Lessons in Empathy

Three years ago this week, when I’d made my first-ever visit to San Miguel de Allende to attend the world-famous Writers Conference here, I remember sitting beside strangers in the ballroom each evening of the conference, waiting for the keynote speaker to take the stage. These strangers and I made small talk, as strangers thrown into the same pool or party usually do — Where are you from? What brings you here? and so forth – to pass the time.

More often than not, the silver-haired American woman beside me told me she’d retired to San Miguel, and when I asked how she liked living here she gushed and swooned. The now-famous line from the film “When Harry Met Sally” rushed to mind in that instant. I’ll have what she’s having, I thought.

I thought of this just this week when I attended the opening keynote address at the 13th San Miguel Writers Conference. This keynote was given by the acclaimed novelist Wally Lamb, whom I’d seen speak once before, in Taos. The writers conference ballroom was filled to capacity – approximately 900 attendees, I was told. But instead of strangers, I was surrounded by friends and acquaintances. I live here now. San Miguel is my community, my home. I’m experiencing what those other women three years ago were raving about.

This time, living on a fixed income, I attended only one of the conference’s marvelous events, Wally Lamb’s keynote. Lamb, ever humble and down-to-earth, began his talk on a humorous note, by showing off his new, Mexican-design short-sleeve shirt and by recounting a story about doing a book signing in a big box store some years before, when people stopped to tell him they hated to read.

The chair he was given to sit on at that event was too low for the signing table, so he stacked a bunch of other just-published books on the seat – Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, to be specific – to solve that particular problem. Then one teenage girl in a bare midriff moseyed over and asked him to autograph – not one of his books but her stomach.

More funny stories about his awkward youth, growing up in middle-class America in the 1950s followed. Such as that time in high school when he forgot to cover the science class fruit fly experiment on Friday afternoon, only to discover on Monday morning that the whole school had become infested.

Fast forward to his big break:

During his years as a high school English teacher, Lamb wrote his first novel, She’s Come Undone, in the voice and persona of one of his more challenging students. When, after that book’s publication in 1992, he received a phone call at home from a woman who identified herself as Oprah Winfrey, he thought it was a crank call. He was tempted to respond with a wiseass remark, like, “Yeah, and I’m Genghis Khan.”

Good thing he didn’t. Oprah made Lamb’s first novel (and his next one too) among her featured book club selections, thereby catapulting him to best-seller-dom.

Wally Lamb at the San Miguel Writers Conference. (I was too far away to get a clear shot, but I hope you can get the sense from this of his good nature.)

Wally Lamb is a storyteller, in spoken words as well as on the page. He captivates his audiences, whether listeners or readers, with his humor – and his compassion. He is known for his ability to inhabit characters who represent those who would otherwise be overlooked, disparaged, or demeaned in this world — and making us, his readers and listeners, care about them. Lamb’s specialty, it seems to me, is empathy.

He says of his fiction: “Although my characters’ lives don’t much resemble my own, what we share is that we are imperfect people seeking to become better people. I write fiction so that I can move beyond the boundaries and limitations of my own experiences and better understand the lives of others.”

In addition to his five bestselling novels (Google them!), Lamb is also the editor of the nonfiction anthologies Couldn’t Keep It to Myself (2003), I’ll Fly Away (2007), and a new one out soon, You Don’t Know Me – all collections of personal essays that evolved from the writing workshop Lamb facilitates on a volunteer basis at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison for women.

When he first started this work, he told the conference audience, the women prisoners looked at him dubiously. Here he was, a middle-age, straight, white man, who, he admitted, came from a “normal,” loving family. How, the women grumbled among themselves initially, could this guy ever understand our lives?

 He told our rapt audience that he learned empathy from his students. In his decades of teaching in school and in prison he’d grown to realize “I am the other, and the other is I.”

At the end of his keynote, Lamb read an essay from the forthcoming anthology, You Don’t Know Me, by a woman sentenced to life without parole. Her essay, titled “Time,” written from the heart by a woman of immense intelligence and devoid of self-pity, brought the audience to its feet. Wally Lamb received a standing ovation from all 900 attendees.

But he didn’t take the credit. He told us, “I can’t wait to tell her.”

10 thoughts on “Lessons in Empathy”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this lovely story. I have been pouting this week because I didn’t get accepted to do a workshop at the conference. Yes, I’d have loved to have heard this keynote, but you’ve given me the next best thing to being there. I am so grateful.

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