Empathy and Authenticity

I work in an environment where people fear for the lives of their children. 

Needless to say, a job where people genuinely (and sometimes rightly) are afraid for the lives and well-being of their children, can sometimes be emotionally exhausting. It also allows me to see the full spectrum of human response to situations of unparalleled intensity. As you might imagine, that can come in handy when writing fiction, and since it might also come in handy for the three people who read this blog, I’m going to share a detail-stripped, time-aged story about a young mother.


I worked a night shift a while back, starting at 7pm and ending sometime in the vicinity of 8am, during which a particular parent called me on the phone every three hours to yell at me about something. And I mean yelling. Angry, aggressive, and sometimes downright mean yelling, with not too subtle implications that I was stupid and bad at my job.  

This is not the woman in question. No hair was harmed in the making of this story.

The thing she was yelling about? Her premie wasn’t strong enough to eat all his formula by bottle. In other words, it was nothing anybody (including the baby, me, the doctors, or the mom) had a lick of control over. Premies are small and weak, without the musculature and stamina they need to complete complicated tasks like eating. It just takes time, and there’s nothing to be done about it but have a little patience and keep on doing the things that will support the baby to get stronger.

Now, I could have taken her comments personally, gotten angry, acted passive aggressively, or used my authority to have her put into a position of trouble. Instead, I chose to empathize with her. To realize that she was still a child herself, with few coping skills, no support system, and little experience with the world. To understand that she was anxious about her child and that his failure to eat was making her feel like an incompetent mother, which likely compounded feelings of guilt that she didn’t carry him to term to start with. In other words, I chose to care about her and her situation. 


My writing pals often say to me that their characters do things that don’t make sense, or that they react in unexpected ways. This, I believe, is an expression of creativity. It is also a symptom of our unconscious understanding that people are much, much more complex than their actions may reveal on the surface. Motivation is an underlying process that drives our actions and character actions, but it helps to remember that not every motivation is going to be transparent to the other characters. What looks to one person like a display of anger might actually be an expression of fear. It isn’t logical, but it is authentic.

People misinterpret each other’s motivations and goals all the damned time.

Really. It’s a wonder we accomplish anything.

This is one of those things I try to remember when writing, because characters who always guess right about each other, or who display too much empathy (or too little) come off as authorial insertions. They seem to dance to strings rather than genuine motivations. On the other hand, creating that sense of empathy within a reader is the foundation for emotional connection. This is why motivation must be crystal clear to the author, so that we can share it with the reader. Empathy is what makes us care about the characters and the story. As with most of the emotions in a really well written story, this is a battle for the subtext, but it is one well worth fighting, in my (not so) humble opine.

How do you create empathy for your characters among readers, while still making them authentic?

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Loci, not Loki

I’ve been reading a lot lately about a psychological phenomenon called locus of control. Locus of control is a term that indicates where you, consciously or unconsciously, think the control over your life originates. This simple characteristic can have profound effects on a person’s behavior.

Someone with an external locus of control might not get a breast exam because they figure they’ll get cancer if they’re meant to, because their lives are controlled by destiny, fate, genetics, or God. This allows them to abdicate responsibility for their decisions, to just throw their hands in the air and mutter rather than doing things to help themselves. Meanwhile the untreated cancer grows to the point of being incurable, rather than being detected and treated early, and the person is left to ask “Why me, God?”

Someone with an internal locus of control might feel guilty for things going wrong, even if the cause was genuinely outside of their control – someone else’s bad behavior, the weather, an unavoidable accident, etc.. A lot of people in the extreme end of this locus end up being chronic victims, martyrs who flog themselves for every bit of wrong in the world, as if they are personally responsible for the state of North Korea or the Middle East.

At the extremes, both of these loci have their own benefits and pitfalls, though the external locus of control tends to end in more serious consequences. Most people, I think, fall somewhere in between. The trick, I guess, is to maintain balance. Few events in life are completely outside our control, but some absolutely are. 
In fiction, few things frustrate a reader than feeling that the protagonist is abdicating control of his or her life to fate, chance, or luck. Still, without an element of divine (or antagonistic) intervention, you end up with the infallible Mary Sue. Like most things in life, locus of control requires a deft hand and a fine sense of balance.

Who controls your life? Who do your characters tend to think controls theirs? How do you maintain balance?

