Empathy, Then Sympathy, Then Silence

canstockphoto13935158Stymied by too much reading and introspection, speaking or writing aloud seems particularly difficult this week. I just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s Loud and Clear. She’s a writer and journalist who wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times for many years and won a Pulitzer. She was characterized by cultural critic, Lee Siegel, as being a “monster of empathy” and one of the first “Queens of Nice” writers. I like and identify with her writing. It’s a monsters’ ball.

Lately, I’ve been running smack dab up against insecurities and doubts and fear when I try to write. Much has to do with the fact that I’m reading so much of others’ works, as well as the comments and criticism of those works. I wonder that I am not made of hardier stock, that I can’t storm the barricades with whatever banner I’ve chosen to wave without quickly falling back under the onslaught of criticism. Maybe because I am never certain that I am correct, that whatever cause I’m supporting isn’t subject to criticism, isn’t subject to question. I question everything. And most of all, myself.

Is this questioning, by another name, simply insecurity? Part of me says that it is cowardice. Self-awareness can be useful – one is aware of the fallacy of insulated thinking, of white privilege, of gender perspective, of seeing the world through the lens of one’s own experiences. I read several essays on writing about trauma, transracial and gender writing that really made me think about this blog and about my fiction writing offline.

Before I entered the world of blogging, I was less aware of the many unique issues that humans deal with on a very personal level. Much like the media focusing on the horrors of living on this planet, it has skewed my perspective and shaken me up a bit. I never saw myself as a label, always feeling like I was a little out of step with the rest of the world. Perception versus reality. Feelings versus statistics.

I thought that I was an empathetic person, able to vividly imagine being in the shoes of someone else, but lately, I’ve come to doubt even that. People who have been forced to declare and define themselves, through adversity and trauma and illness, have something to hold onto – they wish they didn’t, but it’s something. It is a form of clarity I do not have and it has rendered me a gelatinous blob, sliding this way and that depending on the cause of the moment, the news of the day.

What can one write about that isn’t superficial and silly? I’ve trotted out my abusive childhood enough times. I’ve blabbed about my parenting and military experiences. It’s not edifying or enlightening or nearly gory enough, nor can it make the world a better place. Shouldn’t there be a point to it, this angsty, masturbatory blathering? In my head, the answer is resounding silence and the next thought is: so just shut it.

The field has leveled for me and I see nothing in this direction or that worth writing about – somebody else is already doing it. Doing it better. Doing it with feeling. Doing it because it is their experience, in their DNA, in their history. Is it time for those of us who lead ordinary, unremarkable and common lives to stop talking about ourselves? Aren’t there lives to be saved? Children to be rescued? Wars to be stopped? What meaning can this cultural morass of blogging have in a world riddled by tragedy?

The minute you take up a cause that isn’t inherently yours, no matter what your intent, what level your passion, there is somebody to scream cultural appropriation! – white privilege! – middle class! – anti-feminist! -man-hater! -faux intellectual! Sit down and shut up. This is not your cause. You cannot relate. You do not know what you are talking about – stop riding our train.

So I write patter. I write nice. I write about kids and malls and my mood of the moment. I write about feelings in a world that takes delight in mocking them. I become a monster of sympathy, because nothing is my right to say. I become worse than the silent majority. I become a talking jellyfish.

I started this piece thinking that I’d eventually arrive at the conclusion that ordinary people need to have a voice, so that we don’t think the entire world is made up of victims and sociopaths. I thought I’d figure out what I was really doing here, that what I write is worth placing in a public forum and not better hidden in a private journal. I am waiting for Godot, arguing with myself in vain. And that’s not saying much. Again.

The Green Study will be on hiatus until April 1st. By then, I hope the inspiration of spring will relieve me of this grumpy blogging nihilism.

Best wishes,

MichelleSig copy


Filed under Blogging, Personal

51 responses to “Empathy, Then Sympathy, Then Silence

  1. Michelle,

    I look forward to your return in April. The honesty of this piece must have been painful to express, but it is something you can be proud of. I have the same feelings at times. You’re not alone. There does seem to be a surplus of people writing and a lot of it seems better/faster/smarter than what we do. But the one thing no one can do as well as you is… you. Enjoy the hiatus, and then come back to that. Don’t limit yourself. You have a unique voice, you are not a jellyfish. Cast off and see where the current takes you. And tell us about the journey.

