In our newest novel—just finished the 7th draft—a person observes that it’s hard to have empathy with someone who stinks. This thought haunts me, perhaps in part because lots of characters in my plays & novels tend to stink.
Of course we love the lovable villain, and we sympathize with folks whom the writer signals we’re supposed to like. Some of it’s the hair-do. It wants to look neat and appealing, not an expensive helmet, but definitely showing some expertise. And in fiction, movies, plays, we like the people who make us feel generous to like them.
Nothing wrong with that. We want to feel good about ourselves. If we’re white and middle-class, we don’t want to be as evil as we’re charged with being. We want something to happen, whatever.
The issue arises for me because this novel has been a struggle. Everyone in it stinks in different ways. It probably jerks you around worse than anything we’ve written, except maybe our 1975 play DESSIE, which went on to have hundreds of showings. But there, we learned very fast: follow it with a discussion to let people vent. Here, no possibility.
I always hit a glitch when I hear someone say they love a novel or movie because they can identify with the character. For me as a writer, the imperative is to lead the reader to empathize with those whom he/she don’t identify with. But this isn’t a best-seller formula.
I have no answers. I only pose the question: with whom do you empathize, and why?
Dogs and kids, pretty easy. They’re powerless. The oppressed, however you define them, sure. Someone like you or someone who represents your political stance, no sweat. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot.
And folks who sound angry, they just need to control themselves.
I’ve sometimes set out on the streets of San Francisco with my pockets full of dollar bills, intending to distribute them to beggars. I’ve found myself unable to reach two bucks into a coffee cup. Why is that? I have my own answers to that question, but are my answers true?
I sit at my computer, asking how. The guy who’ll walk a mile for his neighbor, who’ll fight the forest fire, who’ll stay up all night with his cancerous cat, will he raise a finger for the family down the street, and which finger will he raise? Which will I?
It does begin with empathy—the most problematic of emotions. We ration it out in hummingbird bites. And yet it’s all that will save us.
I don’t want my head to explode. Limiting time on the web isn’t helping, because the lunacy is expanding daily on an exponential basis. I am seeing an army of women with long blonde hair curled fetchingly over their shoulders in identical hairdos and am thinking, where were they all ten years ago? Did they just get cloned? I never saw anything like it before, and these ladies are all spouting the same very strange things. Who turned on what faucet?
It’s not exactly comforting to read history. It seems abundantly clear that whatever shit we’re cranking out at the present moment has been cranked out again and again over the recorded centuries, but every time the wheel turns it’s like, “Oh, this is awful, this never happened before.” I’ve been remembering a concept that flew over my transom a few decades ago, an interesting filter for looking at these events..
A popular genre author wrote a whole series of speculative fiction that I liked, and I have a bunch of his paperbacks. Central in his plots was a different dyad than the Christian one. It wasn’t good versus evil, it was the Maker versus the Unmaker. No value judgement implied, just that one force connects and creates, and the other dismantles and decomposes.
I’m having a hard time comprehending the hideous division that is parting our population like the Red Sea. Calling one side a cult is one way of describing it, but it still leaves the underlying question: what’s the magnet? What energizes the cult? My rational mind can’t grasp it, because its effect is counterproductive to a functional life for all of us, including the cult members.
So I think about the Maker and the Unmaker. The Maker is a force of connection and creation, the idea of a web that connects us all. The Unmaker devotes itself to dismantling the web, severing connection, isolating humans into units competing for survival.
There is a word for a thought-form, an entity that rises from a focused human collective and then becomes an independent force: egregore. It isn’t hard for me to picture the Unmaker as an egregore that feeds on things like the torch-bearers in Charlottesville or any number of the right-wing rallies, an egregore that has been around for millennia. If there is such a thing, it is being well fed today, nursing on the rich milk of the amygdala.
Rage and fear kick the amygdala into overdrive, and the Unmaker is on a roll. What feeds the Maker? Individual acts of kindness and support don’t have that flash-bang quality, but it’s useful to recall what has happened when a child falls in a well, or kids get stranded in a cave with the water rising, or Manhattan suffers a total blackout. People tune in to the frequency of the Maker and pull together. I don’t know how we can make that happen, but we must.
My days are mostly predictable. Starting with the first light of dawn, I make my first decision: whether or not to reach over the edge of the bed and put on my sleep mask. Do I start the day ignoring the light through my clenched lids, or do I snake out my hand for a chilly grope on the floor?
Some would wear it through the night, but when I try that, it wrestles around my head for eight hours and tangles in my hair. Some would use the weighted blinders, but I’m one who rotates through the night like a Cuisinart, and they’d go flying.
I didn’t always have this problem. It was only in my sixties that my German peasant genes kicked in at dawn to yell, “Go milk the cow!” This despite never having had a cow, and it’s proved futile to argue that it’s the wife’s turn to milk the cow.
I hate making choices. But of course my linked professions as director/writer/actor/designer demand it. Less so as actor: you make decisions, of course, but you’re always in the present moment, and the present moment has a way of shoving you into the next. With the others, you make changes up to a point, but eventually it’s balls-to-the-wall.
At a certain age it dawns on you that, on the level of human history, your choices simply don’t matter. You can cut this sentence or leave it in, you can paint your puppet with burnt umber or raw sienna, you can have another shot of vodka, and the world will little note nor long remember. And yet if you set your own standards, they can be as compelling as the Ten Commandments, or more so.
It all works out eventually. You put on your sleep mask and snooze, or you don’t. The alarm burps at last, and you stumble to the can. For a brief moment, then, at the start of the day, you share comradeship with the vast majority of humanity, regardless of race, creed, gender, or who they voted for or would like to kill. The bladder links us in a way the heart never can. And then we go on with the day.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein