In These Times, Can Reading Fiction Help Create Empathy?

On election night, I, like many, had a meltdown when Trump was in the lead. From the get-go, I struggled with much of his rhetoric, and that it somehow didn’t prevent him from being elected (perhaps the biggest bitter pill to swallow). I also have some friends and family, people I trust and respect, who are kind, intelligent, and reasonable, who have a different view and a long informed knowledge of history. I am choosing to listen to what they have to say, and take solace in this as we move forward, and hope that things aren’t going to be as doom and gloom as most fear. I take heart in the fact that this wake up call may be a necessary, if not terrifying step – like the root and catalyst for all change. How it will unfold, I do not know.

The morning after the election, my husband and I were woken up (after what was sorta called sleeping) by Gemma, our elderly dog, when she came into the bedroom then suddenly fell over, her front legs giving. “Oh please, not today,” I thought, rubbing her legs as she lay down on the rug peacefully and cluelessly (lucky girl). My husband and I sat there together for a long moment, before I asked him (he had gone to bed after I did), “So, is it official?”

We sat there in stunned silence for another twenty minutes. I didn’t want to turn the TV on, but mostly, I didn’t want to face what I knew would be a (justifiable) barrage of Facebook posts full of anger, blame, and grief, and a warrior mentality to immediately begin fighting. I sensed it would only intensify my fear and sadness and was reluctant to fall further into a spiral of despair – call it selfishness, or self care – that somewhere in my core, for me, I knew would be corrosive and futile.

Then I thought of my novel, and shame coursed through me. Only a week prior, my agent had finally given my last of countless rewrites the green light, and my book was finally out on submission to publishers. I had been overcome with joy, relief and hope. But in that moment, I knew that given the election results, things could come to a halt. Would the economy tank? Would the editors be too devastated to read it?  I was crestfallen and worried, and ashamed that I was. I shook my head, pushing the thought away. How could I be thinking about my needs, my dreams, how my life could be impacted, when the effects for millions of others was going to be far greater?

In the ensuing days, I went through the motions of going about my business. I have an important job as the Executive Producer and Head of Sales for a production company. Important because the directors whom I represent – my directors – count on me for their livelihood. To promote them so that they can work and put food on the table for their families. My responsibility for that tiny tiny thread in the fabric of our world was all I could do in.

I spoke with other writers, and with my wonderful agent, who said something that comforted me, not just personally, because of my own aspirations, but which sparked a larger notion. “I believe now more than ever, that people need books. Not just escapism, but female driven, female empowerment novels.”

I am encouraged by this, surely. I believe that people will come from protesting in the street to my local cafe which I have been coming to for 10 years, where I have built a community and cleave to for comfort, conversation, and friendship (and wine). I believe that people need this now more than ever.

Because now more than ever, we need to find empathy for others. We need to try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, rather than closing our ears and hearts. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, no. It doesn’t mean or have to elicit a knee jerk reaction that anyone is trying to change our minds. We shouldn’t fear feeling moved, feeling compassion for others, or that it will somehow impede upon or influence our own positions. If we believe in what we believe in, why should it?

Recent studies show that reading fiction makes us feel for others (WSJ –  “The more fiction people read, the better they empathized….Reading fiction causes a spike in the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. It influences ability to intuit the emotions and intentions of people in the real world.” Yes, the real world. The world we live in.

Naturally, I hope that this finding bodes well for my own novel’s success. But it also underscores and magnifies the reason I read, and write, in the first place. I write to connect with others. I write to inhabit the experience of others, to be inside their skin in my imagination and in my heart, and to better understand them. To FEEL them. I write in order to constantly build that muscle, and perhaps create a shorter path, a short cut, to empathizing with other human beings’ pain and grief, in the moment that it rises to the surface, and as it percolates below it. It ignites my compassion cells, which like all of us, because it’s human nature, tend to lie fallow because we are consumed by our own self-serving lives.

And yet, while straining to put oneself into another’s shoes is a valuable and critical step, it is impossible to do so completely. I don’t profess or expect that I can ever understand – on a visceral level – in my guts and bones, what it’s like to experience someone else’s pain. I cannot inherit anyone else’s emotional and cumulative beliefs and experience. I can only try.

There is much we can do now to mend the hurt, but I think I’ll start there.

Running, Writing, and When an Addictive Personality Can be Useful

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 10.27.23 AMI’ve had people ask me recently, “How did you write a novel, with a full time job? And how are you, a forty something Jewish chick who was never a sports or exercise enthusiast, suddenly running every day?”

Because of motivation and discipline – sure. Both are required to complete an arduous and lengthy task like a book. And to suit up in warm running clothes to get out the door on a winter day to run by yourself, without anyone to crack the whip.  But underneath it all, I think it’s what you call an addictive personality. Wrapped with impatience, restlessness, and the desire to surpass your personal benchmarks.

