Please welcome today’s guest Liz Lazzara. Liz is an androgyne writer, editor, and activist specializing in mental health, addiction, and trauma. They have written online copy for rehab centers, and essays, narrative nonfiction, and journalism for multiple online and print publications. They are currently working on a manuscript about complex post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, and they are affiliated with Active Minds, the Mental Health America Advocacy Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Nonfiction Authors Association, No Stigmas, and the One Love Foundation. Follow them on Twitter and find their entire body of work at LizLazzara.com.
Storytelling: An Exercise In Empathy
Some time ago, in early spring, I went to Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Boston, to hear Richard Russo read from his most recent book, Everybody’s Fool. I had read Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, in my undergraduate years, remembered it fondly, and was looking forward to hearing more from an author I admired.
More importantly, though, I’ve always found that while listening to an author read from their book will inspire me to spend money on literature, the Q&A that follows never fails to provide me with at least one snippet of wisdom, the kind that follows me out of the venue and into my writing.
Feeling a tad rebellious, I jotted notes into a Google Document on my phone as Russo answered questions, mainly quotations. I came away with four:
- “All the good causes are lost causes” — seven words of encouragement for a writer who sometimes feels like establishing a career in words is beyond reach.
- “Many people who wound others have themselves been wounded” — a sentence that brought tears to my own wounded eyes (but that’s another story, one I’ll get to in a moment).
- “The writing of novels comes from a generosity of spirit” — something to swell the chest of a twenty-something with a novel-in-progress; “yes, indeed I am generous by gifting you with my words. Oh, please, no thanks are necessary.”
And the most resonant:
- “I think of storytelling as an exercise in empathy.”
The way I see it, all good writers have the ability to share feelings and experiences with others through imagining what it would be like to be somebody else. This manifests in three ways:
- By drawing inspiration from real people, whose stories we either imagine or “borrow,”
- Through the process of creating both characters and stories,
- By looking at yourself objectively, and having empathy for that separate self (seems strange, I know, but we’ll get there).
The first example is pretty simple. Writers — myself in particular — love to people watch. If I pass someone on the sidewalk, stand behind them in line for coffee, or accidentally brush against them on the subway, I’ll begin to examine them. I start to look at their clothes, their make-up, their faces and I’ll begin to imagine a backstory. [Read more…]