Tag Archives: emotions

book review: the art of empathy

The Art of Empathy: A Training Course in Life’s Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren

I know, I know–you’re probably wondering how a psychology book founds its way onto my reviews of writing books.

But here’s the thing I love about psychology and sociology books. They teach us about ourselves and others, and isn’t that like one gigantic, never-ending character study?

In short: yes.

Empathy, argues the passionate author McLaren, is the sum of your emotional intelligence expressed in myriad ways. All our emotions are gifts to guide us through social interactions and everything else in life–anger to warn us that our boundaries have been violated, shame to warn us to avoid confrontation, fear heightens our senses to protect us. These emotions, and our skills in dealing with them, are key to our survival and to resolving conflict.

I enjoyed this book. The language is accessible and assumes nothing of the reader, save a desire to learn. It handles tough relationships with a gentle, caring hand, and offers emotional honesty. Like I said, it’s a self-help book for people who want to handle their emotions better, but all throughout I saw great information for writers. I have another tool in my toolkit and a new lens to focus my people-watching–the gifts of our most basic emotions, and how everyone deals with them.

Verdict: check it out from the library!


emotion, experience, empathy


Stella Chomperella was my third ferret. We brought her home–the meanest baby at the pet store–six and a half years ago.

Last night, she had some sort of injury, something that hurt her so bad she couldn’t walk or stand up. My husband found her, called me home from the write-in, because she was clearly shutting down. She refused food and water. She was uncomfortable. We took turns holding her until she finally drifted into the Big Ferret Sleep late last night.

It was a new experience for me. Our two boys had slow declines and we brought them to the vet. Their passings were distant. I watched them get carried away by the vet, unsure of what exactly happened beyond that STAFF ONLY door. But with Stella, I was there till the end. Her last breath. Her weight changed in my hands and I knew, without holding my own breath and counting the seconds, that Stella was gone.

Squinting against the too-bright light of morning, I need to make sense of things. It’s in our nature to search for meaning. And while so much of this experience was new, much of it wasn’t: namely, the emotions. Each loss is part new, and part a story we’ve already endured before.

And there’s the writing segue, coming at you 220 words in. We read fiction for a lot of reasons.

Story experts remind us that our need for story is biological, stories teach us to survive and cope and tell those stories to the next generation, so they can do the same.

You don’t have to experience what I went through last night to understand. I could narrate those moments, describe the soft blanket or sitting in the dark or pacing through the house, clutching her to my chest, but honestly, you’ve probably got your own swathe of experiences to bridge the gap between you and me. And if you don’t, you’ve read a story that showed you how others experience it, and that gives you an idea of what it could be like for you.

This is why we write.

Fiction illuminates the path, allowing us to experience things that happens to others, that might happen to us, that are happening to us, that have happened to us. It connects us by our emotions. It leverages our empathy to gird us for what lies ahead.

Many fictioneers subconsciously draw from that pool of empathy–be it personal experience or vicarious. We can also choose to consciously bring out a full range of emotions in our characters, applying story-truth to their actions and reactions. We can choose to imagine their experiences fully, and experience them ourselves as we convey them in the story. It’s not always easy–I’ve got a good-bye scene to write soon and it will bring back last night (and all the other nights of bitter loss) in bad ways for me, good ways for the reader.

But it’s important.

I can’t wish you happy writing today, fellow writers, because I’m just not feeling it. So instead, let me bid you till-next-time with a hope that your writing is peaceful, cathartic.