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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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3. Empathy you show for your younger-self

In real life, our “now” self – older, wiser, world-weary – is often hard on our younger self, berating the poor, ignorant youth: Why didn’t you realize X? Why didn’t you do Y? Why didn’t you understand Z? On the page, however, we must strive for the grace to allow for what your younger self did not or could not know.

This can be especially challenging when you’re writing about your much younger self, your child self. The trick is to inhabit the child fully enough to be authentic but to avoid condescension. Humor helps, as in the following passage from A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small In Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel, in which the young girl attends a slumber party.

They were holding a séance, which was one of the most wicked and wrong things it was possible to do. It was way worse than coveting your neighbor’s ass, for instance, because it involved the Devil who, once he got into your house might never leave, like flying ants.

The author clearly understands the way her younger self experienced this occasion. The child was ignorant, perhaps, but her reasoning makes perfect sense in light of a religious upbringing…and it’s funny.

On a more serious note, not condescending to your younger self sometimes means understanding your own behavior without justifying it. In 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, Kim Stafford looks back on the last evening he spent with his brother Bret just days before Bret committed suicide.

I was too timid to do what I knew I should. Or I honored him, in ignorance, trusting what he said to reassure me, instead of living at the level of the heart with what I knew was needed.

I had held my brother. I had spoken comfort to him. I had assured him he could make a way into a new life. And I had lied, and by that lie betrayed him.

There’s such tenderness in the way Stafford admits his mistake, the “lie” he told by offering assurance when he was not at all assured, but admits what he did right, too: he held his brother. He spoke comfort. The takeaway? Good true writing, empathetic writing, can hold both truths at once.

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