On Writing

On Writing: Empathy

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The other day while spring-cleaning I came across my copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. I read this book several years ago and really appreciated both the ideas shared by the author and the creative way he presented them. This isn’t a book review of the work, but rather a comment on a particular scene.

One of the stories Covey shared was an encounter he had riding the subway on a Sunday morning. At first the passengers were all quietly sitting or reading during their commute; then a father and his children climbed on the train. While the kids ran around rambunctiously, making a wild racket, the father did nothing to curb their behavior. They upset the other passengers. Covey remarked politely that the children were disrupting the other riders. The man responded, “Oh, you’re right . . . we just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

This is a powerful story, told simply, with a devastating conclusion. Covey had a way to connect with his audience and to help them move beyond the scope of their own experience. The readers first respond to the travelers. It is easy to visualize being in this situation where quiet introspection is disturbed by unwanted noise or behavior. Next we move toward the perspective of the husband/father, who is too emotionally numb to do much of anything except on autopilot. Finally readers will relate to the children, who are acting out because they cannot deal with the immensity of their loss. In the space of a few sentences readers run a gauntlet of emotions inside the lives of these characters.

As a writer, this short story of the passengers on a subway has stuck with me. Capturing all of this emotion—all of this drama—all of this context—in only a few sentences is, for me, the essence of short, speculative fiction. Although Covey wrote in the “self-help” genre, the techniques utilized here are powerful and could be applied to other genres. With this passage, Covey created a story that is strikingly memorable. Isn’t that what we are trying to do with our own stories?

As a reader, this passage has stuck with me for years. I remind myself of the story whenever people don’t act the way I think they should. In the irritation of the moment, it is easy to forget that there is more to every situation than I might at first know. It goes along with my favorite quote from J.M. Barrie: “Always try to be a little kinder than is necessary.”

Empathy can help us move through life.


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