Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy in Books

I’ve written more than a few times about the role that emotion plays in books, even technical books. Technical books such as Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements are tough to write because they’re packed with emotion. The author not only must convey emotion and evoke emotions in the reader, but explore the emotion behind the writing. In this case, the author’s emotions may actually cause problems with the book content. The writing is tiring because the author experiences emotions in the creation of the text. The roller-coaster of emotions tends to take a toll. Three common emotions that authors experience in the writing of a book and that authors convey to the reader as part of communicating the content are apathy, sympathy, and empathy. These three emotions can play a significant role in the suitability of the book’s content in helping readers discover something new about the people they support, themselves, and even the author.

It’s a mistake to feel apathy toward any technical topic. Writers need to consider the ramifications of the content and how it affects both the reader and the people that the reader serve. For example, during the writing of both Python for Data Science for Dummies and Machine Learning for Dummies Luca and I discussed the potential issues that automation creates for the people who use it and those who are replaced by it in the job market. Considering how to approach automation in an ethical manner is essential to creating a positive view of the technology that helps people use it for good. Even though apathy is often associated with no emotion at all, people are emotional creatures and apathy often results in an arrogant or narcissistic attitude. Not caring about a topic isn’t an option.

I once worked with an amazing technical editor who told me more than a few times that people don’t want my sympathy. When you look at sympathy in the dictionary, the result of having sympathy toward someone would seem positive, but after more than a few exercises to demonstrate the effects of sympathy on stakeholders with special needs, I concluded that the technical editor was correct—no one wanted my sympathy. The reason is simple when you think about it. The connotation of sympathy is that you’re on the outside looking in and feel pity for the person struggling to complete a task. Sympathy makes the person who engages in it feel better, but does nothing for the intended recipient except make them feel worse. However, sympathy is still better than apathy because at least you have focused your attention on the person who benefits from the result of your writing efforts.

Empathy is often introduced as a synonym of sympathy, but the connotation and effects of empathy are far different from sympathy. When you feel empathy and convey that emotion in your writing, you are on the inside, with the person you’re writing for, looking out. Putting yourself in the position of the people you want to help is potentially the hardest thing you can do and certainly the most tiring. However, it also does the most good. Empathy helps you understand that someone with special needs isn’t looking for a handout and that they don’t want you to perform the task for them. They may, in fact, not feel as if they have a special need at all. It was the realization that using technology to create a level playing field so that the people I wanted to help could help themselves and feel empowered by their actions that opened new vistas for me. The experience has colored every book I’ve written since that time and my books all try to convey emotion in a manner that empowers, rather than saps, the strength the my reader and the people my reader serves.

Obviously, a good author has more than three emotions. In fact, the toolbox of emotions that an author carries are nearly limitless and its wise to employ them all as needed. However, these three emotions have a particular role to play and are often misunderstood by authors. Let me know your thoughts on these three emotions or about emotions in general at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Facing the Blank Page

Most writers face writer’s block at some point. You have a blank page that’s waiting for you to fill it and you have a vague notion of what you want to say, but the text simply doesn’t come out right. So, you write, and write some more, and write still more, and hours later you still have a blank page. Yes, you’ve written many words during that time—all of them good words—just not the right words.

Every piece of writing I do starts with an outline. Even my articles start with an outline. Creating outlines help you focus your thoughts. More importantly, they help you to see how your thoughts will flow from one idea to the next. Sometimes, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you really don’t have anything more than a vague idea that will never become an article, white paper, book, or some other piece of writing. Of course, that’s really the reason for this exercise—to see if you have enough information to even begin writing. If you don’t have enough information, then you need to research your topic more. Research can take all sorts of forms that include everyone from reading other texts on the topic, to doing interviews, to playing. That’s right, even playing is an essential part of the writer’s toolbox, but this is a kind of practical play that has specific goals.

Once you do have an outline and you’re certain that the outline will work, you need to mark it up. My outlines often contain links to resources that I want to emphasize while I write (or at least use as sources of inspiration). A lot of writers take this approach because again, it helps focus your thoughts. However, an outline should also contain other kinds of information. For example, if a particular section is supposed to elicit a particular emotion, then make sure you document it. You should also include information from your proposal (book goals) and your reader profile (who will read a particular section) in the outline. Your marked up outline will help you understand just what it is that you really want to write. In reading your outline, you can start to see holes in the coverage, logic errors, and ideas that simply don’t fit.

