Team Tweak’s Tips: Writer’s Block and Empathy

It’s been a busy week, but the weekend is finally here. Friday night, while everyone else is out socializing, you’re at home with your True Love: writing. You have adventures to take your characters on, worlds to build, relationships to develop … And then nothing happens. Your cursor blinks at you, and you blink back. Riveting stuff!

The Great Enemy has come to your door. Writer’s block.

writer's block

But … is it an enemy? Or is it a warning sign? Your body feels pain and fatigue when you’re doing something you shouldn’t. I suspect that your creativity feels writer’s block to let you know when something isn’t right.

This can be as a result of other things, but today I’m talking about empathy, how important it is to writing and how sensitive it is. And how your writing can suffer if you’re not careful …

Character-driven writing requires empathy. As writers, we step into the shoes of our characters, know what they’ve done and what they’ll do, understand their motivations, know how they’ll react … And it must be consistent. Not only that, but we do it for Every. Single. Character. Whether they’re a major player, the cashier at our protagonist’s favourite shop, or an elderly gentleman waiting on a bus bench.

Several much better and more experienced writers have spoken on the subject. Here are a few examples, though there are many more out there:

http://thewritepractice.com/empathy-story/ “Why Empathy is the Key to Story”

http://crimsonleague.com/2013/06/08/creative-writing-and-empathy-how-writing-fiction-helps-you-connect-with-others/ “Creative Writing and Empathy”

http://www.tayarijones.com/on-writing-with-empathy/ “On Writing With Empathy”

What I want to talk about is one of the down sides to this requirement.

I recently visited my hometown to spend time with friends and family. My husband and I spent two weeks with three or more social engagements each day. Prior to our trip, I thought I would have time in the evenings or mornings to work, but no such luck. I sat in front of my computer, completely incapable of connecting with the story. It took me a few days to figure out why: The empathic muscles I would use to write were being used to socialize.

I would call this empathic overburdening. In a social situation, I try to empathize with the people I’m with, much like I would with my characters. How is my friend feeling? What would make my grandmother feel better? How can I bluff and win this board game? By the time I got home, I couldn’t empathize my way through a wet paper bag.

After making those observations, I have this advice to give: If you’re having trouble writing—in particular in the arena of character development—then I recommend reorganizing your time and giving yourself the mental space to work. If your muscles are working overtime trying to keep up with a social life, you may not be giving yourself the chance to understand and channel your characters.

If you’re experiencing writer’s block, this can be a factor. Take a look at your life–does it support your writing aspirations?

Like grammar, dramatic tension, plot points, and all the other tools, time management and understanding the space you need for writing is just as important!

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2 thoughts on “Team Tweak’s Tips: Writer’s Block and Empathy

  1. I consider being empathetic to be one of my defining characteristics – and I’ve gotten teased for it too (for thinking instantly of how all sides feel in a situation, which can be annoying if you keep pointing it out to your friends!). I do believe that authors exercise their “empathy muscles” more often than the average person; I even read once that a study showed readers are more empathetic people, which is a good thing!

    “And it must be consistent.” So true – it must be consistent! And each of your characters is the main character in their own story.

    This week I felt, at times, like my brain was “tired” and I realized it’s probably because in a single day I can write copy at work and then go home and write my novel, write in my diary, writing a magazine article and do copywriting for school. It’s all writing! But that is what I love.

    And it’s what our readers love too. So keep writing – but take a moment to reflect too, as Leona suggests!

  2. Pingback: 2014 New Year’s resolutions for writers | Team Tweak Toronto

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