I didn’t grow up in a household of artists, surely not writers. We didn’t exercise regularly or use the treadmill in the basement. As the middle child, I was the artist – but mostly – that stems from wanting to do things my way. The hard way. If it’s not a challenge or a lofty endeavor, I’m not interested.

In the last year, my husband and I moved from Chelsea, in the heart of the concrete retail jungle, up to the upper upper west side, adjacent to Riverside Park. Just when I was fantasizing about a country spot, amidst cows (and lots of dogs), we made a compromise. Columbia students, families, and grand stately buildings, and…the park. And the river.

I started running. Accompanied by a cheesy 80’s/90’s dance mix on my ipod (including “Love is a Battlefield,” when I’m tempted to shimmie like those bad-ass broads in the music video), along with the wind, the water, and trees budding with bursts of pink. And dogs! Everywhere! Zooming by like escapee bumper cars , before taking a brief hump-break in the middle of my running path (Another perk about running in the park… there are no dogs at the gym).

And, alone time. Time to process the events of the day before, and the looming anxieties of a new day. Afterwards, the cobwebs in my head and the knots in my body and soul disappear. I feel weightless, and yet with more import. New ideas spring forth and connect seamlessly with old ones like reclaimed puzzle pieces.  When people offer to run with me in the park, I wonder: “But how will I solve a work conflict, and fortify myself for my drinks with clients tonight? How will I come up with any ideas while I’m making conversation? (or breathe properly, for that matter). How will I solve my writing block, if I’m turned outward rather than inward?”

And then I wanted to know how far I was actually going, so I successfully downloaded an app (I can’t believe it either). I started to compete against my self.

My knees suck. I had knee surgery on my right knee decades ago, and my left knee is up next. I have no business running. But my mind and the ensuing euphoria don’t give a hoot.

When my parents saw how often and how far I was running, my father said, “Four miles? Oy. Try one.” My response: “I’m sticking to the dirt paths. Don’t worry, when my knee throbs, I stop.” Dad: “Once it hurts, it’s too late.”

Around the same time, I dusted off a novel I had started five years ago. Once I rewrote it, I began the daunting and depressing task of querying literary agents (once again) and couldn’t sleep as I waited, waited for that email in my inbox for someone to say, “I get this. I love this. I can sell this,” I ran.

When I got an email from an agent who loved my book and wanted to meet me, I ran. And a a week later, just after 9am on a Monday, when I got an unexpected call from another agent, my dream agent who had passed on a previous project but with whom I’d felt a connection, she said she wanted to represent me and my novel –  I ran. And cried.

Neither of these pursuits were in the foreground before, or endeavors I thought I’d embark on independently. I used to, a long time ago, write screenplays with my ex-husband. I’d intermittently attend spin classes, surrounded by other people, but that didn’t last.  Several months ago, I tried to embrace a restorative Yoga class at Canyon Ranch with my mother and sisters, even though I knew that following directions and syncing up with other people’s movements has the opposite effect of “restorative” for me. Two minutes into the class, when everyone’s eyes were closed, I bolted. My sisters didn’t have to ask where I disappeared to. The grounds were graced with a secluded treelined running path.

When I submitted my rewrite to my agent, she said: “I’ll peddle as fast as I can. In the meantime, as you wait, run a lot!’

And so I did. Until my right knee called it quits. I began limping, and this time mind over matter (and Alleve) didn’t fix it. Ten days passed where I hoped it would pass, and a malaise and depression descended where all of my stressors felt more pronounced (aka: dramatic). I finished yet another rewrite on my book and sent it off to my agent, but now, I couldn’t just run the stress and time off.

Eight months prior, an orthopedist had prescribed Physical Therapy, but I had ignored it. This time, not running was simply not an option. I told my PT at my first consult: “Don’t tell me to swim. It’s not gonna happen. I need to run again.” He suggested biking, but that didn’t stick. It’s too cumbersome. The sweat in my helmet, the fear of falling or slamming into scaffolding (that happened), and not being able to run errands after – don’t provide me with the same escape and freedom as running. Biking doesn’t feel like flying.

I’m thrilled to be running again. To slower mixes (The Fray… snooze), and for less time (really, Dad!), even though the other day I wanted to sneak in another mile, until a bee in the park decided that it wasn’t a good idea and stung me on my left butt cheek – right through my shorts emblazoned with the Under Armour logo (False advertising. Under Armour….my uh…ass). I’ve discovered a new use for frozen peas.

So I’m officially obsessed. With setting my own record. Against myself. With pushing past my own expectations of myself…before I move the goal post another mile. Or write another book. My knees (and the bees) will just have to pipe down.

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