    • I’ve been struggling this week, trying to wrangle myself to the keyboard. I finally realized that this self-doubt wasn’t going away and no amount of berating was going to work. Sometimes a little space and freedom to not write does the trick for me. Thanks for the good wishes and wise words!

  2. Please don’t compare yourself with anyone else. You are unique, and have a perspective on things that nobody else has. Those who denigrate you for writing about things that matter to you don’t deserve your time. So write away. Don’t listen to those people who feel so self-righteous that they think theirs is the only opinion that matters; don’t listen to the negative people that hate themselves so much they want everybody else to be miserable too. There are people in this world who aren’t happy unless they’re miserable; ignore them and be you.

    • At this point in my life, I find these spates of insecurity surprising. I am usually adept at not comparing myself to others or not falling prey to self-loathing. So far I haven’t been able to shake off this sense that what I’m doing is pointless. It’s just likely I need to get out of my own head, get out in the sun a bit and maybe take some pressure off myself. It’s likely no coincidence that I’m well and truly stuck on my novel rewrites as well. Spring and optimism are sure to be in bloom soon. Thanks for the advice, Ruth – yours is a voice of reason that I truly value.

  3. It doesn’t matter what the causes of others’ are and whether or not you should join in their fight. It doesn’t matter what others say about you or your writing or your world or theirs. The only thing that matters it authenticity. You, the lifestream that you are, arose from the great nothingness that will forever be a mystery. You have a right to be here, to take up space, to be your biggest self – even if there is absolutely *no* purpose to it at all, or if your purpose is so grand that the very presence of you, exactly as you are completes the universe. The only thing you can do is be your most authentic self and trust there is some point to that. Simply because it is what is, and because you are. I love your writing, your way of expressing the unique you that you are, even if it’s about shopping malls. Forget about what others say. They don’t know anything! Neither do you. Neither do I. We all just pretend we do and it all gets kinda messy. So forget about others. Just write for yourself. For fun. Because you can’t not write. Even if it’s about shopping malls!

    • I think you’re absolutely correct in that none of us know anything. And wow, does it get messy! I think that I’ve been inside too long – it’s been a tremendously long winter and whenever I haven’t spent enough time outside, I lose that sense of just how vast the universe is and just how unimportant/important we and all of our worries are. It’s a good time for me to take a break, as the snow is melting away, soon to reveal rich, black soil in need of my attention. I sense that April might be full of posts with gardening metaphors! And I’ll be back writing, but hopefully with my sense of humor returned and my spirits lifted!

  4. I blather a lot. In my blog, in conversation, in my head, and probably in this comment. It’s part of how I process the world and myself. It’s part of my evolution. I’ve had very few “enlightenment on the mountaintop” experiences, so I look for meaning and truth in the mundane experiences of my life. I enjoy reading the life experiences and thoughts of other people, whether we have much in common or not, because it gives me a small transom window into a life that I may not live but could learn from. Or giggle with. Either way, it’s time well spent — the writing and the reading. Best wishes for a spring re-charge.

    • I learn a lot from reading about other people’s lives as well, but sometimes I lose my center and I wonder what the hell I’m doing. Now is such a time – a good time to go on a mental walkabout. No forced reading or writing, just a lot of meandering. Hopefully, some sense of purpose will synthesize and I’ll come back refreshed!

  5. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    One of the favorite blogs I’ve found (who knows how) focuses on tiny moments of encountered strangers. Another writes ephemeral less-than-300 word stories. Another offers comics about being an English major in college. I could go on and on. None of these blogs are “important’ and they are all so incredibly important, including yours. I sympathize with your conundrum and wish you a good break and a refreshed return.

    • There are many blogs that I enjoy reading. It’s funny that I’m at a point where I place more value on those than I currently do on my own. Different rules, I guess! Sometimes when I feel like doubt is just crushing me, a break does wonders. My perspective is likely much darker due to the 6 months of winter we’ve just experienced. Being able to open the windows and let fresh air in serves as the perfect metaphor for a mental break from writing. Thanks for the good wishes!

