... without some kind of direct experience to use as a touchstone, people don’t have the context that gives them a place in their minds to put the things you are telling them. The things you say often don’t stick, and the few things that do stick are often distorted. Also, most people aren’t very good at visualizing hypotheticals, at imagining what something they haven’t experienced might be like, or even what something they have experienced might be like if it were somewhat different....
Eventually people can be educated, but what you have to do is find a way give them the experience, to put them in the situation. Sometimes this can only happen by making real the thing you are describing, but sometimes by dint of clever artifice you can simulate it.
In his book How Children Fail, John Holt talked about how one of the chief failures of education is that we have unrealistic expectations of to what degree language can communicate an understanding of something. We like to think explanations have some kind of magic power to them, as long as the explanation is clear enough and concise enough and pitched in language that the listener can connect with. But even then it still doesn't work.
One of the things I had to learn in my day job was that a single shared experience is worth a thousand explanations. If you can tap into something the other guy is likely to know, you can build a bridge by way of analogy between what experience they already have and what you are trying to communicate to them.
If I'm explaining machine learning or distributed computing to an audience that barely knows how to work its phones, I'm going to find whatever analogies are worth making by way of the experiences people have figuring out a crossword puzzle or standing in line at the drugstore. It doesn't matter, at least not at first, that an analogy can be imprecise or incomplete. What matters is that it takes something outside of their experience and moves it a little further into their experience.
I think a great deal about how this applies to the problems of fiction. With regular fiction, the challenge is hard enough. It's difficult to give people an experience on paper of any kind that maps to your intentions for it. Sometimes you want them to cry, and they just shrug; sometimes you want them to laugh, and they just wince. Bad writing is not always bad because it's ungrammatical or lacks vividness; sometimes it's bad because it's written by someone who doesn't know how to reach someone who's not them.
A while back there was a flap of a discussion about fiction as a way to promote empathy. I was skeptical of it then, and I'm still skeptical of it now, but the above has given me a new insight on that conceit. Maybe when someone gets it right in fiction, when someone really does connect, we respond so strongly that we feel like all fiction has at least the seed of such a possibility in it. I'm sure it does, but the seed of a possibility isn't the same as its flowering.
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Other Lives Of The Mind