About two weeks ago, Lady Gaga sang a song at the Oscars called “Till It Happens To You” as a tribute to all those who have endured or currently endure rape and/or other forms of verbal or sexual abuse. Her point was not lost on the crowd – it’s easy to opine about things we know very little about.
Rape and sexual abuse are distant and far away, and people can even have some pretty hateful opinions about them and victims of them until it happens to them or someone they’re close to.
Gaga’s song was a call to empathy, the idea that when you truly have compassion and empathy, you have an ability to look past your direct sphere of understanding, to enter someone else’s point of reference.
This is an immensely important skill for writers.
What if I’ve never had that experience?
Here’s what you need to know: empathy is easy.
“Not being able to understand” someone else’s experience is overrated and largely false. Of course you can. It’s like a person asking me what it’s like to be black in America and saying, “I mean, I can NEVER understand…” and I don’t think that’s true. Of course you can understand what it’s like to be black in America. Go listen to some MLK or read Maya Angelou. It’s not that hard.
There does happen to be only one legitimate way tell and understand someone else’s story.
Whenever I write on my other blog, Now That We’re Here, about LGBT people, I don’t add a lot of my own stuff in there. I don’t extrapolate. And for the most part, I’m sticking to experiences relayed to me by friends or acquaintances who happen to be all types of queer. And because I have thoroughly and sufficiently listened to and understood their stories, I can use my writing skills to deliver them with care, precision, and empathy.
People will only be upset with you when you skip way past the “listening” part to the “I know exactly what I’m talking about on this topic that is not one of the most direct parts of my life” part. But if you take the time to understand people, to listen, to show empathy, and THEN write, you won’t have to wait till it happens to you to write about it.
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Photographer: Ram Gironella