  6. My journey to write started as a child and almost ended as a young adult. My experiences were dull, ordinary, trite. “Perhaps someday I will write,” I thought, as I entered my non-profit and government careers. Many (many, many) years later I still wanted to write, yet my life had never ventured beyond the ordinary. Fortunately around that time I attended Writers Day in NH. This room of aspiring and published authors made me feel as though there is room for every voice. Then an instructor said, “it is a writer’s ability to make the ordinary extra-ordinary that captures our imagination.” Your words mirror my own insecurities and concerns. And so, after your spring renewal haitus, I look forward to reading your blog again.

    • While I’ve never thought to give up writing as a whole, the idea that I had something to say has often eluded me. I’ve been writing publicly for the last two years and my hunger to be read has swiftly been overtaken by my hunger to write something truly worth reading. I love those ever shifting, elusive goal lines! Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to expectations.
      I look forward to a renewed perspective and the ability to enjoy putting words to paper again. Thank you for sharing your experience – it reminds me that I have several books on the shelf that inspire me when I feel at a loss. I love collections of essays by writers about writing, so I might have to do some review while on break!

  7. Some say to write, you must read. I disagree. I’ve found that I write better without the jumble of other’s thoughts. Actually I made my last post this morning, choosing to write in private for now…and get back to living…without the pressure.
    Enjoy your hiatus!

    • I have begun to wonder about this myself, especially when I find myself mimicking another writer’s voice. It gets a little nuts after I’ve been reading Mosley or Vonnegut. I think I need to drift for a bit and stop putting structure to my thoughts and words “out there”. It sounds like you are much in need of the same. I think, too, writing without pressure tends to tap into, as Alison mentioned earlier, that authenticity. Thanks for the good wishes and here’s to quiet writing!

  8. Luanne

    Michelle, are you saying that you can’t speak for others when you write fiction? You are feeling shut down and shut up and as if your experience doesn’t matter? Do you want to write a memoir book instead of fiction? Because if you do, the book “Blueprint Your Bestseller,” can help you find your story. I feel as if that’s really all it is: you have a story, but you don’t know quite what it is and don’t know how to frame it. And if you still want to write fiction, the book is for fiction as well. Don’t give up!

    • There are two kinds of writing that my heart has a yen for – long form fiction and personal essay. I’ve used the blog to work on personal essays, but lately I’ve gotten very distracted by the fact that many of the tremendous writers and bloggers have a focus and a level of confidence that I don’t feel. Many of them have core issues that are important to them – something that informs their perspective. I’ve just lost sight of what mine is and I need to let out a huge sigh and just be for awhile. I’m not giving up, just trying to shake off a few writer’s devils on my shoulder! I’ll check out that book – thanks, Luanne!

  9. When I was acting, I was taught to never read reviews. Good or bad, they impact your performance. Just remain true to yourself!

    You are a wonderful thoughtful writer and blogger . You just need to do it!

    Enjoy your break!

    • Thanks, Elyse. I just said to a writer friend of mine this morning. I will never be able to read the reviews if I get published. Even the most innocuous comment would have me obsessing and depressed for days!

      Thanks for the good wishes. I’ll be back (and if you just read that with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, my work here is done).

  10. I will miss you. Seeing *your* byline in my reader makes my day. I wish you a full and speedy recovery, if that is the appropriate word, from the feeling that what you write is pointless. For me, and by the sounds of it, many, MANY more readers, it could not be farther from the truth.

  11. Having empathy and standing with those with issues, and speaking out in their support is a wonderful characteristic.
    Don’t let anyone take away or demean your sense of self.

    Have a good break. Looking forward to your return!

  12. I always enjoy your posts, Michelle! The neverending winter is wearing on many of us, isn’t it?! When we had the glimpse of 40’s and 50’s last week, you could just feel the collective mood lift. Quindlen is one of my favorite writers — she has such a way of putting life in the right perspective.

    • Thanks, Kat. I’m just dying to open windows, but we are waking up to light snow this morning. Sigh…those temps last week were just teasers! I feel we’ve earned an early spring, but I remember it snowing here on May 5th. Still – temps are mild enough to get outside on a regular basis, so that helps.

  13. First and foremost, enjoy your hiatus. It’s well deserved and it can only do you good (right?). Your post made me think as most of yours do. There are topics which I am very opinionated about. That being said, I never write about those topics. Maybe I’m afraid of criticism of my writing being mixed up in my perception as criticism of my opinion. Anyway, I’ll give it some thought, but who knows what I’ll do about it. Hope you enjoyed my pointless comment.

