Writing Empathy


red lock engraved with a heart

Stories are powerful tools for creating empathy. Let’s look at the idea of “writing empathy” as an inroad into story ideas.

Think about a time in your life when you didn’t receive the empathy and understanding you needed. Or someone you care about or a situation you’ve observed that needed more empathy. (Sometimes it’s easier to work with other people’s stories than our own.) Or, if you’re up for some self-scrutiny, a situation where you failed to provide as much empathy as perhaps you should have.

Why have those moments stuck in your mind? How did the lack of empathy create conflict? How did you feel? How do you feel now remembering those true stories? How would adding more empathy into that situation have changed the outcome? How would the world be different if more people understood that situation and felt more empathy?

I’m sure most of you have figured out what I’m doing here: I’ve taken the old adage of “write what you know” and dug deeper into it through the perspective of empathy. What do you know, deeply, from first- or second-hand experience, about what the presence or absence of empathy means?

Now write about that kind of situation in a way that creates empathy in your reader. I’m not saying you need to rewrite those moments to give them a happy ending–you can choose do that, although you don’t have to; I’m challenging you to write something that will give me, as your reader, a new understanding I didn’t have before. What do you know about empathy and the human condition that I don’t? Figure that out and write it.

Note: I’m not saying to write down your own story or the story of someone you care about. I’m suggesting you take your understanding of empathy in action and put that to work in your writing.

Poets, this may look like a fairly narrative-oriented prompt at first glance, but if you go through the questions above and call up those moments from your memory, I’m confident you’ll churn up some good fodder for writing poetry, too.

If you really dig into the heart of this exercise, you should wind up writing something that elicits an emotional response in your reader, and maybe even an epiphany.