Monday, October 28, 2013

An Exercise in Empathy

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”  -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
I don't know much about Jim Shepard's writing, just like I still don't know much about Elmore Leonard's, but the man seems to have a good notion of what writing is about. He gives a fair enough introduction of himself in the video, so I'll leave the substance of that task to him, save to highlight that he is a creative writing professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, and writes largely historical novels and stories that focus closely on an eclectic group of subjects and people, such as the executioner in charge of the Reign of Terror. This requires him to do a hell of a lot of research, and then leap from the high ledge of raw facts and recorded testimony to make the story his own. Essentially he deals in taking artistic liberties.

“The first worry writers have,” Shepard says, “when they consider working with something like 'real material', or historical material, has to do with the issue of authority. As in, 'Where do I get off writing writing about that?'”

Shepard's response? “Where do you get off writing about anything?”

Everything we write about is a stretch of some kind or another. The same can be said when we read, because we are necessarily dealing with experiences outside of our own. This gets to the heart of what writers do and what readers look for. It's all an exercise in empathy. The best writers, the really best writers, make this exercise a delight for themselves and their readers.


Shepard's recommendation for fiction that makes an exhilarating use of history: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Youcenar

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