Darwinistically speaking, we are wired to see other human beings as cardboard cut-out versions of themselves. We walk past cop and think cop. We walk past homeless person and think homeless person. We give our money to the person at the counter and count our change. To look into another person's eyes, to fully imagine their lives, to even acknowledge in some small fractured way that this person has a life as full of fear and desire as yours, well, it's just not efficient. It's not smart survival.
Except if you're a writer.
If you see people as cliches, if you do not accept their full humanity, if you gut them of their hopes and fears and replace them, mentally, with cardboard cut-outs, day in and day out, if you simply pass people by, as a writer, you will find yourself at the page, writing the world as you see it. You will turn the cliches into cliches on the page.
But if you practice, instead, imagining the full lives of those around you -- those you pass by -- if you think of them as having an internal life as rich and vexed as your own, you will find yourself at the page writing the world as you see it. You will turn humanity into humanity on the page.
A few years ago, the chair of the English department made the very unwise decision of letting me sub in for the person who'd been assigned to take minutes at the departmental meeting. I was happy to. I wrote exactly what was said -- sometimes summarizing, sometimes using exact quotes -- complete with sniping, witticisms, wildness. I sent the minutes out, thinking I'd done a passable job. I got a lot of feedback -- cheering, really. One person said it was amazing how I'd turned the minutes into an art form. I had no idea I'd done anything. I told people that I just wrote what I heard. The problem was that I saw the meetings as a form of art in and of themselves. (I don't know how else to survive the meetings.) I was making art from art. (I was never asked to be secretary again.)
If you see people around you as real, full, rich and vexed, you will be making people out of real people, which is much easier than trying to make real, full people out of cardboard. If you see the world around you as art then your job is to make art from art. This is much easier than making art from air.
Maybe unwittingly, each time you take that presumptuous move to step into the life of another person, you are -- if writing with real depth -- being empathetic. Not sympathetic. Sympathy requires distance. Close writing requires breaking down distance.
Living as a writer is a daily practice - one that exists throughout your day, not just while writing.
The act of writing fiction is the practice of empathy.