometimes dodge a particular question, or freeze, deer in the headlights. I’ll admit, I’ve done all of the above, depending, sometimes on the identity of the questioner and the shape of the question.

So, true confession: here are two questions that I have too often frozen in the face of, or dodged altogether:

  1. What’s the theme of your novel?
  2. Why do you write?

Time to stop dodging I’ve decided. Time to warm up to some answers.

Sing for MeSo regarding the first: well, it’s hard for me to sum up the themes of any of my novels, let alone Sing for Me. I can tell you what happens–first this, then that, then this. In other words, I can give you the narrative arc. I can describe what the characters do, the choices they make, and how they change. But what about what the book’s about? That’s what people often ask, and finding the answer just as often proves challenging for me.

In this regard, I feel a certain kinship to Flannery O’Conner, who wrote this about theme in her truly great book on the writing process, Mystery and Manners:

People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction”

Instead, O’Conner argues, the best way to know what a story is about is to read the story. The essence of fiction, O’Conner states, is “not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.”

Experienced meaning: the way all the elements of the story–plot, character, setting, dialogue, details–work together to suspend readers’ disbelief so that they can experience an imagined world.

Why do this–why suspend disbelief, only to believe in a new way? Why enhance our day-to-day experience (which surely holds conflict enough) with an alternate one? Why take the time, extend the focus and the energy, when everything around us is tweeting: Cut to the chase! What’s it about in #140characters or less?

Here’s why.

I believe healing happens when we read fiction. Barriers break. Walls crumble. Doors open. The universe expands. We get better. All because we have “experienced meaning.” Which is to say: all because we have empathized with others.

The essential art of fiction is the art of empathy. That’s what I believe.

Of course we can experience empathy in other ways, as well, as we encounter loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers–when we care for them, tend to them, listen to their stories with our eyes and ears wide open, and our hands and hearts and minds, too.

How Jesus empathized, when the woman touched the hem of his garment, and he turned to her through the press of the crowd, and listened to her story of blood and suffering. Jesus didn’t sum up the theme of her life in #140characters or less. He experienced her meaning, and she got better.

So what meaning am I hoping readers will experience as they move through the pages of Sing for Me? What about what’s about?

Still can’t tell you.

But I can share this passage from the beginning of the novel, when the main character, Rose Sorensen, describes what she wants for her birthday:

I wanted to see Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer down on the South Side, whose voice nearly brings me to my knees when I listen to her on the radio . . . I’ve seen only one photograph of Mahalia Jackson and the sanctified gospel choir that sings with her, on a poster that someone tacked on a telephone pole outside the Chicago Public Library. Come Sing And Worship With Us! All Nations and Racekaren-halvorsen-schrecks Welcome! The words floated above their heads like a kind of community halo. In their satin gowns, the choir–men and women, both–glowed and shimmered like the stars I don’t see very often anymore, now that we live surrounded by so many buildings and streetlights. And with her shining smile and radiant eyes, Mahalia Jackson was the brightest star of all.

Inclusive, integrated community. Barriers broken. Walls crumbled. Doors opened. The universe expanded. And all of us singing together, regardless of gender, race, or class; regardless of physical, emotional, or mental ability.

Heaven on earth, if only a glimpse. That’s one meaning I hope readers will experience as they read Sing for Me. That’s one aspect of what the book is about.

And that’s why I write fiction: because empathy for all human beings is what I believe we’re called to experience. Heaven on earth, if only a glimpse. The answer to the question.


Karen Halvorsen Schreck is an award-winning author, a freelance writer, and a teacher. Her newest novel, Sing for Me, is a fresh release from Howard Books.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.