Tag Archives: empathy

Walls, Windows, Doors

visible-cityFor me, writing fiction always begins with curiosity about other people: what are they really thinking but not saying? What does it feel like to live inside someone else’s body?

I trace this curiosity, in part, to my Orthodox upbringing – to the feeling that people (or was it just me?) were thinking things they were not saying, that there existed for many a shadow inner life that did not align with the outer one. There, tucked away under a hat, walled inside the private domain, were the feelings not allowed into the light. So much had to be encased, or run past the internal censor before it could be said. Everywhere, the sense that you were being watched, evaluated, judged. So few places where the inner experience – messy, complicated, impolite – could be revealed.

But in a novel: here, finally, there is freedom and access. The walls give way to windows. Here, what people really think, say, feel. In life, how many of us walk around with no trespassing signs affixed to our bodies? But in a novel we enter into characters who stray and fear and lie and love and seethe and desire, that great messy stew of what it means to be human. Real empathy comes not from concealment but from revealing. We hide out truest selves for fear of what others will say, yet in those messy spaces we are, however ironically, most sympathetic.

This chance to peer into others is what makes me read, and what makes me write. I’ve always thought of the novelist as a kind of voyeur – a job which requires you to assemble pieces of other people’s lives into a larger whole.

In Visible City, my third novel, I started with a young mother who watches her neighbors out the window, catching snippets of their lives. In the city, we live a combination of anonymity and intimacy. We watch but act as though we don’t see one another, thus allowing this shadowy dance to continue without becoming overly exposing and invasive. So much around us is packaged and covered. Here, the chance to see one another unrehearsed. To escape our own lonely nights, to pretend as though we occupy other lives.

But at the same time, in all those views out the window, surely we are seeing not just others but ourselves. As I was writing, I was fascinated by the question of whether we can watch and remain unchanged. In my novel, my main character is ultimately not content to just watch. Watching breeds the desire for something more. Doors open and she becomes entangled in the lives of those she watches. But even if we are never caught watching, even if we never walk through our own doors, we are still changed. When we see into other people, we grow wider, more empathetic.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

chosen-potokWhen I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon Potok’s novel in my middle school library, simply because the cover spoke to me: a young, timid-looking man clutching a book, staring nervously at something outside the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d identify with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Chosen: with the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, both coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their relationship because of their wildly different approaches to observance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his characters grappled with—friendship, family and loyalty—have deeply resonated with me since.

More than anything, though, The Chosen stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I really experienced male relationships. For my earliest years it was just my mother and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a foreign species that spoke a language I didn’t understand—not only older men, but the boys in my class: I always had a circle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to communicate with the other gender. The Chosen helped me edge out of my shyness, simply because I cared about the fraught and complex friendship between Reuven and Danny with as much focus and intensity as I did my own relationships. Reading Potok’s novel was like having this unknowable thing—the psyche of a boy—cracked wide open, finally giving me the chance to peer inside.

Lately, a few people have commented on how “un-biographical” my story collection seems—that there are no stories about women my age, living in San Francisco—and have asked whether it was intentional that half the stories are narrated by men. And it was intentional. It was really important to me to write from the perspectives of both women and men, young and old, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as finished until I felt I’d written convincingly from all those points of view—in a collection that looks at how people are shaped by large historical moments, I knew I needed to explore those events from a variety of perspectives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Chosen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writing should be an exercise in empathy, getting myself—and hopefully my readers—to care about people with experiences wildly different from our own.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 4, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy