shalottavatarA spark of transformation is making a connection between writing creative non-fiction and becoming more empathetic and socially responsible. These ideas come from writer and professor Camilla Gibb. This blog post is based on an interview with her.

Here’s Her View

  • Literature holds a mirror up to us, revealing something of our interior selves
  • It transports us to other worlds where we recognize the parallels in our very basic human struggles to create meaning and attachment in our lives
  • It reminds us of our common humanity across time & space
  • Fiction offers an immersive experience, not just intellectual, but a visceral and emotional point of contact, both with our own lives and the lives of others
  • Through imaginary leaps, we access another point of view. Is this an empathic act? Or can it cultivate greater empathy?

Here’s Why

  • Studies suggest reading literary fiction increases our understanding of the feelings of others
  • Neuroscientist Jamil Zaki’s recent study found that college students’ self-reported empathy  has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the last 10 years
  • Greater social isolation seems one likely suspect. But so does the decline in reading
  • The number of American adults who read literature for pleasure has sunk below 50% for the first time ever
  • The decrease occurred most sharply among university-age adults
  • Zaki’s study conflicts with studies that suggest empthy is a fixed trait people are born with
  • If empathy is malleable, we should be able to encourage more of it

What Prof. Gibb Tells Her Creative Non-fiction Students

  • She insists her students read as much as they write
  • They look at making sense of their experiences largely by constructing a story of themselves
  • The narrative provides cohesion and meaning
  • The memory is subjective and selective but there’s probably social and psychological value in this
  • If we didn’t impose order on our experiences, we’d have difficulty finding any thematic continuity and cohesion
  • We’d struggle to communicate our experiences to others, a critical basis upon which relationships and community are built

How to Connect Your Writing with Social Justice

  • Trauma is the disruption of the narrative or our lives. We are the storytelling animal
  • Narrative plays a therapeutic role in reconstructing events in order to make sense out of them
  • A political role might be played when these reconstructions are shared
  • Witness literature, or testimonials are a way to begin uncomfortable conversations for purposes of redressing human rights abuses

What Prof. Gibb Tells Her Social Justice Students

  • She uses witness literature, testimonials and novels as a means of connecting them with events far removed in time and space from their own life experiences
  • She hopes to equip them with  history, framework and language for interpreting global conflicts that occur in their own lifetime.

Professor Camilla Gibb is the June Callwood Professor in Social Justice at Victoria College, University of Toronto. The above interview is based on an interview with her in Vic Report Winter 2016. She will be speaking on “When Fiction Fails a Novelist” on April 20. www.icu.utoronto.ca./alumni/VWA

This is #4 in my series on Writing Secrets from Reclusive Lady of Shalott.

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