Writing and Compassion

Schooling and Compassion

Today discussions about the arts and humanities can be depressing as high schools focus more on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), as tertiary institutions eliminate undergraduate requirements for proficiency in a second language, and as parents fear that their young adult’s liberal arts degree will not result in a “job.”

As a life-long reader who is attempting to become a serious writer, these decisions dismay me. While I do advocate for students studying science and math, I find even small steps taken to move young people away from the liberal arts worrisome. I believe strongly that compassion begins in a reader’s relationship with the characters in the stories they read, whether the books are written in one’s native language, in another, or in translation.

Dialogues about race or class can also be disappointing, as they often infer that no one can grasp another’s point of view. It always surprises me when someone says that readers of one “race” or gender cannot comprehend stories about a different “race” or gender. My reading would be very limited if I read only books by women with blue eyes and brown hair who speak English as a first language.

Having studied six languages (I speak two fluently and read two others fairly well while struggling mightily with the last two), I have learned that individuals are prisoners of their own languages. Some ideas simply do not translate. Some concepts exist in one culture but not in another. To truly figure out a text, it helps to be able to read it in the original. Of course, it is impossible to be fluent in all languages, but learning a second at least, gives one the realization that despite our similarities, sometimes we simply view the world differently. I advocate for second language requirements because I believe that monolingualism is not just a deficit, it is a handicap. Students who don’t read literature forego the opportunity to know another’s mind intimately. Readers who don’t read literature from other countries also suffer from a limited point of view.

Compassion for “The Other”

My reading has taught me since early childhood to empathize with others. Little Women changed my life. So did The Hardy Boys. When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, I suffered along with Janie when she was forced to marry an old man. When she fell in love with Tea Cake, I shared her folly. When I read The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, I bore the pain of a constrained life along with her. I also realized how the gossip and intrigue of the court of Japan, 1000 years ago, resembled the court of Louis XIV in France in the 17th century. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I understood his horror of the death camps during World War II—even though he is of a different generation, gender, and religion than I am.

When I read The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, the indignities suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas shook me to my core. For example, when the white European Spaniards landed in what is now Florida, they declared loudly in Spanish (to non-Spanish speaking natives) that their land now belonged to the King of Spain. Concomitantly, I read the actual history that Cabeza de Baca recorded of his exploration which extended from Florida to what is now Mexico. The number of bodies of American Natives left along his pathway was sickening. He might never have survived himself if he had not been accompanied by a Moorish slave who spoke several languages and learned to communicate with the tribes they encountered.

Compassion and the Space in Between

Literature provides a shared space where the author’s vision can touch the mind and heart of the reader. Readers’ experience of the human condition is expanded tenfold as they learn about how “the Other” lives, loves, gives birth, fights, suffers, or dies. But it is a realization of the space between us, an acknowledgment of the voids that exist in our languages, a facing up to the fact that despite our similarities, our cultures are comprised of zones that may always seem just out of our reach, locked away in words or concepts that simply do not translate into our own language. Compassion is needed in these in-between spaces, but it is most necessary in our daily lives as we walk among crowds of people who do not look or speak like “us.” When I read, despite the differences in space, time, language, and culture between myself and the characters on the page, I always experience a profound closeness, even a oneness.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of July, I have worked on clarifying the premise for my novel. I have to make it drive each scene.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

I have been reworking the outline for my second novel because I am going to participate in RMFW’s August 2019 Novel Rama. The dates match my availability. With the comradeship and moral support of the other writers, I hope to complete 25,000 words in four days.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is August 7, 2019. This is my eighth blog of 2019. In thinking about monetizing my blog, I am weighing the value of some of my nonfiction writing. This month I met with a friend who is developing an online business. I have drafted a manual she is familiar with and would like to sell on her website. She thinks that I could market my manual on my own blog as well. I have been mulling over this monetization issue for a while but have come to no definitive conclusion.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month I have continued to read about writing. One of the books that I read is by a writer whose workshop I am scheduled to attend in September at the RMFW’s Gold Conference. I like the vocabulary she uses to describe building a novel. Her approach makes more sense to me than some others I have read because she talks about characters having goals. I look forward to hearing her in person.

I also read a book by a local writer on critique groups. She suggested not only how to be an effective participant as a writer but also as a presenter of feedback to others. I am not yet ready to join a critique group but her argument for participation in such a group was persuasive.

This month I also attended my first garden party with the Denver Woman’s Press Club.  Connecting with other writers was motivating. The level of compassion for the young, mature, and elderly women in the group was palpable. Interestingly, the novels I am working on seem to match DWPC’s current theme of making the past present through writing.


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