Nuar Alsadir: The Craft of
Writing Empathy

On Otherness, Analysis, and What I Learned in Clown School

By  Nuar Alsadir

The following is modified from Nuar Alsadir’s craft talk for New York University’s low-residency MFA Writers Workshop in Paris. It was delivered at NYU Paris on July 12, 2018.

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During college, I spent a summer at Oxford studying James Joyce. I had just decided to drop my neuroscience major and was there to immerse myself in modernist texts after having experienced through Ulysses the excitement (I will yes) of being close to a mind that had not been calibrated to ready-made forms. I was in awe of the graduate students who would gather at the pub, sometimes on the lawn, in animated conversation.

One evening, the friendliest of the group signaled me over. Excited to finally have the opportunity to get to know them, I blurted out a series of questions—how long have you been here, what are you working on? They offered detached, clipped answers until the one advised, “Here, in Europe, when we try to get to know someone, we don’t ask questions. We enter into conversation and get to know a person by the way they think.” Whether or not that is, in fact, the European way, I was captivated by the idea that you could know someone by knowing how their mind moves.

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But what does it mean to know someone? I have two daughters who know me very well. They watch me with vigilance. One of my daughters went through a phase of asking me if I was angry with her. Out of the blue, as I was chopping vegetables at the kitchen counter or performing whatever mundane task needed to get done, she’d ask, “Are you mad at me?” Each time I said no, it didn’t register, until one morning, in the wee hours, she walked into the room where I was writing and asked again. I looked up, surprised to see her, and answered, “No, I was thinking.”

“I get it!” She said, lighting up. “Your thinking face and your angry face are the same.” What she’d been picking up on wasn’t the contents of my mind, but a closed door between us. Whether out of anger or thought, she had been momentarily shut out.

For years, I believed my dog had an uncanny—almost prophetic— ability to read people. When someone entered the house, he was able to instantly assess their character. One day, however, as we both backed away from a guest simultaneously, I realized it wasn’t the other person he was reading, as I’d always imagined. He was reading me. After watching me closely for years (his well-being, after all, depended on it) he became skilled at picking up on my micro-expressions, perceiving feelings that, though belonging to me, had not yet registered, made their way into my consciousness.

Being known can also feel inhibiting. I have a memory from high school, in the back seat of the car. My mother was driving—my father must have been there as well, or I would have been sitting in the passenger seat. I was crying—sobbing, actually—because my mother and I were having an argument. I don’t remember what the conflict was over, only that she was turning onto an exit ramp when I wailed, “You don’t know me! You don’t know me like my friends know me!”

“I may not know you the way you want to be known,” she said calmly, “but, believe me, I know you.”

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Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, sketches a scene in which a man peeping through a keyhole, completely absorbed in looking at what he sees on the other side of the door, suddenly hears a creaking of the floorboards behind him and realizes he has been seen. Sartre uses this scenario to explain the loss of subjectivity that occurs when a person shifts from being a subject looking out at the world to an object in another’s field of vision, the one who looks to the one who is being seen.

The man then imagines that the person who has seen him peeping through the keyhole knows him as he cannot know himself—knows him, in fact, better than he knows himself. He can now only know himself by reading the other’s knowledge, see himself through the gaze of the other. This transformation from being a subject with agency (the one doing the looking) to an object in another’s world to be evaluated (what do they see?) results in what Sartre calls existential shame—the shame of having been caught in the act of being who you are.

If, like the man at the keyhole, you are preoccupied with how others see you—particularly how they see you through your work—you run the risk of believing you can only know your work through their perspective, determine its value by reading their knowledge. You’re then less likely to write what you feel compelled to express than what you imagine will win approval.

The figure we imagine as we speak or write changes and reshapes our communication, a process M.M. Bakhtin calls addressivity. In the split second before speaking, we project ourselves into the position of our addressee, imagine how they will take what we’re about to say, then adjust our communication to fit those expectations. This mechanism, performed in milliseconds, leads us to utter not what we’d intended, but an edited version that accounts for—protects against—the ways that the psychic representation of our addressee thinks and feels.

Addressivity explains why you can feel connected and in your zone speaking with one person, but talk about the same thing in the same way with someone else and feel like a fumbling bore. The other person may or may not match up to the imagined persona you project onto them, but you will adjust in relation to that psychic representation regardless—which is why it’s important, in considering your reader, to think about who you become in relation to them, how, through the process of addressivity, your perception of yourself as seen through their imagined eyes will reshape you and what you express.

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A friend of mine used to like to challenge people to try and smile without making their eyes smile. The muscles around the mouth obey the will, but the muscle to the side of the eyes—the orbicularis oculi—that contracts to make your eyes smile, does not. Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne, the 19th-century French neurophysiologist who first discovered this connection by stimulating muscles in the face using electricity, found that the orbicularis oculi only contracts when a person feels genuine positive emotion: “Its inertia in smiling,” he wrote, “unmasks a false friend.”

