Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
To jumpstart my Writing Out of the Ordinary students thinking about the weird and wild, I created the following exercise for the first day of class.
1. The class breaks up into groups of at least five. Each group designates a leader and forms a line.
2. Each leader reads an entry in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings for two minutes. (I used “The Bird That Makes the Rain,” “A Crossbreed by Kafka,” and the “Hare in the Moon” as they’re among the shortest entries in the book.)
3. The leader then returns to the group and whispers details about the creature to the next group member; each member then whispers it to the next until everyone has heard about the creature.
4. The last group member must write, from memory, a summary of the creature as it was last described.
5. Each group then hands the summary to the leader of an adjacent group.
6. The groups then brainstorm and write a narrative (daily routine, an encounter, origin story, etc.) for the new creature.
There’s several “translations” here that I asked my students to consider:
1. text to memory,
2. speech to hearing (multiplied by however many students are in a group),
3. intention of the writer (the last group member) to readers (the next group),
4. and information (transcription) to imagination (the narrative).
This exercise introduces students to a practice of imaginative thinking, asks them to consider readers’ relationship to text, locates significant and memorable details, and provides them with a chance to interact and thus establish a good rapport with one another—a boon to future workshops!