One of the things I loved about being a journalist was the excuse it gave me to dive deeply into subjects and lives I would never encounter otherwise.
In the name of “getting the story” I did such things as going on patrol with the coast guard (albeit in a relatively tame New England town), signing up with a dating service (long before online dating), and donning an early virtual reality head set (which is, in some ways, like getting inside someone else’s head).
As a writer of fiction, I long ago abandoned the simplistic notion of writing what I know. If authors took that literally, we would never have fantasy, sci-fi, or historical novels. Instead, I interpreted that advice, often given to beginning writers, to mean write what you understand emotionally.
Even that interpretation, however, raises questions. Every experience evokes an emotional response. How similar must two experiences be to evoke an identical response? Is grieving the loss of a dear friend the emotional equivalent of grieving the loss of a spouse? Is red-hot rage that results in screaming into a pillow equivalent to rage that leads to picking up a gun and killing someone?
My characters have committed arson and cheated on their spouses (actions, I hasten to say, I have never taken). But until recently, I felt I could write about those things because I believed I could understand my characters’ emotional response based on my own response to similar, though not identical, situations.
But can I?
The fallacy of emotional equivalency
Then, last year, my up-close-and-personal encounter with anxiety (which I wrote about here, though somewhat obliquely) made me begin to wonder: Can I do justice to an emotional state I have not directly experienced?
If you had asked me a few years ago whether I could write convincingly about a character suffering from anxiety, I would have said yes. I’m human; I know what it is to be anxious. I thought I had been anxious. Now I know two things:
- I did not really understand the feeling of clinical anxiety until I went through it. My imagination of the sensation was only the palest imitation of the sensation itself.
- Even knowing the feeling, I am at a loss to know whether any words I write about it could accurately convey it, either to those who have also experienced it or—and perhaps especially—those who never have.
In the same way, I recognized before I had kids that there is a fundamental difference between the emotional experiences of people who have had children and those who haven’t. Once I had children, I understood the spasms of doubt, the moral conundrums, and the completely illogical joys that parenthood brings in a way I never had before. And I began to doubt whether I could have done justice to writing about being a parent had I not been one myself.
Reading as escapism, but not the kind you thought
Where does that leave the writer? Must childless writers abandon family as a subject? Must well-adjusted writers forego the topic of depression? Must I give up writing about arsonists and philanders?
Even given the challenges of really understanding another person’s emotions, I say no. I must—out of professional necessity as much as anything—believe in my powers of empathy and my writing abilities to overcome this challenge.
All of us are alone inside our skins and our brains. The only way to defeat this isolation is to try, however poorly we might do it or how miserably we might fail, to get inside the skins of other members of the human race.
It’s the only way out of the prison of our own brains. It’s why I write, and, I imagine, why many people read.
What about you?