    • Your pointless comment actually had a very salient idea that I’m going to be thinking about now as well – the idea of confusing and conflating criticism of content with criticism of one’s writing. I’m a little fed up with my fearfulness. On the other hand, we live in a world where attention, even negative attention, is sought after, rather than any cogent discussion. As someone who is often repulsed by all the noise, I’m just not sure I want to be adding to it.

  14. It’s a silly thought, but I think there might be a tiny “ambition bias” in what you feel about your writing. I mean that (in my book) what you write doesn’t need to be universally ground-shaking or important – or beyond criticism for that matter. It could be important to only one reader, inspire just one person or help someone to take a step that will aid them in some fashion – and it would be worth writing. Your thoughts certainly are. Have a great break, I hope to see you back reinvigorated.

    • Ambition bias is also at work, I’m sure. But that is part and parcel of reading better work than one’s own. It’s hard to not to expect something better of one’s self. I’ve been running this blog like a marathon, fatigued, waiting for second winds, leaning into it. Maybe an honest assessment now and then is a good thing. Thanks for the good wishes!

  15. I understand what you’re saying and where you are, Michelle. I’m in approximately the same place.

    I don’t doubt the value of writing itself. Not so many years ago, letter-writing was a beautiful and essential means of communicating, whether the connection was love, family, a cause great or small, or even ordinary business. News writing, though most of it was drivel, was the only reliable way of sharing the NEWS, whatever it happened to be, with the community at large.

    But blogging. Sigh. I’ve been blogging since 2007, two blogs totaling more than 1,000 posts. Many of the posts were quite well-written, if I do say so myself, but none of them earth-shaking. I believe I’ve improved my writing skills, or at least kept them from disappearing.

    Now, I’m thinking that the era of blogging may be ending, going the way of correspondence and journalism. Maybe blogging is a victim of it’s own success. The volume of blogging content has grown enormously, and the attention of readers is thin and waning.

    I’m not giving up blogging just yet, but it has crossed my mind that my limited time on Earth might be put to better use. Enjoy your time gardening, Michelle, but I hope you will pick up the pen (or turn on the computer) at your own time and place, and write whatever you wish without apology.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, John. They’ve been predicting the demise of the blog for the last few years now. I laugh about this, because I always pick up the tail end of a trend. There is definitely a point of saturation with blogs, but the other issue is that if, like myself, you’re not really interested in social networking (blogging alone is limited in this aspect), you’re likely to grow a readership very slowly.
      I’m not sure of the point of that, except that for some bloggers, this is one way of measuring progress. Everyone talks about writing for themselves and this is a tried-and-true rule for writing, but blogging brings something else into the equation. We want to be read, we want conversation, we want something that is often indefinable. Without being able to quantify or feel a sense of progress, much of it can feel like flailing about aimlessly.
      Intellectually, I know that it can be a satisfactory activity in and of itself, but I’m in the flailing phase. Gardening will be a balm for the soul, although I may have been a bit optimistic – large snowflakes are plummeting to the ground outside my window as I type this!

  16. Sabbaticals are a good thing. An Artist Date. A Refilling of the Well.
    I’m not reading the other comments this time. I’m sure plenty are saying the same thing. There is no “ordinary” voice. Every perspective is unique. Every view opens a window for someone else to see through. What feels like blather and fluff to us is someone else’s lifeline.

  17. I disagree. I think you have much to say. This piece resounds with my own fears and insecurities. You made me stop and think. That’s enough.

  18. C

    As a woman of color, mixed raced, from an immigrant family blah blah blah, whatever. I’m not going to trot out my credentials for why I write about my life or create characters like me. Because the reason is the exact same that you should continue to write what you know, or more importantly what you feel: because each one of us is an individual with a singular experience that no one else in this world has. We are also exactly alike in that each of us is human and possesses a human soul (or if you want to be less woo woo, human DNA). Every story we read about an experience that is different from ours reminds us that we are made of the same stuff. Every story we read about an experience or feeling that we recognize as inherently similar to our own reminds us that we are not alone. Don’t stop writing what you write because you feel like your voice isn’t as good or worthy of reading as someone else’s. Readers will take from your work whatever the want anyway, good or bad. Write because you are human, and so are we. And every interaction is a reminder of that.

