Monthly Archives: November 2018

Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

The week before the midterms, I reminded my fiction workshop students that early in the semester, I’d described the restrictions of my writing assignments in the context of our greater freedoms as Americans. In this time and place, I said, you’re free to write what you want.

But in the past few weeks, I said, we have learned that a writer for an American publication was tortured and assassinated for what he wrote. This awful news, I said, makes the freedom of expression seem terribly precious.

I want to share with you a few quotes about empathy, I said. Which may be helpful to you, if you find it hard to think about writing as a worthwhile endeavor in times like these. (In class, I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been, attempting to say all this.)

The first quote was from George Saunders, since we read “A Perfect Gerbil,” his essay on Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” and his story “Home”:

Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing? Sensing how close we were to the edge financially […], I realized for the first time, in my gut, how harsh life could be and how little it cared if someone failed. […] The realization that failure was possible, even for me, had the effect of increasing my empathy. If life could be this harsh/grueling/boring for someone who’d had all the advantages, what must it be like for someone who hadn’t? A thread of connection went out between me and everyone else. They, too, wanted to be happy.

—from the preface to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (new edition)

Then I read a favorite quote from Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing”:

[A]rt’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension.

Then this great quote from Nikki Giovanni:

Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

I have not read Black Women Writers at Work (1983, Claudia Tate, ed.), but I’m grateful to Jon Winokur (who compiled Advice to Writers) for having tweeted it, and Emily Barton for retweeting it.

My hope, of course, is that this is not all too much to take. I said that I wanted to share these quotes because the news of the world had been particularly devastating the past two weeks.

The torture and assassination of a writer; the attempted assassination of twelve critics of the current “louche shyster” (Josh Marshall) aka the “umber Maginot” (Rick Wilson) aka the “self-pitying drama queen” (Peggy Noonan); the massacre of eleven of my landsmen—it has all been, to put it mildly (and to view it only in one way), terrible failures of empathy.

In the face of all this, I view creative writing workshops—and the greater categories workshops inhabit (the practice of writing, the study of literature, the liberal arts, even liberal democracy itself)—as tantamount to a religious practice.

I am asking my students, I suppose, to share my faith. Which, again, I hope is not overwhelming. Perhaps they just want to write stories! But writing stories is a political act. Not seeing writing as political is itself political.

I didn’t say all this in class, of course.

It is not my job to advocate for a candidate or a cause. But it is my job, I believe, to challenge them. It is my job to make the case to my students that they have grave and magnificent responsibilities.

I closed with a quote from Alexander Chee. (Alex, if you ever happen to read this, I haven’t told you how much I enjoyed How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I already knew that the individual essays were good—what surprises me still is how astonishing well they fit together into a larger whole, how they come together as a narrative, as a memoir.)

My syllabus ends with this quote:

Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

But this week, I ended my class with a longer excerpt from the last paragraph:

If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?

—from “On Becoming an American Writer

In the quote I initially included in my syllabus, I think I was wary of mentioning war and “the ones who are coming for your life.”

But here they are: they don’t come across borders. They cross a border in their mind, then go across town on Shabbat.

Vote, I told my students. Vote!

The world will be a different place when class meets next week. We just don’t know how or in what way.

I didn’t tell them who to vote for.

But I think only the authoritarian bent on exploiting the values of a free society in order to undermine those very values would say that a teacher can’t urge a student to exercise the franchise.