Columns > Published on April 22nd, 2020

Maybe: The Empathy-Building Writing Prompt

Can you get over it when some jerkoff spills your drink? When your neighbor’s dog shits on your lawn and they don’t have a bag? Can you be a more empathetic person? Can you deal with the assholes you don’t like? Can you channel anger and frustration into something positive?


The Origins of Maybe

For a time, I was lucky enough to have regular Skype appointments with Tom Spanbauer. We worked on my writing, and we chatted a little. It was the biggest honor in my writing life, I talk about it all the time, and I'll talk about it until I die. Look, if you walked on the Moon, I feel like it'd come up pretty frequently, no? The closest I'm going to get to walking on the Moon is bragging about talking to the guy who wrote The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, so deal with it. 

I complained to a man living with AIDS about having the sniffles.

Once, Tom told me he was going to be late because he had a radio interview to do. I told him no problem, and I listened to his interview live. In it he talked about some of the horrors from the first days of the AIDS crisis, how terrifying it was, and he told some truly heartbreaking stories about some friends who didn’t make it.

Our appointment started right after he got home. I told him his interview was beautiful and crushing. And I asked, “How do you not see these appointments, or your students, how do you not see their problems as tiny, trivial things?”

If you stack your problems against Tom’s, you’ll wind up feeling like a real asshole. I made the mistake of complaining on one of our calls about a cold I couldn’t shake. Let me add some context: I complained to a man living with AIDS about having the sniffles. Yeah. But he never called me on it. He never made me feel small or like my problems were small. He listened. And in this particular case, he told me to drink some hot tea.

That’s why I had to ask: How have you built this empathy?

He told me [paraphrased]:

I get mad. I get mad all the time. I’ll think, The neighbor with his SUV running in the driveway, that fucker is wrecking the planet. But then I remember something the Dalai Lama said, ‘When you meet someone, look them in the eye. You’ll see a great battle waging.’ Everyone has a battle. Maybe the guy with his SUV, maybe he had a fight with his wife. Maybe he hates his job. We all have a battle.

The Exercise

Whenever you’re mad, when you end the work day and you’re still carrying something, some anger or frustration, you get a pen and a piece of paper, and you start with “Maybe.”

Write it at the top. Write it big. Then, use the space on the page to write out the “Maybe.”

Write about the person you’re pissed at. Write the setup that would allow you to forgive.

I’m mad at Tina because she was a dick to me in a meeting today. So, I write “Maybe” at the top of the page. And then I write:

Maybe Tina’s husband was a jerk today. Maybe Tina’s mom is sick. Maybe Tina’s car has been in and out of the shop every month, and they can’t figure out what’s wrong, but damned if the CHECK ENGINE light doesn’t flash every time she gets a mile from the shop. Maybe Tina’s bills are piled up. Maybe Tina has a long commute. Maybe Tina really wanted to play saxophone, but now she’s stuck in this office job. Maybe Tina has a knee injury, and the steps from her bed to the toilet are goddamn agony.

You go until you feel better. Until you hit enough to say, “I understand where Tina’s coming from.” Your goal is to look Tina in the eye, through writing, until you see her battle. Even if you have to make it up. Even if it takes hours.

How You'll Do This Wrong

I get it, torture the people I hate! Like that t-shirt, "If you're a jerk I'll put you in my novel!"

The goal isn't to hurt someone because they hurt you first. The goal is to wonder why someone acts the way they do, and to follow the thread of "Maybe" until you reach something that feels conclusive. No, this isn't a good way to use "Maybe."

I can’t find empathy for a wealthy person. They’re rich! They don’t have real problems.

This is about building empathy, not expressing the empathy you already have. You won’t get stronger by squatting the same weight every time you train. You have to add some plates to the bar. Likewise, to build empathy, you have to make it hard on yourself. What could go wrong for a wealthy person that would make you feel bad for them? Does being wealthy help when you lose a parent? Do you have to come up with a very specific, very detailed scenario? Fine. Do it. That’s the exercise, that’s the work.

I don’t think this person cares, so why should I care how I feel about them?

I’m not here to help you have a good time. I’m here to help you build empathy.

Yes, you’re right, most people don’t care how you feel.

Your empathy is yours to give, and how the person you’re writing about feels about your empathy is irrelevant.

I don’t want to be in the headspace of someone I hate!

Looking someone in the eye is a scary thing. But I’m not here to help you have a good time. I’m here to help you build empathy.

I don’t want to be a pushover.

Nobody is saying you have to be a pushover. Empathy isn’t about that. You can still be assertive with people. You can still advocate for what you think is right. This is about learning to see the individuals on the other side of something as real, human people. Look, having an ability and an increased capacity doesn’t require you to use it. Being able to dunk a basketball doesn’t mean you must do so every time you see a hoop.

I have a person who I’ll never have empathy for.

Write a “Maybe” on that person. Do it over. Do it for weeks. Months if you have to. Maybe you’ll never get there. But the one way I guarantee you’ll never get there is by NOT putting in the work.

When you’re constantly asked to be the empathetic person, the bigger person, it wears you down.

When you’re constantly asking your body to run a mile, then another, it wears you down. Until you do it enough that it doesn’t wear you down as much. You can adapt. You can do better. Putting yourself through a challenging regimen is how you get there. Will you still be tired? Absolutely. But your threshold is higher, and you'll be able to handle it better.

This Will Make You A Better Writer

Writing good characters is about empathy. It’s about understanding where someone is coming from, why they act the way they do, especially if they do things you wouldn’t. Build empathy, build better characters. Very simple.

It’s also words on the page. Nobody got worse at writing by adding words to a page.

“Maybe” might give you some ideas for some atypical narratives. Can you write a narrative that makes a rich movie star with a wacky religious affiliation into a character people feel for? Can you write a narrative that draws readers in, and when they leave they’re thinking differently? These are the challenging stories to write, and challenging stories executed well are good stories. Empathy will put you on the path.

This Will Make You A Better Person

Tom is a good person. He taught me a lot. He taught me about writing. And he taught me about being a man. He taught me about humility. He taught me about being open, about being vulnerable while also being strong.

If "Maybe" is good enough for Tom, it's damn sure good enough for me.

If you do it every day, you’ll start to get just the tiniest bit excited when someone pisses you off. Because now you have a “Maybe” to write later. You can take it off your to-do list.

You'll start to shorten the time between something happening and trying to understand the other person involved. Instead of reaching for the typical tools like anger or sharp words, you’ll think, “Maybe…”

You’ll build the guts to look someone in the eye. 

Buy The Man Who Fell in Love with The Moon from Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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