Prying the heart open and keeping it open

Mittened hands holding coffee cup. Text Warm hands=warm hearts? Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

A CHRISTMAS COMPASSION FATIGUE REMEDY

Christmas morning and there are no immediate tasks. The one offspring at home is still asleep – not like when she would wake her siblings, and they would be entertained for hours by the presents from Santa – those they were allowed to open so their parents could sleep a little longer. But not the other presents, so that subterfuge worked until they got hungry or bored – sometimes quite a surprisingly long time.

A post on Steve Bargdill’s blog quoted a bit of Dickens, from A Christmas Carol, which I hadn’t noticed before, about Christmas being

the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely

got me thinking about how easily that heart shuts again, often by the end of the day simply by the feeling of being stuffed the holiday meal can bring.

And how it is the job of those of us who write fiction to wedge that door open. And keep it open.

Why fiction? Surely realistic photojournalism hits harder.

Oh, it does. We all carry images. Too many images. And that’s the problem.

If we see our neighbor’s child fall off a bike in front of us, we will do something. Help, call the parents, call 911 – whatever we would want done for our own child in the same circumstance. And our neighbor would do for our child.

But we know how many children there are out there, falling off bikes, not having bikes, getting bombed… And we know we can’t help them all.

Now that the internet and TV bring us a constant barrage of images of people needing help, I get angry at the governments whose job it is to take care of their citizens – and don’t do it. Because, though we do what we can to contribute to the charities we believe in, we personally can’t help those in need enough.

Fiction brings us back to ONE child, the one we’re writing about. ONE person of any age at a time. Slowed down.

And it does that any day of the year, not just when the music is blaring out of the loudspeakers and for only the length of a pressed parent’s patience.

How does it happen?

By personalizing the general.

People cried when the Dickens episodes came out about Little Nell.

People rejoiced when Scrooge woke to find it still Christmas Day.

Dickens knew that. He knew his readers knew about workhouses, and cold, and hunger, and debtor’s prison. Too much knowledge.

So he personalized it. A single character who wasn’t even real was capable of doing what knowing about the whole real world of the time couldn’t do: sneak in under the barriers put up around hard hearts to show that the hearts inside weren’t really stone, but more frozen into immobility.

We can handle one story. The photo on the news about some idiot who abandoned one pregnant dog will generate many offers to take in that dog and her puppies. So much so that shelters have to watch carefully and make sure she doesn’t just go to a home of people who’d like to be on the news. But the outpouring of love and money one story can generate shows the instinct is still there.

The fictioneer’s job

Write the one story, and write it so well that the reader’s emotions are evoked and strengthened as if the reader were the character.

Carefully and skillfully, because people don’t like being preached to, and will scamper off beyond reach the minute they realize that’s what’s going on. If they can get away.

Which usually involves the “show, don’t tell” rule – and works best if the words don’t even mention the target feeling. Tell a reader someone cried, or show a reader someone crying – and the reader doesn’t have to cry. Detail the steps that lead to the character struggling not to express an emotion as the world is trying to make him – and the reader may have to do the crying.

Use carefully – compassion fatigue comes into play as much in reading unrelenting pain and sorrow as it does in seeing it on your TV.

Moderation is a learned virtue

‘Ni tanto que queme al santo, ni tanto que no lo alumbre (Mexican proverb).’ Not so much (heat, light) that it burns the saint (praying), but not so little either that it provides no illumination.

Getting that balance just right is the work of a writer’s lifetime.

We learn some of it from every book we’ve ever read that remains with us. Writers have their own lists of favorites – and it is almost impossible not to have had our own hearts softened by those which have made the impact, often when we were too young to block the effects. People who read the classics when they are children are formed by them.

A combination of

  1. knowing you don’t know how to do something
  2. finding other stories where it is done
  3. deliberately looking up books and blogs that teach how to do it

is what I use when I find a new problem of craft.

Steve’s post, and so many writing books I can’t think which to mention, have taught me the mechanics of evoking emotion in readers; the rest, and whether I do it right, is up to them.


The obligatory business reminder:

I have sent a few Christmas presents of my own with the Amazon ebook-gift method – it works fine. Buy on Amazon, provide an email address, they do the rest: they send the recipient an email (with optional message from you) telling them how to retrieve the gift, and how to download a Kindle app for any device including their phone and desktop. Etc.

Easiest gift I ever gave.

*****The 0.99 SALE is going on until at least the end of New Year’s Day – *****

and I may extend it a day because 1/2/17 is a holiday (how easy it is to forget that when you don’t go to work on ‘workdays’ any more).

No obligation to actually READ – but I would love the chance to pull some of my blog readers into at least starting to read Pride’s Children.


Your comments are my presents.

As a practicing Catholic, I wish everyone a holy and blessed Christmas. And my best hopes that whatever holidays you celebrate with great joy this season will make us all more capable of living in peace and tolerance. It can be done.

4 thoughts on “Prying the heart open and keeping it open

  1. marianallen

    Wonderful post! Reading fiction does foster compassion. Of course, I suppose that depends on what kind of fiction one reads. PRIDE’S CHILDREN certainly fosters compassion and empathy. I even want to hug the antagonists! EVERYBODY, BUY THIS BOOK AND READ IT!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      (rubs hands evilly) My mind control is working. (End of year 0.99 sale still going on.)

      I must have known you were writing this – thanks! It’s been a bit crazy here lately, and today I managed to get back to my own little sanctuary: the internet blocked, the offspring gone for a while, the better half working on paperwork, and me writing.

      It is heaven, especially when other things have pushed it out for a while. Plus it’s fun to put characters under stress to anneal their… character. ‘Tested in fire’ is the only motive worth having.

      And they were just waiting for me – hope you like the new bits, and sorry it will be a while before we get there!

      Delays make me slower, not faster, when I come back. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

Comments welcome and valued. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s