Feeling is bodily driven, whereas “thinking,” according to psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, “is called into existence to cope with thoughts.” He explains this counterintuitive precept through a scenario involving a hungry infant who yearns for the breast to suddenly materialize and satisfy her need. When the infant feels hunger and expects the breast but no breast turns up, instead of the yearned-for satisfaction, she feels frustration, which then leads to a thought (“the breast is not there”). The “development of an ability to think” occurs as a way of coping with the thoughts that crystallize from frustrated feelings—or, in philosopher Emil Cioran’s terms, “Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation.” With breast—or its metonym—in mouth, however, there’s no need for thinking. You are free to feel.

Or, as e.e. cummings had it, “since feeling is first / who pays attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.”

But our tendency in daily life is to value thinking, the rule-driven syntax and facts about a person’s existence, over feeling. Those who foreground emotion generally forego the rewards—chief among them belonging—that accompany thinking that is easily calibrated with the thoughts of others.

Oliver Sacks writes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about a set of autistic twins who were unable to perform basic mathematical calculations, but had an extraordinary ability to “see” prime numbers—breasts of sorts—in “an entirely sensual and non-intellectual way,” and to “savor” them through play with “holy intensity.” Others quoted by Sacks with similar sensory relationships to numbers experienced them as living things, like the “unanalyzable essence of all musical sense” based on tones that are like “‘faces’ for the ear… recognized, felt, immediately as ‘persons.’” This recognition, “involving warmth, emotion, personal relation,” is akin to the recognition of a friend. “3,844?” Sacks quotes a mathematician saying. “For you it’s just a three and an eight and a four and a four. But I say, ‘Hi! 62 squared.’”

Poetry needs to wholly kiss, have holy intensity.

That is because poetry, for me, is not defined by form, but by effect. A piece of writing can look like a poem, use words that are considered poetic, but without the ability to move readers, it’s what Derek Walcott termed a “fake poem.” A fake poem can be unmasked the same way that Duchenne’s false friend can—there is no physical contraction, no movement in the body. We know we are in the presence of poetry—regardless of whether we are looking at a sonnet or a sculpture—when we feel moved.

But what does it mean to feel moved? Right now I’m talking to you ego-to-ego: an ego communication is one in which you communicate information that can be processed by logic and reason. In psychoanalytic sessions, ego communications aren’t always easy to work with. Someone comes in, tells you about their week, a recent job interview. You can, of course, listen through the material for feelings around the thoughts, the trail of associations, what is being communicated by way of the material being conveyed (what are they telling me by telling me this?), but the profound work is most readily accessed through a communication from the unconscious.

Communications from the unconscious are often received as bodily sensations. For example, when I’m working as a psychoanalyst, I occasionally begin to feel sleepy during a session, sense a pull towards slumber so strong it’s as though I’d just taken cold medicine. I’ve experienced this dynamic often enough to know I’m not literally sleepy, but am colluding with the analysand to close my eyes to something—usually some feeling—they don’t want me to see. Communicating outside of words makes it possible to get at felt realities without distorting them to match linguistic forms, providing us with a more direct way of giving others access to our interiors. Abstract art operates in a similar way: like representational work, it’s mimetic, but instead of representing an identifiable object, like a tree, it represents feelings, images, or perceptions from the interior. Limiting yourself to reason—ego communication—is like flying with only one of your engines.

Unconscious communication involves an interpersonal process described by Bion through a model involving a mother communicating with her preverbal infant. Even though an infant doesn’t have language, its mother (or any caregiver, of course, gender aside) can still receive its communications. Let’s say the baby is crying. The baby’s cry isn’t heard the way words are generally heard, cognitively. It enters the body. Rather than coming to know what the infant is feeling by understanding it—as you understand directions to the closest subway station—the mother accesses the emotion by feeling it. The infant projects raw emotion into the mother, which the mother then feels inside of her own body as though it were her own. She processes that raw emotion with the tools she’s developed through experience, then puts that processed emotion back into the world in symbolized form, which is to say, in words—“You’re tired.”

In Bion’s theory, the raw emotional data that the infant gives off are termed “beta elements,” which must then be ruminated on, metabolized by an “alpha function”—the mechanism of experiencing emotion from within, digesting it, and putting it back out in symbolized form. Alpha functions process beta elements so that they become available for thinking.

