This week I’m co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. The ever-gracious author Matt de la Peña spent the first day guiding us deeper into the craft. He prefaced one portion of the session with “Reading is the ultimate form of empathy”—reminding us writers to get out of the way and let characters be the stars of our stories. He began, oddly enough, with asking us to describe the media center learning space where we were gathered in three or four sentences.
I have loved libraries all of my life. I quickly wrote: Spacious, welcoming, a vast array of books on shelves. A spotless carpet of soft blue; effort is made to keep it neat. This is a place that invites silence, thought, reflection—a clean, well-lighted room.
All right, I confess that I borrowed that last phrase from Hemingway. But the room WAS well-lit . . . and clean . . .
Then de la Peña threw down the gauntlet: “We’re going to add an emotional layer. Now describe this room from the perspective of a struggling reader.”
I looked at that description I’d written, the words I’d used.
Would I feel that way about this place if I didn’t love to read?
Already I felt something quite different as I slid into the character’s mind and shoes, as I looked through eyes so different from my own . . .
It’s huge and full of books and all I want is to be first in line so I can get to the Lego wall or the headphones — across this sea of blue carpet — I’ve got to run on water to get where I’m going or be drowned in books — I can swim in pictures but only for so long. Will I drift and drift forever? Just let me anchor myself to that Lego wall or those headphones, please . . .
—If reading is the ultimate form of empathy, then perhaps writing is the penultimate form.
All I can say is, for the first time in my life, my need to escape books was necessary. Palpable, urgent.
And I was only imagining.
More to share in subsequent posts, but deepest thanks to Matt de la Peña for his work of heart today — the exercise in empathy and emphasizing the value of emotional diversity in children’s books.
And for “recalibration moments.”