EMPATHY is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s also called the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes.
Why is this important in a writing partnership?
As we know, the act of writing is an activity we do alone. I may be at one extreme, but I have a hard time writing in a public location like a restaurant or coffee shop. Others thrive in these settings. They seek such environments. I find them distracting. Others find them stimulating. It comes down to whatever works for the individual.
No matter where we write, intellectually and emotionally we are alone. At some point we need to share the emotions writing creates in us. Many times, the first person we share with is our writing partner.
We need to share the joy of feeling a story come together or a character achieve a goal. Or the despair of having a character die in the story (even when we planned it). Or the frustration of having a character not turn out the way we’d hoped and now we have to make a major revision.
I think every writer has tasted the bitter bile of discovering a story isn’t working. And we wonder if we’ll ever be able to write again.
To have a successful partnership, our writing partner needs to put himself in our shoes. Sure, he’s probably experienced the same things and put the same names on his feelings. Beyond this, she needs to connect with our emotions, to walk in our skin, so to speak. She needs to sense when to leave us alone, when to let us talk, when to offer alternatives or solutions, and when to shut up until we ask for them to say something.
And this is the internal stuff.
Remember the pain of another rejection from an agent or publisher. The pain of poor sales. The loss at not winning an award we coveted. The hurt when a conference doesn’t accept our proposal to teach a class or workshop.
Our spouse or family may offer condolences, but our writing partner will get us without us having to say a word. Not only will he get us in the triumphs and losses, he will know and share our pain like no one else.
Can we develop empathy with a writing partner? I believe we not only can—we have to. It takes practice. Humans are not naturally empathic. Even when we have a relationship with Jesus, we need to develop this trait through prayer and practice.
Being empathetic can take several forms. There are times it will mean asking questions to understand our partner’s feelings. More often, we need to listen, not offer solutions or give unsolicited advice.
As the relationship develops, empathy becomes more natural. We’ll know instinctively when to speak and what to say. And we’ll know when to be quiet and let our partner talk or when he needs us to just sit quietly. Being empathetic means accepting our partner where she is and letting her be herself.
Some of us are awkward in lengthy silences. Three seconds feels like three hours. We need to realize a long silence may be just what our partner needs. Other times he may need to yak our head off. An empathetic partner can go either way because the focus is on what our partner needs at that moment. She needs us to walk in her shoes. We need to respect that her way of processing emotions differs from ours.
And empathy means being able to make ourselves vulnerable with our own emotions. Not only do we have to walk in their shoes. We need to be open and risk them walking in ours.
Effective empathy means giving and receiving, sharing without judging, trusting the other person. It means being confidential. Gossiping is the quickest way to destroy a writing partnership.
What was it like the last time someone was empathetic with you? How can you use that experience to be empathetic with someone else?