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"Suffering With"

Clips from a conversation with Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio

     The most important thing it takes to be a good fiction writer rarely gets talked about. You have to suffer compassion for people, fellow humans. All of them. In imagination and in life. To a degree that is past responsible or reasonable. If you harden your heart at all, you will fail. You'll fake it or you'll forget it. And I need to hear this again, as much as anyone.

     Compassion differs from empathy in that it is "suffering with," not simply understanding why.

     I’ve observed fellow writers take hard-hearted stances on real life suffering. Leave that to the politicians and the planners. Let someone else find the answer, the policy. That's not our job. It's our job, fiction writers and poets, to suffer with. Let your heart bleed, embarrassingly, irrationally, "immorally." Try, at least. Keep trying. That's all I'm saying to you and to myself.

     Compassion is enormously difficult. We fail at it often, which is a major reason why most people can't be good artists, or why good artists aren't always consistently good. John Gardner put it way better than I could: the failure of compassion results in sentimentality, frigidity or mannered writing. I know it sounds wrong to suggest that the purpose of striving for compassion is to be a better writer, but writing and life are bound together for me like that. Imagination and reality. I don't know what it’s like to be otherwise, though I try to imagine.

     I count myself among those who need to learn this the most. This is only for artists. The rest of the world has their way. Resist intellectualizing, resist right/wronging, resist walling off and introverting, resist prejudice, resist hiding behind style or attitude or fad, resist the fear of "appropriating" what is not you, resist self-absorption, resist "nobody understands the way I feel," resist politics, resist theology, and when you fail at any of the above, which will be often, have the humility to recognize it as a correctable mistake, not a virtue. 


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Kristen Thompson

Published on October 07, 2014

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