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Generations, empathy

Tuesday 1/18/22

Sent birthday cards to my niece who is turning two, and my uncle who is turning eighty. His birthday is 1/25, which is the same day my eighth book comes out. Eights. This uncle of mine was one of the first people I thought of as a good person. What was meant by being a good person. I thought that about my parents, this uncle, and a couple neighbors we had across the street in Mansfield named Bob and Dotty.

In the years since, I've not hugely added to this list. Added some. But if you are engaged with the world, you are not in denial, you think and you perceive, you inevitably learn that there are very few good people. They're a rare commodity. You can meet a hundred people, and there may well not be a truly good person in there.

Sometimes people think being good means you don't commit atrocious acts. First off, I'd say, what's an atrocious act? I think there are many more than the flashy ones we all recognize as such. Secondly, I think empathy is one of the key traits of the good person, but empathy is also a skill that we're not well-suited for in this world right now. It's not just a quality of altruism, charity, kindness, friendship, love. It takes effort, energy, and, crucially, imagination.

You have to go into someone else's life, via how well your imagination can situate you there. Who has a good imagination? Who takes the time? Who puts forth that effort? Who even thinks to? Empathy isn't saying, "I feel for you." It's feeling what that person feels, or some approximate version of it.

The greatest writers have the greatest empathy. They can go into any life that is not their own, and feel what that person feels. What that character feels.

Kimball asked me once on the radio how I manage to establish so much life in my characters so quickly in my work. Even in the first line, such that they are more real than anyone else's characters, and even people in the world, the people one knows.

Recently I said that energy has a lot to do with it. A work of art is never greater than its reciprocal portion of energy. Empathy has a lot to do with it as well. I'm not writing from over here, if you will. I am there. I'm 100% there, as much as the character who is not me is there in their experience. I have the experience, too. Because of my empathy.

I haven't finished this Beatles piece which pertains to the Love Songs compilation, and is one I know can fare well. I need to get that done. I'm sending that to someone, and I want to include some other pieces in the email, and those need to be finished, too. There is one about what art can do for us--which flies in the face (necessarily, I think) of prevailing attitudes today--and another about our words, and how and why the words we use matter--that I think are touchstone pieces. The kind of thing that would be widely shared and discussed and debated if they were not by me right now. A lot of what I write is that way--even entries from these pages--and certainly a great deal of the fiction that no one gets to see because of my current situation. There would be a Beatles through-line in the British rhythm and blues book, and hopefully Same Band You've Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles can find a capable home and do well out in the world, and then I think I'd like to do a book of my Beatles pieces. There is so much of everything here in my body of work. It's like a bottomless well of books, to which I can go and decide, "What kind of book would you like to have now? A book of film criticism? A book of horror fiction? A book of fiction that pertains to the events and trends of the day? A book about jazz? A volume of personal essays?" There is also an essay to complete about the book New Grub Street.


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