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Living in the Moment

I recently explained to my husband the power and meaning of the phrase “be present in the moment.” Rather than having a mind stuffed full to overflowing with all the future plans and past conversations and mistakes and successes, being present in the moment implies that you are fully attuned to the world around you, experiencing the sensations and noticing the details.

Did you ever have a conversation with someone who kept glancing at his watch? Or notice in the middle of telling a story that the person’s eyes had that sort of glazed, unfocused look that probably meant they were daydreaming rather than listening? Even if the person repeats back every single word to me, it always feels like I was short changed in those moments. Like the person was leaving me only a tiny corner of their consciousness, and spending their best energy thinking about their dental appointment or the project at work, or mulling over what to have for dinner instead of living that moment with me. It is one of the chief dangers of living a busy life in a busy society. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.

The scent of cocoa butter, the sounds of nature and Madonna on the tinny boom box, the feel of lake sand between my toes, the stubble of the grass poking up through the worn and tattered quilt we spread under the tallest tree in the state park, the way the sunlight dappled my skin. I can still taste the potato salad from that Memorial Day picnic with my family in 1985.

Some days I wonder if I will be able to remember my adult life at all, when I am old. It blurs on the edges, a slurry of appointments and nuisances and laundry left too long in the washing machine.

Tomorrow, I will accompany the grandmother who adopted me, Mom, who was always the mother of my heart, to find out the results of her neuopsychological evaluation for dementia. I don’t know the details, but I know the truth. I see it in the way she drifts out of the moment, not from having a short attention span, but because she just vanished for a moment, like a bright fishing bobber being pulled under the current. Tomorrow I will be present in the moment, and there is power in that, though not always joy.

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What’s Pink and Sweet and Warm All Over?

A nurse's work is never done.

A healthy newborn baby, of course.

Step one, on my plan to rule the worl- *cough* – er, I mean to become the greatest newborn nurse in the world has been completed. I finished the NCC nursing specialty certification exam last week with a passing score!

That’s probably not very enlightening unless you happen to be a nurse, so let me es’plain. As soon as the official paperwork arrives, I’ll no longer be signing “RN” after my name. Instead, I’ll be signing “RNC” to indicate that I’m an acknowledged expert in my particular specialty of nursing, which happens to be in the neonatal (newborn baby) intensive care. The test was difficult and exacting, the study was grueling but informative, and the rewards do not involve lavish riches (or even a tiny raise). It will, however, look nice on my application for the PhD program I have my eye on. It’ll also look nice on the plaque they have at work for the few of us who have taken and who maintain this national certification.

This also means that I (in theory) have a bit more free time. In practice, I have more time to devote to the dozens of other tasks on my long-ass list.


How are your plans for world domin– er, self-improvement going?

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Busy, Busy, and the Meaning of No

I generally function best when chronically over-scheduled. At least I used to. Right now, I’m struggling a bit to find my center amidst the chaos that I’ve created in my life by taking on a project (or five) too many.

So what am I so busy with?

