What studying creative writing can teach you about empathy and the opposite of you

One of the simple but effective characterisation exercises we do on my creative writing MA is to write down three unambiguous truths about yourself – and then write down the opposite. So an older dad of five who likes hillwalking, reading and solitude becomes a young, single guy about town who haunts bars and night clubs. Of course, it’s not that simple, that’s only the start. But it’s your opener to think yourself inside a character that is outside your ambit and experience. They say most writers write about what you know, and many of my characters are middle aged or older guys worrying about mortality and where the world is going, and where the hell do the kids get all those cuss words from. But through this simple exercise, you break out of your own experience and try to think yourself into a previously alien character. A very much un-you.

What are there deep dark desires? What motivates them? What do they think and feel? What do they look like, dress like, where do they live? What items would they carry around in their bag or brief case? Do they have a lucky charm and what would it be?

A similar exercise is to pick out a picture in a newspaper or magazine, someone who doesn’t look or dress like you or even be the same sex, race or similar age, and think about all those questions above.

Another extension is to pick a second or even third photograph of different looking characters and place them in the same tube carriage as the character in your first photograph, the un-you, and think about what his/her reaction would be, what they think about these other characters.

This way you start to get inside the head of a character that is very different from you, if not your polar opposite. It’s liberating. It’s also a good way of building empathy for a character who at the start of the exercise is simply the inverse of key characteristics of yourself. In the novel I am working on right now I have characters ranging from Ivory Tower academic snobs to drug dealers and members of a violent Neo-Nazi group. I can say with confidence I have never been any of those things nor know people who are. But to avoid one dimensional stereotyping you have to go beyond just desk research. You have to think inside their heads, consider their motivations, fears, desires, circumstances. Uncomfortable, challenging, but important all the same. Simple exercises in characterisation like those given to creative writing students are a great way to start.

It also made me think about, inevitably, Brexit and its ongoing repercussions. By that I don’t mean the fate of Theresa May, her Government, Jeremy Corbyn etc. I mean the fault lines exposed and seemingly deepening in our country; a country more divided in terms of generations, location, internationalist vs nationalist outlook, university education or no, etc than I have ever known. And thanks in part to social media, more vocal, rude and aggressive in the various tribes’ attitudes to each other than ever before.

Perhaps we should get some of those driven pro and anti Brexit folks camping out on College Green or abusing each other online into a room with a creative writing tutor and get them to think themselves into their diametrically opposite characters. It may not change their minds on the fundamentals of Brexit, but it may open their minds to the motivations, feelings and experiences of very different characters to their own. It might even build some empathy, something in short supply in public life right now.

No More Heroes

I’ve been playing the CD of David Bowie’s legendary Glastonbury 2000 set almost back to back in my car since it was released before Christmas. It’s a fabulous jukebox of Bowie’s best-known creative output up to the end of the last century. But one of my favourite songs of his is omitted from this and all Bowie compilations I’ve come across: Somebody Up There Likes Me from the wrongly critically under-acclaimed Young Americans album of 1975.

Bowie had long been fascinated by Nietzcheian supermen, dictators, Big Brothers from early in his song-writing career but by the mid-seventies two things had happened. Firstly, many dictators and unsavoury political bogeymen – Nixon, Mao, Franco, the Greek Junta – were all consigned to history between 1974 and 1976. And secondly, Bowie became unstuck as a result of extreme cocaine induced psychosis.

In his notorious NME interview with Anthony O’Grady in August 1975, after the release of Young Americans and headlined “Watch out mate, Hitler’s on his way back”, Bowie banged on about America losing its way and “the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right Government to come. It’ll do something positive at least to cause commotion in people and they’ll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it”. (In his intro O’Grady invoked the image of a coke-addled Bowie “huddled in a room drawing pentangles, burning candles and chanting spells”.)

Forty years later America got Donald Trump. He might have predicted Ronald Reagan’s (literally, an actor and savage son of the TV tube) rise a few years later but even in his wildest, nose candy driven, pentangleing flights of fancy I doubt he could have predicted Trump.

Of course, Bowie fortunately took himself off to Berlin, the epicentre of destructive totalitarianism, to recover and produce his trio of great creative albums Low, Heroes and The Lodger. It WAS “the side effects of the cocaine”; “Oh baby, just you shut your mouth.” But it was a tough time to be a young, left-wing Bowie fan.

In a 2010 reflection on the infamous interview, The Quietus wrote of “Bowie’s ill-advised and offensive flirtation with Nazism” being partly the result of “cocaine psychosis and extreme misjudgement”, but also “wilfully misjudged and exaggerated by the press at the time”. Photos of him waving at fans were preposterously presented as him giving Hitler-style salutes and proof that the coked-up Thin White Duke was indeed a neo-Nazi.

Back to Somebody Up There Likes Me. Far from advocating a new political messiah, Bowie takes the old Superman motif and, post-Watergate, reincarnates it as a media image politician, a TV age personality; the savage son of the TV tube. Someone who just reflects what people think (opinion polls, focus groups anyone) and serves it right back to them with a winning smile: Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies, knowing all you think about through writing on the wall.

God knows what he would have thought back in the 70’s had he known about Twitter and social media, Trump, Brexit, antisemitism in Labour, Dominic Cummings, Cambridge Analytica, the tragic and horrific murder of Jo Cox et al.

I’ve always heard the song more as a warning than praise for a new dictator. Others interpret it (He’s so divine, his soul shines) differently. But when was Bowie ever clear and unambiguous? Not for nothing was the final track on his final album, released two days before he died, called I Can’t Give Everything Away. 

Listening to the song in today’s context, we’ve had ideologues (Thatcher) and sons of the TV tube (Blair). Now we’ve got the most woefully lacklustre, shambolic, pointless set of political leaders in Westminster for generations. As a politically concerned citizen and a life-long Labour voter, a former Labour spokesman and until recently a thirty-year plus veteran member, I want someone to come along and provide us with some leadership, and I can’t see it happening or where it is going to come from. But for sure it needs to be more than someone who’s just a baby hugger, an image, a smile that looks good on the telly and someone who just plays back to us what we already think.


PS If you haven’t seen Channel 4’s Brexit, An Uncivil War, do watch it on catch-up. Imperfect drama yes, but fascinating and bleakly hilarious.

PPS Young Americans may have been unloved at the time but now comes high in those ‘top five hundred albums of all time’ listings and is constantly worthy of reappraisal.

PPPS Talking of my own former party and it’s woeful, divided, ‘nasty party’, poll dragging state, Yvette Cooper is far from the archetypal modern, image-driven, baby kissing telly star but boy does she have substance. For all Corbyn trying to airbrush her, Stalin-like, from his comments on Westminster events this week.