    I’m taking a break from my blog as well to focus on other projects, so I completely understand the urge to take a breather. But I look forward to reading your unique human stories again when you’re ready.

    • Thanks, Cat. You make a good point about writing what one feels versus that old cliche of writing what you know (I hate that one – it seems to defy use of the imagination). I’m going to work on some fiction, get into a story and out of my writer’s head. It should be a way of making writing fun again and taking the pressure off. Plus, I have a lot of gardening ambition that can’t happen behind a monitor. Good luck to you in your projects as well!

  19. You are a little hard on yourself. As Anne Lamott tells her students, “Just write the shitty first draft.” After that there’s time to see how it fits in your life and your soul.

    • I have no problem writing shitty work and while I am hard on myself, I think that’s sometimes the nature of this beast. I’m fairly driven when it comes to making myself work harder and better at things. On the other hand, it leads to burn out on a regular basis. And I love Anne Lamott. Thanks for the kind advice!

  20. Blogging nihilism, like any other form, seems to me only an admission that none of us is guaranteed to have, or create, meaning and purpose in this life. But I think my own form of nihilism (or fatalism or insecurity or angst or whatever you want to call it) is oddly comforting in its hermetic, passive way: at worst, the pointlessness of my actions or of my very self must lead to my death, and if dead, I won’t be hurt or saddened by it any more. So I take it, in my illogical cheeriness, as a sign of worth and inspiration that I am simply still alive. I’m probably entirely wrong and ridiculous in this whole wonderful cycle of self-soothing, but it gets me through the day! Whatever *your* response, I hope it gets *you* through enough to keep plowing forward, because you *do* have a positive impact on at least one other (me) and keep me motivated and inspired whenever I get the chance to read your work. So, Thanks.

    • Kathryn, you are a person after my own heart. I like illogical cheerfulness in the face pragmatic thinking. Despite the many people who would argue to the contrary, I don’t believe I’m a special little snowflake, especially since there are 7 billion plus snowflakes on this planet. I believe in doppelgangers and evil twins and people that sound and write remarkably like me. And it is completely illogical that it doesn’t bother me. I know I matter to the people in my little corner of the world and for me, that is the world. Despite what I see as the general pointlessness of it all, I feel a personal drive to find purpose, meaning and beauty. It’s a weird dichotomy that I’m very comfortable with, but on occasion, I need to step away and find that meaning again. Thanks for your kind words!

  21. Tim

    I gave up worrying about other people – both commenters and other writers – a long time ago. As a blogger, you learn to develop a thick skin, I think. For every person who does nothing but criticise, there are 10 who react positively and 100 more who enjoy your writing but never make themselves heard.

    It’s not that I don’t appreciate a constructive comment or a well-written piece – I do, of course. And I occasionally draw inspiration from a topic or a particular turn of phrase used by another blogger. But the only way to preserve and nurture your own voice as a writer is to not allow other people to influence it too much.

    • I still have, after a couple of years of blogging, pretty thin skin. I’ve not yet learned to write online while remaining in isolation mentally. It’s unlikely that I ever will. Offline is a different story but again, I think I have to make a more concerted effort to shut out the voices I gain from reading. As one previous commenter mentioned, it’s almost harder to write while reading the works of others.

      I’m the kind of person who comes out of a movie where the actors have accents, speaking with an accent. As a linguist in a former life, this imitative skill comes in handy. In writing, it becomes excruciatingly obvious and makes it more difficult to keep a secure grip on one’s own voice. Hence the need is likely for more deliberate breaks and isolating oneself a bit.

  22. Good points from you and your commenters.

  23. I’m new to blogging and this is the first post of yours I have read (I intend to read more, but I thought I’d comment before reading on). It seems like you do need a break and that is fine. You are comparing yourself and questioning yourself. Well, I have to tell you that this is the equal of any secondary-coming-of-age (for lack of a better phrase) piece I’ve read.

    What you’re going through is one of the phases in life and thought that inspire me the most and I’m really looking forward to seeing how you come out of it. Some of my favourite novels are based around this transition and it is truly a treasure to me to find an authentic and honest post like this one… And that is why blogging is so important.

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