Empathy, Interrogation, and Writing
The photographer Platon says he gets the souls of people on film with empathy and interrogation. I loved hearing that. I realized that’s how I get people to say things they haven’t said or written before during my Write or Die classes.
I am deeply empathetic. I understand fear. I understand pain. I understand being unable to write. I understand being deeply confused about who you are and what you believe. I understand the fear that writing is a pipe dream because you are empty inside.
But I am also a bullshit detector. I want you to feel safe, but I also want you to be honest.
Why? I don’t know.
Why do I want to have clear vision? Why do I want to be able to taste my food? Why do I want to breathe clean air? Why do I want to be able to hear what you say?
I don’t want to have a conversation with you and feel that we’re skating. I want to swim and go deep, touch the bottom if I can. If I wanted to stay on the surface, I could sit at home and watch TV, but instead I’m investing my attention in you, and I want real.
The funny thing is that it’s probably the stuff you are ashamed of, the stuff you think makes you less-than, the stuff you think will make me not like you that is the very stuff which will make me fall in love and want to hear more and more and more of what you have to say.
When the water is clear, it feels like you can swim forever.
HBL and I first started writing to each other before I left for New York to write my memoir. Last night he reread our initial emails, and he told me that my voice has changed over the year, that it is clear now, true, me.
And I feel it.
Years ago I told my writing partner that each sentence I wrote felt like fishing line being pulled from my guts. Writing hurt. Now, while it is still work, for it requires focus and a certain bravery, it feels like a silver stream coming from my center.
The biggest difference is that I’m writing from the place I was running from before—the well of silence. Only it’s not silent. It just seemed that way because I was so busy listening to other voices, and I was busy shoulding all over myself. Now I just sit and go into that place that used to feel knotted up and punched, and I write down what it wants to say.
Usually I set out thinking I am going to write about one thing and I end up writing about something else. I give my voice room. I let it wander. I let it say things that might be offensive or weird. It is learning that it can trust me, and so it is getting more confident, bolder. It’s taking more risks, talking about things that are important to my heart. It’s messy. It’s embarrassing. Sometimes I want to hide from it, but that is living a small live, a fearful life, and so I get back in my chair and I listen.
It’s a form of meditation, really, and I am better for it. I feel stronger. I still don’t pay attention to politics, I have to confess, because I feel that my job, for now, is to listen to myself. In that way I am better able to listen to others. I could really beat myself up for this one, or you could do it for me.
It’s so easy to find ways to feel bad about ourselves. We could always do more. Be more. We could go military on ourselves and have abs of steel and a stack of newspapers we have read that reach the ceiling.
We have so many choices.
And this makes us the luckiest people on earth.