On Writing With Love


By Seyward Goodhand

Last May, former Write magazine editor Hal Niedzvieki wrote his now infamous piece “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” as the editorial of an issue of the Writers’ Union of Canada membership quarterly that was intended to highlight Indigenous authors. In it, he exhorted Canada’s largely white, middle-class writers to flee the arid comforts of their minds and to explore the perspectives of people from different cultures and ranks. These expeditions into otherness would do the benevolent work of “bridg[ing] personal and social divides,” while leading to the writers’ “own enrichment”:

My writing advice is in opposition to [the] traditional axiom: I say: write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank account and expectations.

So long as these authors distinguished between their own stereotypical projections and “true telling”—so long as they practiced empathy—what is good for their books and personal careers would also be good for society. Niedzviecki’s editorial reaffirmed a worldview that from its own vantage point is beautiful, optimistic and laissez-faire: we are all parts of a larger whole, ultimately the whole is good despite the suffering of some, so relax, so long as we mean well we’re making progress.

It’s a consoling picture. But if you imagine a conversation between a patrician and a pleb, which of the two would try to convince the other that the world is this way?

Many of us repeat the received statement that literature nurtures empathy. We make the assertion that literature nurtures empathy not only to set forth cultured, humanistic behaviours, but to justify the making and studying of literature. Literature—because it works upon the imagination and the intellect deeply, for sustained periods of time, often meditating upon the psychology of characters—can attune our hearts and minds to otherness, we say. Innately relativistic—being generally about “putting yourself into someone else’s shoes”—empathy is the perfect moral transcendental of our pluralist society.

So it makes sense that we use empathy to justify our work. But bending anything to our use puts a force on it that perverts its nature by dragging it into a relation of domination and submission. If we invoke empathy lazily or thoughtlessly, we risk falling into clichés, and this despite the fact that empathy has its critics. One of these critics is Alicia Elliot.

After her essay, “On Seeing and Being Seen: Writing with Empathy,” came out in the very same issue of Write, she subsequently published a revised version in Room. The title of the updated essay is, “On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy and Writing with Love.” “To truly write from another experience in an authentic way, you need more than empathy,” Elliot says. “You need to write with love”:

If you can’t write about us with a love for who we are as a people, what we’ve survived, what we’ve accomplished despite all attempts to keep us from doing so; if you can’t look at us as we are and feel your pupils go wide, making all stereotypes feel like a sham, a poor copy, a disgrace—then why are you writing about us at all?

Which is as good a place to start as any. What would be the difference between writing with empathy and writing with love?

My own answer starts with a thought of Simone Weil’s—that love involves not succumbing to “imagination which fills the void”—and from the way I think a writer like Anakana Schofield might offer a literary model for such a refusal. By “imagination,” Weil means something like the consoling images we project onto others, those comforting fictions that keep us from reflecting on feelings of emptiness or alienation that so often accompany our social encounters, either because the gaps between us turn out to be too big for our affections to cross, or because some people—and certainly ourselves on certain days—are genuinely repugnant. The making of stereotypes would be an obvious example of projected imagination, but there are far less obvious, more well-meaning ways we exert the force of our imaginations onto other people in order to make them familiar.

Empathy, for instance, encourages us to project ourselves out in order to find points of commonality, which can lead, as Leslie Jamison says in the Boston Review, to “an ironic kind of self-absorption” where “the encounter with another person’s experience becomes another way of experiencing oneself.” Exerting this kind benevolent force is to act like a little god. But, Weil writes:

To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centres…this is to consent to…free choice at the centre of each soul. Such consent is love.

On the face of it this seems to be what empathy is about—seeing the world from the vantage point of other centres. Actually, though, empathy does not suggest I leave myself behind, but encourages me to project myself onto someone else. Isn’t the unspoken reasoning behind the injunction to put yourself into someone else’s shoes often this: so you can see how alike we all really are? Love as Weil describes it requires that we not jump too quickly to feelings like empathy, tarrying instead with the brutal reality that other persons may in fact be wholly different from ourselves.

Maybe Niedzvieki meant to coach white writers—like myself—to give up our false divinity when he advised, “Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.” But no one writes a book by getting outside their own head. “To be a writer,” Anne Carson says, “is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.”

What I find inspiring about Schofield’s fiction is not only that she populates it with characters like Martin John who are unlikeable, but that she refuses the easy, self-gratifying “stepping into another’s shoes” that underlies so much of what Zadie Smith has called “lyrical realism.” Instead of creating “authentic” characters—the moral imperative of lyrical realism—Schofield focuses relentlessly on the impersonality of form, attempting to occupy a space between self-absorption and self-annihilation.

Which may be one reason Schofield rejects “authentication” as an imperative for her fiction: “I’m not interested in novels that promise to authenticate and replicate a verifiable place or personhood,” she told Lidia Yuknavitch:

I do what I do. I don’t consciously agitate, but I do interrogate. I am too inherently curious and perplexed by mankind not to. My starting point is always form and language; that’s where I want to provoke. There’s a particular expectation of narrative fiction that I’ll never provide. It’s its own bland welcome mat. I don’t want to be warm and welcoming necessarily in my work. I’m not interested in creating a novel that mounts in traditional paragraphs that comprise heapy description.

“Fiction is not qualitative research,” she has said elsewhere. “It’s where we pose difficult questions, situations and philosophical inquiry that such research cannot, because it would be deemed speculation.” One way fiction poses those questions is through form—and Schofield is a master experimenter, whose jivy maze of self-representational signs, fourth-wall-shattering narrator-chorus, and walking, talking allegories who at times appear to be realist characters, add up to a kind of Epic Theatre of the novel that does Brecht’s work of making her audience think as much as it feels.

What Schofield teaches us is that literature does more than nourish empathy, something we all feel compelled to do anyway. By shattering our expectations for what a novel can be, she also unsettles our easy self-images and brings us face to face with the fictions we use to make others more familiar, more like ourselves. That might be the true work of love.

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Seyward Goodhand

Seyward Goodhand's fiction has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize and a National Magazine Award, and longlisted for the CBC Short Story Award. She's finishing a PhD in English from the University of Toronto. Recently she moved to Winnipeg.