I have been writing letters to Arizona Governor Ducey for the past year and a half to protest his disembowelment of the higher education budget. I’ve written over a hundred of them. I send them to him. I post them on my blog. Flag Live, Flagstaff’s local weekly, prints them. I have never received a response from the Governor. I’m sure he thinks I’m batty. A frequent flyer. Plus, I don’t always write on topic. I write him notes about fly-fishing and about the read-a-thon at my kids’ elementary school. I write him about picking up garbage for the Adopt-A-Highway program and about the tomatoes I try to grow up here at 7,000 feet elevation. If he read my letters, I think he would think I was a bleeding heart liberal but I think he would have to claim that he knew me a little. That, if he were pressed, he could name my kids and cite their ages and know that my students write hard essays and are about as empathetic as humans get.
Yesterday, five students came to my office hours. Three of them cried. One about the election but the other about her sister and the other about his absences and I couldn’t fix their problems but I could sit there and listen and maybe suggest some strategies or plan a collaborative writing project for next summer or invite them into my graduate course in the fall. I could read their theses proposals real quick and say, yes, I think we’ll be able to get that done by spring. I could, in this dark time, be with them and empathize.
My former student, Khara House, was pulling into the road after a movie last night. Halfway into the street, she was blocked by a car going the wrong way. That car needed to move in order for her to get out. Instead of moving, the person in that car called her the N word and told her to go back to Obamaland. She wrote, please don’t pity me. And please don’t take your anger out on her. “If anywhere, sympathy belongs here. Imagine what HER fears must be to think that her America means striking out so angrily at another person. Imagine her fear, to believe that in the midst of her wrongness, shouted epithets were her only recourse. Imagine her fear, to think THIS was her only option.” Not many of us have Khara’s capacity for empathy but my god, if we all did. What a world.
I was in Melbourne eating lunch with my colleagues when the election results came in. My colleagues had to go back to work. I found my way to the bar. I texted them to meet me there when they could. I really could drink only one beer. My throat had closed shut. My stomach flip-flopped like it does when the plane drops 10,000 feet from wind-sheer. I kept texting my husband for him to tell me there was recourse. Russia did this. Electoral college. Recount. But Wednesday day in Melbourne continued forth with the news America’s Tuesday night brought. My friends, as soon as they were able, rushed to the bar. They bought me another beer. Talked to me until my throat relaxed. They patted my head. They knew this was bad but they still tried to make me laugh. They bought me pizza. They made it as better as they could.
Another of my former students wrote how angry she was at those protesting the election. Didn’t they see how some people righteously voted for him? Did they understand that this student had lost her job and had to pay so much for healthcare and that Trump promised to fix it? I get it. Globalization is hard. It’s probably better for the many but for a few, it’s really, really bad. And I get that if I had a crappy service job where I once had a well-paying manufacturing job, I would be frustrated too. But there’s no real plan to bring back jobs. Technology has replaced as many or more jobs than outsourcing. Robots make cars. Hell, robots are cars. And, more people have jobs now than they did when the last Republican left office. If the 4.5 percent of the population who don’t currently have jobs voted for Trump, that makes sense. But 24.5 percent of people voted for him. Some of them voted not only for selfish reasons but against the well-being of others. There’s a line I draw against empathy. I do not have to get into your shoes to see what it’s like to think you deserve more than others because of your race or your religion.
What I do have to do is write.
A study in the journal Science has found that reading literary fiction promotes “empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.” The study finds no such correlation in readers of popular fiction or serious nonfiction. But what about creative nonfiction?
This study was released during the week of the government shutdown, on the day my sister emailed to tell me about her class of chemistry students. She then taught at the alternative high school—the one where teenage girls who get pregnant and want to keep their babies were sent. As she tried to teach them about hydrogen atoms, she stared out across the classroom into the gaping eyes looking back at her with only one concern: Will WIC get shut down? What will my baby and I eat? She looked back at them with eyes that answered, not hydrogen. She changed her lesson to one about carbon.
Researchers asked study participants to read passages from general nonfiction, popular fiction, and literary fiction and then were asked to fill out a brief survey. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between the literary- and genre-fiction readers,” wrote Juliane Chiaet in Scientific American.
