Cave paintings from the Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara Desert.
In my opinion, empathy is the writer’s most important tool, and possibly the purpose of the whole endeavor. If you’re wondering what empathy is exactly, check out this video for a lovely short course.
Empathy is our love for each other born out of our suffering, and our mutual understanding of the fragility of life. This love binds us together. And, It’s what will make your writing soar.
To have our view of the world transformed by a book, the book must work a transformation within us. This is the magic of great writing. It can reach across time and gender, class and culture. Magic, and no simple spell. Writers apprentice themselves for years, decades, lifetimes, to master the art of deep, transformative writing. At its heart is an emotional connection to the characters born from a deep empathy with the world and everyone in it.
Empathy is good for you. I recommend it for everyone. But, if you want to be a writer it is a necessity. You can’t create real characters, or truly interrogate a situation, if you are so entrenched in your own beliefs and opinions that you cannot step outside yourself to contemplate why someone might think or behave differently than you would.
Here are some writerly ways to practice empathy.
Be curious about the other.
A writer is curious about everything, but especially about people. The more different their opinions and life experiences are from yours, the better. Look for opportunities to interact with the sorts of people you wouldn’t normally talk with. Challenge yourself to be a fish-out-of-water. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or at City Hall. Don’t go to argue with anyone or to promote your own agenda, but with an intense curiosity about the people you meet. Reorient your interest away from yourself and towards the other.
You may be surprised how quickly you find that you have something in common. You both like Schnauzers, or knitting, or muscle cars, you both have daughters, or a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s. Humans are social creatures and even as we define ourselves into tribal groups, we are also driven to find common ground. For extra credit, cultivate friendshipswith people who do not believe the same things you do.
Be a good conversationalist.
They don’t call it the “art” of conversation for nothing. It doesn’t always come naturally. Imperfect as it is, conversation is the best way to find out why other people think and act and feel the way they do. The more people you talk to the more equipped you’ll be to write dialogue that feels real and conveys each character’s individuality.
First, listen.
Really listen. I work on this all the time, especially with friends because there’s always so much I want to talk about. I try to tell myself, listen first. Even brief exchanges with strangers, in line for coffee – or when you give that coffee to the homeless guy sitting on the curb – can be fruitful. Listen and take in what you hear without judgment (this is not the same as not expressing an opinion). Just keep in mind that it’s not always about you.
Then, talk.
You have to open up because empathy is a two-way street. How can anyone trust you with their fears and crazy schemes if you don’t ante up too? More importantly, you can’t truly be receptive to another person’s point of view if you can’t allow yourself to be vulnerable. Learning empathy has a lot to do with experiencing your own vulnerability, and it’s the price of admission for a real connection to another human being.
Be trustworthy
It doesn’t pay for anyone to be vulnerable if there isn’t trust. If someone shares something personal, or emotionally difficult, they have given you a gift in trust. Be worthy of their generosity by keeping it well.
Put on those shoes.
And then walk a mile in them. Be like an actor researching a role, and put yourself in real life situations that are new and different. Take a variety of jobs, travel to exotic places (and stray from the tour group), volunteer for an organization that helps people you wouldn’t normally meet.
Now that you’ve opened your senses to the world and gotten in touch with the people around you, it’s time to do something with all this input. Develop an ambitious imagination – the key word here is AMBITIOUS. You will use it practically, when empathizing with someone who has a very different worldview than your own to imagine where they come from, and to extrapolate why they hold the views they do.
When you write, your imagination is your bread and butter. I believe absolutely everyone has a great imagination, just sometimes we get in the habit of keeping it hemmed in, tamped down, locked away.

Know that your imagination is vast; it contains multitudes. Let it stretch and play. Go to the bright places and to the dark places. Be an adventurer. Use the raw material you gather in your every day, empathetic interactions to feed the fire of your imagination.

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