My interview with Ploughshares: Empathy, Delight

Saturday, September 14, 2013

It was a tremendous honor to be interviewed by Erinrose Mager for Ploughshares Literary Magazine not long ago. Her questions were remarkable. She gave me room to answer at length.

And so, rushing off to the Big Apple as I now am, I quicklyshare a conversation that begins like this, below, and can be found in its entirety here:

Apropos of your chapter in Handling the Truth, “Exercising Empathy,” can you articulate how you underscore the importance of empathy when teaching writing students? In the classroom, what texts do you often cite that exercise empathy deftly? Why are these texts so crucial to understanding empathy as the cornerstone of memoir?

One of the reasons that I love being in a classroom is that we are endlessly learning empathy from one another. I spend a lot of time in the early sessions building trust. I require the students to get engaged—to pay attention to the work that arises from in-class exercises and to the person doing that work. I require them to notice who is speaking, and why. We interview one another. We define expectations. We make psychic and literal room for one another; it’s a very small classroom. We establish a framework, and a mood, and so we are prepared. We are empathic.

The best writers of memoir demonstrate empathy both for themselves and for those whom they include in their stories. There are two pages in Natalie Kusz’s memoir, Road Song, that I read out loud every year. Kusz was a little girl walking home from school in her new home of Alaska when she was attacked by tethered huskies. That attack will define the remainder of her childhood and much of her adolescence as she succumbs to countless operations to repair her devastated face.
But when Kusz writes about the attack, she writes almost gently, almost quietly, of the violence. She writes of the mittens she was wearing:
I watched my mitten come off in his teeth and sail upward, and it seemed unfair then and very sad that one hand should freeze all alone; I lifted the second mitten off and threw it away, then turned my face back again, overtaken suddenly by loneliness.
When I read these words aloud (through tears, always), there is silence in the room. There is huge respect for a writer who, at that traumatic moment in her life, cares for the weather, cares for the mittens, speaks of loneliness, not rage. This is a writer whose entire book is filled with that kind of concern for other things, and other people.

Empathy is, according to Merriam-Webster, “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” Kusz projects as she writes. The students project as they read. And this sort of projection happens in many wonderful memoirs. I think of Patricia Hampl, Gail Caldwell, Lucy Grealy, Caroline Knapp, Abigail Thomas. And, by the way, let us not assume that empathy is a talent reserved for women; read Geoffrey Wolff and Mark Richard and C.K. Williams and many others, and you’ll find it there.

When a memoirist lets us see her or his world—when she or he evokes it instead of judges it—we are taught empathy. We are inspired by it.

You explain many wonderful writing exercises in Handling the Truth. What is one exercise that you turn to, time and again, when teaching memoir? What is it about this exercise that affects students so deeply?


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