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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.

4. Empathy you show for your reader

Writing, we often hear, is a lonely endeavor. And sure, it can feel that way, especially writing memoir, since dramatizing memories in intricate detail means reliving sometimes-painful experiences while sitting, yes, alone and staring at the blank page or screen. But the act of writing is, at heart, an act of intimacy. By writing a memoir, you’re reaching out, and as with any intimate conversation, your respect for your reader’s intelligence, knowledge, and experience may be the key ingredient for success. You know you’re not the first to have traveled to distant places, celebrated childbirth, overcome addiction, or suffered grief debilitating grief. The trick is to let the reader know you know.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion steps out of her own story at regular intervals to muse on the universal experience of grief. She quotes experts and writers and philosophers from Sigmund Freud to C.S. Lewis, from D.H. Lawrence to Emily Post (on the etiquette of funeral attendance.) She cites scientific studies of grieving geese and dolphins and follows the research summary with plain talk about humans in third person. “Human beings, I read but did not need to learn, showed similar patterns of response. They searched. They stopped eating. They forgot to breathe. They grew faint…” Later in the book, she eases from the relative distance of third person “they” into the use of the more intimate pronoun: first-person plural. “People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it…” She admits the disdain she once held for the memoir Dylan Thomas’ wife wrote after his death. Didion says she originally found the book “full of self-pity” and “whining” when she was 22. In the end, she bares herself to admit, “Time is the school in which we learn.”

Which brings us, full circle, back to the vertical pronoun: “I.” Writing memoir is a journey of understanding. In the end, exposing our truest selves becomes an act of empathy in itself, a way of telling the reader: You are not alone. Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis, comes to this conclusion, as so many of us do, through sharing her work and hearing how people respond to her. “I know they see me as I truly am, human and flawed and vulnerable and real. I can show myself at my lowest and people are willing to meet me there.”

Give readers empathy, in other words, and they will, in turn, give it to you.


—Ana Maria Spagna is the author of several books, including the memoir Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, and most recently Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going. She teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

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