Writing with Empathy: Understanding the Mind of a Stranger

by Grey Jones, Guest Editor

Grey Jones, left, meets Audra Coleman, author of his Editor's Choice for fiction; and Jeanne Howe, author of his Editor's Choice for poetry.

Grey Jones, left, meets Audra Coleman, author of his Editor's Choice for fiction; and Jeanne Howe, author of his Editor's Choice for poetry.

I readily accepted when asked to be the guest editor for this issue of The Great Smokies Review. Due to the daily barrage of information concerning division and opposition, I yearned for a temporary refuge from reality. I felt that an escape into prose and poetry could provide just the respite I sought.

I sat down with the submissions I received, fully expecting to write an essay based entirely on craft. Instead I found myself inspired by conceptual content. Emanating from those pages was compassion and empathy, and I was reminded of the privilege of the writer to change perceptions with the power of words.

It should come as no surprise that I discovered empathy in the submissions. Writers and poets as diverse as James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, and Barbara Kingsolver have emphasized the importance of empathy in their craft. After all, as both writers and readers, we are experiencing the world through the eyes of a character or a narrator. Momentarily, we find ourselves inside the mind of another. We may realize that the very things that highlight our differences are the very things that connect us to the world. Through the written word, we feel that connection to a foreign consciousness, and we experience the echoes of compassion and understanding for a stranger.

In the spirit of empathetic writing, I narrowed the excellent submissions to the works of two writers. In the genre of fiction, I chose Audra Coleman’s Spines of the Saguaro. I next chose a cross genre piece integrating prose and poetry by Jeanne Howe titled How to Give Flu Shots in a Nursing Home – A Guide for the Nurse of a Certain Age. Both of these writers captured the essence of empathy in craft, while maintaining the boundaries between compassion and sentimentality.

Audra Coleman’s Spines of the Saguaro is a portrait of familial abuse and its aftermath. Encompassing both childhood memories and adult experiences, Coleman’s work highlights the ways in which empathy can define one’s identity or, taken to a level of co-dependence, erase it. This is a device that Coleman utilizes to ensure that her writing remains empathetic without veering into the pathetic or sentimental. By rendering a scene in which the protagonist compares her relationship with her sister to that of the symbiosis found within the animal kingdom, Coleman shows the reader rather than tells the reader that there exists a fine line between empathy and mutualism. Compassion and empathy should not, she shows us, entail the complete adoption of another’s burdens. The goal should be to simply understand them. In this way, Coleman keeps her writing and her characters from becoming emotionally excessive.

Deftly, and without manipulating her readers, Coleman creates scenes rife with emotional truth. Lines such as, “And because she wouldn’t cry for herself, which seemed to make it all the more painful for me, I cried for her,” transport the reader into the mind of another, the protagonist’s empathy for her sister creating an empathetic response within the reader. This emotional truth is also evident in the depiction of the way the protagonist remembers the past, described as “essentially hijacking everyone else’s memories.” Coleman has created a scenario in which fact and imagination blend, yet the emotional truth hidden within the memories conjures an empathy that is honest despite the protagonist’s need to claim what is not her own. Even this theft becomes an act of compassion through Coleman’s skillful prose, as she subtly conveys emotion without fostering sentimentality.

Jeanne Howe’s How to Give Flu Shots in a Nursing Home – A Guide for the Nurse of a Certain Age is a wonderful collision of stark prose and often playful poetry. It centers on the elderly, a sometimes marginalized group, without becoming saccharine. This is quite a feat given our cultural practice of treating the aged in a manner similar to the way in which we treat small children.

There is no sentimentality in the way Howe has enlivened her covertly salty narrator. A nurse “of a certain age” who has been commissioned to administer flu shots at a nursing home, the narrator struggles with the required sympathetic professional distance and the empathy she feels for her patients. “Sympathy, you were taught, connoted the feelings of pity, remember?” Howe writes. “[B]eing sorry for someone, but from an emotional distance that kept you safely separated. Empathy, that was supposed to be your goal instead. When you were successful, empathy would enable you to imagine yourself in their same place and look out at the world through their eyes. To be in the same fix. To feel as they feel. To live as they are living.” The next line, sardonic and somewhat jolting, illustrates the narrator’s struggle. “I told you it was going to hurt.” With that, we are catapulted into “their same place,” knowing that one day we will all inevitably reach it.

Despite this struggle of sympathy versus empathy, Howe never overcorrects for sentimentality. The juxtaposition of cool prose with the warm internal voice in the poetry brings a sense of balance to the work that allows for empathetic response. It is a rather courageous device, as Howe navigates her subject matter without fear of breaching the emotional boundaries.

Both of these writers have exercised great control. They have honed their craft, utilizing figurative language, pacing, and structure to tackle emotional topics that could easily devolve into sentimentality in hands less assured. They have created empathy on the page that elicits an empathetic response in the reader, creating compassion and understanding by simply placing us, momentarily, in the mind of a stranger.

Grey Jones is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville, where he was a recipient of the Margaret J. Downes Award of Excellence. His work has been published in a previous edition of The Great Smokies Review, and he continues to write from his home in Brevard, N.C.