Moving your outline entries to the blank page will help you start the writing process. Convert the entries to headings and subheadings. Ensure that the presentation of the headings and subheadings is consistent with the piece as a whole. Unfortunately, you can still end up with writer’s block. Yes, now you have some good words on the page, but no real content. An outline is simply a synopsis of your ideas in a formalized presentation after all.

Write the introduction and the summary to the piece next. The introduction is an advertisement designed to entice the reader into moving forward. However, it also acts as a starting point. The summary doesn’t just summarize the material in the piece—it provides the reader with direction on what to do next. People should view a good summary as a call to action. By creating the introduction and the summary, you create the starting and ending points for your piece—the content starts to become a matter of drawing a line between the two from a writing perspective.

At this point, you have enough material that you could possibly ask for help. Try reading your piece to someone else. Reading material aloud uses a different part of the brain than reading the same material silently. Discussing the material with someone else places a different emphasis on the material. The other party can sometimes provide good suggestions. You may not use the suggestions directly, but listening carefully can often present you with creative ideas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

It’s important not to overwork the piece. Sometimes you need to do something else for a while. Yes, you always want to spend time in research and thinking your piece through, some writing is often done in the subconscious. Fill your head up with as many creative ideas, fascinating thoughts, and facts that you can, and then do something that actually will take your conscious mind off the topic. You might watch a television show or movie, go for a while. have coffee with a friend, take a nap, or do any of a number of other things. The important thing is to forget about the book for a while. Often, you’ll find that the now semi-blank page doesn’t present a problem when you return. Let me hear about your ideas for dealing with the blank page at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Perfect Love (Reposted)

Valentine’s Day is that special time to tell others that you love them. Most people associate Valentine’s Day with lovers—romantic love. However, Valentine’s Day can also be about friends telling each other that they’re glad to have each other. The world is a better place when we can express our love to each other, whether that love is for significant others, friends, neighbors, or the person down the street. Everyone needs to feel loved and respected. Even though it’s the day after the event, there is always time to express your love to someone and this is my expression of love to you, my reader.

Perfect love casts out my fear.
Keep your perfect love so near
that I never fear again.
Perfect love for you attain,
‘til my heart with love is filled
and my spirit never chilled.

All around the world I see,
how a perfect love could be,
an answer for mankind’s woes,
when hatred and evil flows,
fueled by fires of doubt and fear,
no one lets the other near.

Open eyes to perfect love,
gift of wonder from above.
A love that gives, never takes,
love that grants others mistakes,
that counts no loss and no gain,
that makes our hearts young again.

Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller

Perfect Love (Reposted)

I had a number of requests to post this poem again for Valentine’s Day. It’s my hope that you find perfect love during this Valentine’s Day celebration.

Perfect love casts out my fear.
Keep your perfect love so near
that I never fear again.
Perfect love for you attain,
‘til my heart with love is filled
and my spirit never chilled.

All around the world I see,
how a perfect love could be,
an answer for mankind’s woes,
when hatred and evil flows,
fueled by fires of doubt and fear,
no one lets the other near.

Open eyes to perfect love,
gift of wonder from above.
A love that gives, never takes,
love that grants others mistakes,
that counts no loss and no gain,
that makes our hearts young again.

Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller

 

The Art of Observation and Writing

People watching is a favorite activity of mine. No, I don’t sit at the bench at the mall and make snide remarks about people’s attire. I’m also not too interested in the exceptions to the rule—someone doing something so absurd that it falls well outside the range of normal human activity. (Although, I must admit that the guy who ended up in a fountain because he wasn’t looking as he was texting, was sort of funny.) No, I’m more interested in how normal people react in normal ways to normal situations. Observation is a key tool for any author because seeing how people act and react is an essential part of communicating thoughts and ideas to them. I can’t see my reader during the reading of one of my books, so observation helps inform me outside of that environment.

On one particular day, I was watching a young couple argue. The precise reason for the argument isn’t known to me and it’s immaterial anyway. The two of them argued for quite some time, each insisting the other wasn’t listening. Both went off in a huff. I’ve always hoped that they made up. The things that struck me was that the two people communicated differently. The wife’s communication was both vocal and emotional. However, it was her body language that said the most. The husband was stiff as a board and you could tell that he had built defenses against any encroaching information that might conflict with his preconceived ideas of how the communication should go. However, he did use his hands quite a lot and did make really good eye contact. His choice of words was the key ingredient in his communication. Two people, communicating two completely different ways, and neither of them hearing the other.

