Two weeks ago, I had the incredible honor of presenting at a national social work conference. My subject: Advocacy and the Written Word. Almost two thousand social workers attended the three-day event, and I was stunned when several hundred sat in on my session (they may have gotten lost on the way to something else!).
I’ve talked before about my two careers: writer and social worker, and how they have MUCH in common. For example:
1) Neither pays very well
2) Both offer intrinsic rewards like making a difference in someone else’s life
3) Did I mention that they don’t pay well?
For this presentation, I talked about how the careers have become intermingled. I can’t write without being a social worker. Even if I don’t intend for it to happen, social issues sneak into my novels and social stories. And as a social worker/advocate, I’ve learned the value of clear self-expression when I post a blog, testify at a statehouse hearing or write an op-ed for the local newspaper. Expressing my thoughts in a concise, clear, and passionate way helps me be heard.
I hope I helped the social workers who came to my session see what they have to offer readers. Because of our work with vulnerable populations, either as case managers or advocates, we see, close hand, the impact of political decisions. Whether it’s the threat of gutting Social Security, unfair utility hikes, or the tightening of voter laws, we work closely with and feel the consequences to those most impacted. Social workers can share what we’ve learned and what we care about through op-ed submissions, blogs, memoirs, poems, short stories or even novels.
I began my presentation with examples of writing that has, in fact, changed the world. Take this example:
“Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large that … when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”
You might think this pertains to some recent or current leader, but it actually appeared in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which helped launch the Revolutionary War. This excerpt from a memoir also greatly impacted our country:
“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free!” --Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Douglass introduced the country, if not the world, to a first-hand account of life in slavery which moved people to reject this abhorrent practice.
Our view of war was greatly impacted by ’s :
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. …Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”
I’m particularly fascinated by ways fiction like this has shaken our consciousness. Fiction may scream, or it may whisper. It might deliver its point with nuance and subtlety, or with drama and drums banging. Most of all, it can reach a person through both the head and the heart.
Fiction can punch holes in our mental walls.
Through these holes we get a glimpse of the other.
While my op-ed about mental illness might increase the reader’s awareness of the subject, if I write a novel about what it’s like to live with voices pounding inside your head every day then I may help the reader develop true empathy for those struggling with mental disorders. If my readers feel what it’s like to wake up on a park bench on a cold, wet morning, they may understand homelessness in a more profound way.
I’ve said before that the best review I ever received was from a reader who wrote “I just finished your novel and made a donation to my local homeless shelter.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Have you ever felt greater empathy after reading a work of fiction or memoir? Have you found yourself wanting to create empathy in you readers?