How to foster more empathy in your memoir

A successful memoir hinges on empathy – for your characters, yes, but also for yourself. Here’s how to convey it in every direction on the page.

How to foster more empathy in your memoir. This illustration shows a large cartoon pink heart reading a book.
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2. Empathy other characters show for you

As hard as it might seem to feel empathy for other people in real life, we do so fairly easily on the page. Ironically, it’s often much harder to write scenes where other characters show empathy for you. Many aspiring memoirists forget to include them at all. Maybe it’s because when we cede control of the scene, allowing another character to be the protagonist for even a few pages, we become vulnerable.

But there’s so much to gain. Writing scenes where others take the lead, with empathy, allows you to characterize yourself from the outside – the eternal challenge for a first-person narrator. Readers get to “see” you through the lens of other people. More plainly, these scenes shift the prose from the vertical pronoun – “I, I, I” – and make room for multiple characters with multiple motivations.

One of my favorite examples comes from Ryan Van Meter’s book If You Knew Then What I Know Now, about growing up gay in the Midwest. In the following scene, Van Meter has been visiting his grandparents’ farm. While the men are out in the fields, he stays inside with his grandmother. He discovers a blue dress in the closet and tries it on when, suddenly, his grandmother walks in.

She stays there, utterly still, and doesn’t speak.

I say, “It fits me,” and sort of twist side to side.

“It does. It does,” she says. Her lips press together, bunching up like my two handfuls of blue satin, and then she lets them go. “I was coming to see if you would set the table for Grandma.”

In a gesture of tremendous empathy, and generosity, the grandmother lets him wear the dress while he sets the table, and then, in an equally gracious gesture, when the men are about to come inside to eat, she scuttles the boy off to change.

Think about this situation and how another writer might choose to focus solely on the boy’s perspective. This is a big moment, after all, the first time, presumably, young Ryan has felt the magic of wearing women’s clothes. Van Meter makes the wise decision to let his grandmother lead instead. The empathy, as a result, goes in both directions at once. Readers feel empathy for the boy in his discovery, certainly, and for the grandmother who decides not to scold him.

Van Meter, in the previous example, is charming and guileless. He may be causing his grandmother some serious consternation, but he’s not doing so intentionally. It can be trickier to have others show empathy toward you-as-character when you’re behaving badly. As writers, we are good at making ourselves unlikeable. The genre requires radical honesty, and admitting our foibles is part of the deal. A problem arises, though, when the reader can tell the narrator/author is not nearly as clueless as the character on the page. So as a memoirist, you’re stuck either over-explaining (“I’m not always such a jerk, really, I was just acting that way because ….”) or using other characters to do the work for you.

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Kate Hopper uses this technique effectively in her memoir Ready for Air, about giving birth to a premature baby. Early on, she’s angry and not feeling or acting particularly motherly. But her husband, Donny, remains by her side, exuding understanding even when he doesn’t speak:

“Kate,” Donny says. “Look at the baby.” He nods at Stella.

I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want to look at this tiny thing. I don’t want this tiny yellow thing to be my baby.

Donny’s hand is on my back. He presses it gently.

Two pages later, Donny’s mother calls, and Hopper refuses to talk to her. “I don’t want any of her rambling,” Hopper says, then adds cruelly, “none of her schizophrenia, not now. There’s no room in my head for it.”

Donny takes the phone off the hook and sits down next to me.

“I just –” I start and then begin to cry.

“I know,” he says, reaching for my hand.

“She’s too small,” I manage.

As readers, we understand Hopper more than she understands herself. We want her to experience some solace, some compassion. Donny does this for us.

 

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