  • Studying for my NCC specialty certification exam, which will make me an RNC-NIC (instead of the regular RN), meaning I am an acknowledged expert in the field of neonatal (newborn) intensive care nursing. This certification isn’t required in my field, but it’s highly encouraged, and I’m hoping will give me a leg-up on the competition for grad school admissions.
  • Studying for the GRE – the grad school entrance exam. Now, normally I wouldn’t even bother studying for something like this. I tend to test very well, so even the big ones don’t usually cause me much concern, but it’s been about 17 years since I’ve seen some of this math and scoring above the 75th percentile will definitely give me a shot at getting a coveted fellowship in the grad program I’m applying to.
  • Preparing my application for grad school – I’ve decided to pursue a combined NNP (master’s degree that would allow me to sit for certification as a neonatal nurse practitioner) and PhD in research. The application process takes a while though. I need to gather professional letters of recommendation (really good ones if I want a chance at that fellowship), complete a resume, write a 3-page single-spaced statement of intent to explain why I want to be a PhD and why the school should want me in their program, take the GRE, and have transcripts sent from every college I have attended (which amounts to four, because I am old and studious).
  • Hosting an in-service for my unit and my sister hospital’s NICU, which involves 4 long days of teaching the same material over and over again to a couple hundred nurses. Sounds more boring than it is. So far I’ve learned a lot and gotten some good questions posed by the folks who are there to learn. Gotta love learning while you teach.
  • Revising the skin care policy for infants across two hospitals, which includes reviewing research literature, collaborating with experts, and figuring out what needs to be updated, why, and how to put it into practice.
  • Putting together a video game guild so I can play regularly with my husband and son. This might sound like a less important goal, but given how little free time I have these days and that this is one of the few areas where we can all interact with a shared interest at compatible times, trust me, it’s a vital one.
  • Getting help for Mom (my grandma) who has been having an increasing battery of neurological symptoms for years without a reasonable explanation. This means going to get her (110 miles away) and bringing her up here to the land of actual medicine at least once a week for appointments and tests. Four hours of drive time in the car, between the trip there and back, plus an unknown amount of time in the waiting room tends to suck a lot of my time away.
  • Still working as an actual nurse – believe it or not.
  • Trying to keep my house from falling down, the bills from going to collections, and the trash from burying us all because of the neglect all those things tend to suffer when I get really busy. While my husband is a very modern man when it comes to expectations regarding gender roles, he isn’t very good at the physical acts of cleaning, maintaining the house, supervising the kiddo to get his chores actually done, or managing the bills and finances. He helps me out in so many other ways that I give him a pass on this one, but it’s one of those situations where if Mom doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
  • Keeping up with the kiddo at school – PTO meetings, parent-teacher conferences, etc are all filling up my fall schedule. Not to mention the dentist appointment, the optometrist, the annual physical, the school dances and functions…
  • Pulling a 4.0 in my bachelor’s program. It’s a lot of work, but at least I’m learning something, right? Well, mostly. Some of the classes are more work and more value than others. Some of them are more work and less value. Regardless, I am doing my best to maintain my GPA in range for that fellowship.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Ok, so there’s actually no ring involved.

The fellowship I keep mentioning, in case you were wondering, is a rare opportunity to study at graduate school with all tuition paid and a monthly stipend of $1400-1800 for the first year of your studies. This equals out to be about $25-30k of tuition and cash. It’s offered for two reasons: academic excellence, and diversity. The diversity fellowship applies to diversity for a whole host of reasons including but not limited to ethnic minorities, disabled students, and underserved populations. I have the GPA and credentials to qualify for the academic fellowship if I can pull a 75th percentile or higher score on the GRE. Given my heart condition, I may well be qualified for the diversity fellowship. As you can imagine, I really, really want this fellowship.

Now, qualifications aside, this is a seriously competitive opportunity, split across the entire school’s incoming graduate class. Even meeting all the academic minimums for consideration does not guarantee a win. It’s one of those things where you do the best you can, send in your app on time, and cross your little fingers and toes.

The Meaning of No

What I’m not doing right now:

      • Quilting for the quilt committee at work – my work hosts a quilt committee that allows nurses and other volunteers to make quilts to send home with the babies who have been in our unit for longer than a week. This allows us to provide the parents with a hopefully positive send-off after what was certainly not the start they had hoped for. I have completed quilts in the past but just don’t have time right now.
      • Picking up shifts for co-workers. I still pick up a few hours here or there on occasion, but I have been saying “no” more and more often in the past few weeks. My priorities right now are on the academic pursuits and my family, rather than working and my manager, whom I adore, (no, she doesn’t read this blog) is completely on board with that, leaving me a guilt-free way to say “no thanks.”

Best Buddies: Carrot and Wheatley

        • Fostering additional cats – we currently have Carrot and Poppy. Carrot is waiting to be big enough to neuter before going back home to his first foster-mom, my niece who found him when he was a week old. Poppy is waiting for a forever home, but is much too shy to tolerate being at the pet store on display. She’s a gorgeous orange and white cat, very loving and no trouble at all (unlike my twin boy kittens Fanti and Mingo). If you’re interested in adopting Poppy, let me know in the comments! I’ve told the Cat Adoption Team (C.A.T.) that I might be willing to take on a kitten or two in November (after I clear a few things off my plate) but no more fosters for now, please.
        • About 40,000 other things that I want to do, should do, or could do right now if only I had the time… like make a baby quilt for my niece’s soon-to-be-born daughter, read for fun, start prepping for a couple of research reviews and studies I intend to pursue on my own, become an ice cream taste tester, blog more,and hit the gym like I am supposed to.

So yeah, over-scheduled, as always. It could be worse though. What’s keeping you guys busy this autumn?

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