Books are like that sometimes. I get e-mail from my readers that makes it obvious that I didn’t choose the correct manner of communication. Yes, the information they’re requesting is most definitely in the book, but they didn’t see it because the information didn’t appear in a form that attracted attention. In some cases, the reader did see the information, but couldn’t understand it. In a worst case scenario, the reader saw the information, read it, thought it was understandable, and then didn’t apply it correctly. In many cases, I find that the reader really didn’t understand the information after all.

Another couple, on another day, showed me something else. Nuance is often part of communication. The precise formulation of interaction is important. In this case, the husband was following his wife shopping, but I could tell that his interest lay in his wife, not in what she was buying. She picked a particular item up, looked it over, and put it on the shelf. A little while later, they came back. She picked up the same item, looked at it intently, and then put it back on the self. I was surprised to see the man come back sometime later. He bought the item and almost passed me by while wearing a magnificent grin. When asked what was up, he explained that by observing his wife, he found the perfect gift for her—something she really wanted, but didn’t buy because it was too expensive.

The communication between author and reader is often nuanced in ways that defy simple explanations. Yet, when they’re understood, they seem absurdly simple. It’s the reason I employ beta readers, ask questions on this blog, and maintain statistics for my books. All of these observation techniques tell me how you’d like to receive information from me without my having to ask the question directly. I can provide you with the perfect presentation without saying anything at all.

How do you employ the art of observation? Do you find that it provides an effective means of communicating thoughts that might not receive proper treatment when spoken. Send your ideas on the topic to John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fun is Where You Find It (Part 7)

The Fun is Where You Find It series of posts is one of the more popular series I’ve created because they all talk about fun things you can do for little or no cost. Of course, the problem that most people are facing right now is some sort of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) mixed with negative feelings about the weather and a general letdown from the holidays. Fortunately, there are a lot of fixes for these issues—all of which hinge on focusing on anything else.

I use a lot of laugh therapy to get past this time of year. Generally speaking, laugh therapy is all about getting a good laugh in every day. You can get the laugh any way that works for you, but I’ll read something funny, view funny videos, or talk with a friend who knows good jokes (not the lame sort that I usually tell). There are even books about laugh therapy if you have problems figuring out how to get a good laugh on your own.

This past Sunday I decided to approach the problem from another angle. I have a number of items that need to be used up, so I decided to use them for a picnic. No, the picnic isn’t outside in the cold. Instead, I put together potato salad, fruit salad, fried chicken, chips, and drinks. I laid a blanket out on the floor in front of my wood stove (which is standing in for the hot summer sun) and watched a summery movie. The whole thing cost me about $5.00, so were not talking a major entertainment expense for several hours of fun.

Of course, the question is whether my little experiment worked. Overall, I felt pretty happy afterward—it was a lot of fun and I plan to do it again. Doing something completely different, something outside the range of normal winter activities, helped me get past some of the usual problems associated with winter by thinking about summer and picnics instead. A lot of the time, how we approach life and what we think about controls our mood, so thinking about summer and picnics in winter is possibly every bit as good as the laugh therapy I normally use. At least, it gives me another alternative.

What sorts of amazing things are you doing to fight the winter blahs? Do you think you might ever try a winter picnic to chase the blues away? Let me know your thoughts about winter fun at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Expressions of Gratitude

As this year ends, I realize just how much has happened and how much I’ve grown as a person. The turmoil actually began when my wife became ill over six years ago, but intensified when she died in April. Since that time I’ve had to answer a lot of questions about my life and how it would change without Rebecca in it. Some answers are coming, some are still unknown, and a few have been satisfied. The most important question I had is whether my friends would be there to support me during this trying time and they’ve been more than up to the challenge. It’s good to have people you can rely upon to help keep the blog posts written, the books and articles in process, and the new fields of endeavor in progress. It would be impossible for me to name everything my friends have done for me and I wouldn’t even try. All I can do is express my extreme gratitude for them and hope they know how much they mean to me.

I’ve talked many times about how self-sufficiency is more about trying to do things on your own in as much as possible, but then realizing that no one can make it completely alone. Self-sufficiency can and does go wrong when people think that it means living like a hermit away from all human contact. Yes, I’m self-sufficient in many ways, but I’m also smart enough to know that I depend on others for help when needed. Getting that help is one thing—ensuring they know how much their help means is quite another. Expressing gratitude, even for the seemingly simple things, is an essential part of the self-sufficiency experience. It’s not possible to go wrong when you’re grateful for the help you receive.

