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Kate Moses on Empathy and Responsibility

01/20/2013  by Nick Vagnoni  Comment on this Post
 
Kate Moses on imagining the lives of Sylvia Plath and her children.

Kate Moses on imagining the lives of Sylvia Plath and her children.

On Saturday morning, Kate Moses began her talk, titled I write as if an eye were upon me: On Empathy and Responsibility, by describing a dream in which she found herself consoling a distraught and weeping Sylvia Plath. The two sat together, surrounded, Moses said, by “all the books”—those written by Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, as well as Moses’s fictionalized account of the last months of Plath’s life, Wintering.

In her dream, Moses tried to console Plath by reading to her, but to no avail. No detail from any book would help, it seemed. This dream—brought on, one assumes, by Moses’s immersion in the details of Plath’s life—led Moses to talk about fiction as a means of cultivating empathy, of understanding one’s subject more intimately. More specifically, she spoke of the recent New York Times article “Your Brain on Fiction,” which explains how reading about an event can actually light up the parts of our brains that would fire had we actually experienced the events described on the page.

Reading as a means of inhabiting the lives of others, especially other writers, is a theme that came up previously at this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, and Moses also spoke of reading and researching as a means of developing a greater capacity for understanding. The idea of responsibility also came up as Moses discussed her fear of interpreting the lives of Plath’s children, an infant and three-year-old at the time of their mother’s death, and thereby somehow overshadowing their own recollections of those times. Instead, she used her own experiences of motherhood to detail her interpretation of Plath’s family life, and relied on the poems in Ariel to help compliment the exterior and interior view of Plath that she was trying to create.

Moses ended her talk by telling the audience of a time when she was uncertain about whether she was doing her subject justice, perhaps leading to the dream she described at the outset. Moses said it was her friend and neighbor Diane Middlebrook, author of a biography of Ted Hughes, who consoled Moses with these words about writers and their subjects: “While we have them, we take good care of them.”

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