Bad Advice Wednesday: Try This Little Exercise in Empathy

categories: Cocktail Hour


The other day I was re-reading Robert Richardson’s Splendor of Heart, a short and wonderful memoir of his (and my) teacher, Walter Jackson Bate. The second half of the book consists of an interview with Bate, conducted by John Paul Russo, in which Bate compares the temperaments of Samuel Johnson and John Keats, both of whom he had written biographies of.


“Johnson is so psychologically snarled up in ways and had a much rougher life than Keats,” Bate said. “Keats had a tragic, early death, but Johnson was by far the unhappier person.”


Of course I loved the phrase “psychologically snarled up” and underlined it. But later I got to thinking about the idea of comparing what it felt like to be in two different writer’s, two different people’s, minds—that is what it felt like to inhabit their inner worlds. And I started to play a little game. I thought of five of my friends and began to kind of rank them from whose mind would be least pleasant to inhabit, on a minute by minute level, to whose would be more pleasant, or healthier.


Obviously this sort of listing is superficial. But what came along with it was less so. I found I was actually imagining how one of my friends dealt with anxiety, how she sometimes gave into it and sometimes kept it at bay, the courage required as well as the failures of nerve. In other words what started as a game led to a deeper imagining of what it felt to be inside someone’s skin, something that, I think you’ll agree, is good for a writer (and human).

So that’s today’s bad advice. Try a little exercise in empathy. Take five people you know and rank them in any order you like. Perhaps from how comfortable to uncomfortable in their skins they are. This will requiring some imagining of course as you try to go inside them and see them through their own eyes.





  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Fascinating. No question, Being Bill Roorbach is the way to go. Followed by Dinty Moore, of course.

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Fascinating. But this kind of exercise can backfire .

  3. Dinty W. Moore writes:


    Bill Roorbach — Really good looking and a great writer
    Dave Gessner – Sort of good looking and a great writer
    George Clooney — Average-looking character actor
    Frankenstein’s monster — Ugly and can’t write or act
    Dinty W. Moore — Poor fool

    • Dave writes:

      I think you really caught the spirit of this exercise, Dinty.I was worried that people were going to get all fancy and psychological but you saw right through that and understood it was about looks.

    • Bill writes:

      Dinty, I have walked a mile in your shoes and they fit! Great advice, David, and great for fiction, too… I’m always fascinated by actors, who really have to live this…

  4. Elizabeth Hilts writes:

    Oh, man. This is the best bad advice ever. I mean, really.