When my sister told her students that I wrote Creative Nonfiction, they laughed. But that’s just the point. In the gap between creative and nonfiction lies the rub. It is between the words where the imagination happens. The name creative nonfiction is as ridiculous as any attempt to codify genre. But I tell my own students, the ones who don’t bring their babies to class, the one who read Crime and Punishment over the summer, that creative nonfiction is most interested in the in-between of the genres. It is interdisciplinary, hyphenated, bent. In creative nonfiction, you have to gather things up—hydrogen, carbon, diapers, WIC, governments, Crime and Punishment—and guide the reader to make a connection by offering a unifying image, a repeating phrase, a story about some kids with kids who are trying to bond with their babies while they learn about covalent bonds.
“David Kidd, one of the authors of the study, said that ‘in popular fiction, really the author is in control and the reader has a more passive role,’” wrote Pam Belluck in a blog post for The New York Times.
“In literary fiction—Dostoyevsky, for example—“there is no single overarching authorial voice,” he said. “Instead, each character presents a different version of reality and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”
I tell my student, the one who read Crime and Punishment, that creative nonfiction is a kind of dialectic too. You have to inform, argue, persuade like you do in nonfiction. But no one likes to be preached at. So you engage their senses, like you do in fiction and poetry. You associate. You create a scene. You build a whole world for your reader, invite them in, and then tell them that not all governments are created equal. “Mind the gap,” you tell your student, who laughs because he’s been to London. He rode the Metro. He read Crime and Punishment. He went outside his comfort zone. He put himself in someone else’s shoes.
“Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge, said, ‘I would have thought reading in general’ would make people more empathetic and understanding. ‘But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education,’” Belluck continued.
I asked my sister how I could help her students. I lived in Flagstaff. She taught in West Valley, Utah. The great gap of the Grand Canyon divided us. I thought about sending up formula. I thought I had some frozen breast milk tucked away in the back of my freezer. I wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House, explaining about these kids and WIC and some other kids, some with cancer, who were scheduled to be enrolled in clinical trials to combat their cancer whose studies were shut down because those studies were part of the government.
There wasn’t much I could do. The frozen milk had passed its expiration date. My sister said it would be okay. The kids would figure it out. She said, send them some creative nonfiction that they will actually like. I said I would and then I changed the subject. Asked if she could watch my dog over Christmas. She felt sorry for me. She said yes even though her dog and my dog do not get along.
Creative Nonfiction comes under fire for not adhering to truth enough. I argue that creative nonfiction never claimed to be journalism. That’s why we teach it in creative writing classrooms. On a spectrum, journalism is on one side and fiction is on the other. Poetry and creative nonfiction cluster with fiction, not journalism. We do use facts but as catalysts toward story, metaphor, lyricism as much as for content. Through stylistics, and often through plain statement, we make our biases known. Unlike false news sites, no one is trying to trick anyone into believing lies. No. Instead we’re trying to empathize with our point of view but, like Dostoyevsky, the creative nonfiction writer isn’t claiming objectivity. “Instead, each character [or narrator] presents a different version of reality and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”
I don’t get too depressed that Governor Ducey doesn’t respond to my letters because, once in a while, someone reads my letters. People give me ideas for my letters. “Write about teenagers in Tempe.” “Write about peach trees.” They wait for my letter to appear. They say, “I know you! You’re the one that writes those letters!” And they do know me, a little bit, and the way I haven’t ever caught a fish with a fly, the way the tomatoes I grow cost about nine dollars each, what with the deer-repellant grow box and fence we had to build, and they know my kids take taekwondo and they know I’ve got two crazy dogs from the shelter at once and that I spend a good deal of my life trying to convince my dogs to empathize with people walking down the street who do not think it is nice to bark.
If we’re going to be able to change the way people use their vote to vote not only for themselves but for their neighbors or even the betterment of those they have never met but can only imagine, then we’re going to have to tell our individual stories. Make yourself real for the readers (I know, no one reads, but some people read; you’re reading this) and empathy will spread like fire—the good kind of fire. The kind of fire that the seed inside the ponderosa pinecone needs in order to escape its hard shell to germinate.
Read Nicole Walker’s essays “Dear Rain” and “Micro-Conversion” and her thoughts on the apocalypse, “Microapocalypse,” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Photo of mural in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona, by Simmons B. Buntin.