As this year ends, I hope that you’re truly grateful for all of the small ways in which people have helped you this last year and every year to come. More importantly, I hope that you’ll actually take the time to thank your helpers in person, through a phone call, or by sending them a card (or possibly all three). The people you can count on, those few true friends in your life, are more important than anything else here on earth.

With this in mind, I also want to take time in this post to thank all my readers.  Every purchase you’ve made has helped keep me in business so that I can continue helping others. Every question you’ve asked has helped me produce better materials. The gracious contributions of my beta readers have been appreciated most of all. Goodbye to the old year; happy new year one and all!

 

Merry Christmas!

It’s Christmas Eve! I’m actually out of the office today and will be tomorrow as well. Taking time off to visit with family and friends, and to remember the real reason for the holiday, are important for me. I hope that you have an absolutely amazing holiday with family and friends. I’ll see you again the day after Christmas, on the 26th. In the meantime, take time to rest. It’s good for your health and your outlook on life.

Proclaiming Thanksgiving!

This is Thanksgiving Week. As such it seems appropriate to restate the facts that surround Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is celebrated in only 3 countries around the world: The United States, Canada and The Philippines.

The original Europeans who came to America were searching for religious freedom from an oppressive government, not freedom from religion itself. Those hardy folks came over in small boats carrying very few resources with them. They survived because they were able to depend on God, adapt to a new environment, and create a self-sufficient society.

America was founded on this ideal and the willingness to adapt, learn and create are still very evident in our modern times.

In 1789 George Washington signed the following proclamation to establish the holiday of Thanksgiving in America.

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789. Signed by George Washington.

No matter where in the world we live, it is important to remember and learn from history.

If you have comments, I would love to hear from you. Please leave the comments here or email John at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Self-sufficiency Gone Wrong

I get a lot of reader e-mail and I read absolutely every one of them. I also get a lot of e-mail from friends and family who love to challenge me with interesting bits of information. I love it all! This past week I received an e-mail from one of my correspondents with a link to an article entitled, “The age of loneliness is killing us.” It actually talks about an issue that readers have asked me about in the past—the meaning of the term, self-sufficiency. Some people confuse this term with independence. The problem is that self-sufficiency has nothing to do with either independence or dependence. The terms aren’t actually relevant to each other.

You’ve seen from any number of posts that I practice self-sufficiency in grand style. However, my self-sufficiency ensures there is wood for the fire, food in the larder, clothing to wear, and a roof over my head. It ensures that my animals are all well-fed, happy, and productive. Everyone has work to do in my household, even Sugar Plum (my cat), whose main goal in life appears to be stealing my dog Reese’s bed. Practicing self-sufficiency has improved my health, made me happier, and increased my productivity.

I’m far from lonely. I counted today and I rely on no less than 40 animals and people to make my self-sufficiency work (the list is likely far larger). Including the animals is necessary because each has an active role to perform in my self-sufficiency. I could list off the jobs each animal and person performs, but I think the point is that I’m incredibly dependent on others to be self-sufficient. In fact, it’s always been that way. There are dependencies that must be maintained in order to create a happy and productive life. To say that I’m dependent on certain people is simply to say that I’m human and have deficiencies that others meet—it doesn’t make me any less of a person to admit this fact. Rather, it demonstrates an understanding of how things work and makes me a better person as a result.

The biggest reason for this particular post is to put into words precisely what I mean by self-sufficiency. I don’t want anyone out there to ever use self-sufficiency as an excuse to be lonely or to feel excluded. Far from it. Most people who are self-sufficient are fully engaged with the animals and people that surround them. In fact, it’s the animals part of the equation that sets us apart. I recently provided a post entitled, “Hugging Your Animals” and a number of people wrote to ask whether I actually do that. Well, yes I do. My animals are a big part of my self-sufficiency and I’m quite dependent on them.

Our society’s ever growing fear of depending on others is a problem. It creates loneliness, decreases productivity, makes us less efficient, and most definitely makes us less happy. Creating relationships does involve risks. Someone really could say they don’t like you or decide they really can’t tolerate how you do something. Rejection, arguments, and upsets of all sorts are the risks we encounter with dependency, but the benefits are ever so much greater. Take time to hug someone today and tell them how much you appreciate them. Let them know you don’t mind being dependent on them and that you hope they’ll depend on you too. Send me your questions about self-sufficiency and being dependent on others to John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.