Beta elements pass between people who are close—a parent and infant, lovers, friends, siblings—but also strangers on the street, on the subway, at the checkout counter of a store. We project and contain beta elements, perform alpha functions, without being conscious of it. Bion’s definition of beta elements focuses on split-off negative parts of the self that get projected into others, but I’d like to extrapolate to all energies that are projected into us and that we emit when interacting with others. Freud thought about the drives—the impulses that power our life force—in terms of energy. In line with the first law of thermodynamics, beta elements, like energy, cannot be created or destroyed but continuously change form.

Empathy, which is articulated in German as feeling into the shape of another, also gets at this shape-shifting of emotion as it passes between people. We now understand, through neuroscience, what happens when a person feels into the shape of another—say, if they see someone trip. Mirror neurons fire within the brain of the observer causing the tripping sensation to be mirrored within, as though it had originated there, the way the mother feels the infant’s emotion within her own body as her own. Because the same mirror neurons fire when a person witnesses an emotion or action as when they feel or act themselves, we are able to experience what happens outside of us as part of our own subjective experience—to feel moved by experiences that are not our own.

It’s helpful, therefore, to think about the extent to which you are performing alpha functions, processing your beta elements, your raw emotion and impulses, for your imagined reader. If you are performing alpha functions, digesting your work for your reader to the extent that it becomes a piece of American cheese in plastic wrapping, your reader can take it in as we take in processed foods, but it’s unlikely that much will remain for their bodies to contain and metabolize. That is the danger of over-editing, shining the surfaces and combing out all the knots (“The lines I love,” writes Walcott, “have all their knots left in”). A clean, processed piece of writing with no bumps or snags may not trigger existential shame, but is also unlikely to emit beta elements from your body to your reader’s body, your unconscious to their unconscious—to move them.

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When we receive a poetic communication, we are stirred in our bodies: a primitive, primordial part of us is awakened—what psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott termed the “true self” and Jacques LeCoq called our clown. I ended up in a two-week, six-hour per day clown program as part of the research I was doing for a book I’m writing about laughter. The school I attended, run by Christopher Bayes, teaches a method stemming from the French tradition developed by Jacques LeCoq and Philippe Gaulier—the kind of training that Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Roberto Benigni underwent early in their careers. The theatrical art of clowning—commonly referred to as clown—has the goal of helping actors find their inner clown.

LeCoq, who began as a physiotherapist, believed “the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant”—a phrase that could be applied to the unconscious. The process of trying to find your clown involves going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialization to reveal the clown that had been there all along—or in Winnicott’s terms, your “true self.” Your clown, like your true self, is not an identity, but a wellspring of creative forces, what shines forth when you feel on, alive and free.

“Political resistance, poetry, self-revelation spring from that provocative, impish drive to burst free from external constraints.”

Various experiences affect our ability to make contact with our true self. Winnicott saw the first signs of the true self in the spontaneous gestures of an infant, which would develop if a “good-enough mother” was able to affirm and accept them—contain and process their beta elements—or be hidden if she disapproved of or corrected them. If the mother is able to tolerate nonsensical spontaneous gestures—impulses emerging from the body in raw form—and support them, their expression will be repeated. If the mother disapproves of or corrects those gestures, the infant will learn to replace spontaneous impulses with signs that have agreed-upon meaning—imitate the mother’s gestures rather than express instinctive ones from within.

When an infant modifies its behavior to please, replaces an impulse with whatever the mother will affirm (a survival mechanism at base, given the infant’s dependency on the mother for basic needs), the socialized self begins to develop and thinking overrides feeling. The more we sense the need to protect ourselves, the more we suppress primal instincts and try to blend in—or in the extreme, play dead (like hiding amongst a pile of bodies during a mass shooting). The social equivalent to playing dead is to put forward a façade—what Winnicott termed a “false self,” built around manners and protocol as opposed to spontaneous expression. It’s a kind of psychological slouching based on the belief that whatever stands out is dangerous: the tallest sunflower gets snipped.

The clown is different. The clown gets up before an audience and risks letting whatever is inside seep out—just as patients in psychoanalysis free-associate and let their thoughts go wherever the mind takes them. While the analyst searches for the true self by way of material that reveals the unconscious, the actor in clown school seeks to discover it by way of their spontaneous expressions. These processes are similar to what philosopher Martin Heidegger termed alêtheia, or truth as unconcealment. The clearest expression I’ve heard of alêtheia came years ago, when I overheard my then three-year-old daughter call someone beautiful. I asked, “What does beautiful mean?’ Still close to her clown, she replied, “Beautiful means most self.”

For clown guru Gaulier, beauty is “anyone in the grip of freedom or pleasure.” The clown is the embodiment of this beauty in the unmediated expression of raw emotion Ten years later I asked my daughter, “Is it better to be beautiful or photogenic?” She paused for a while, thought about it, then said, “I’d rather be beautiful, but I think you get more out of being photogenic.” Our preoccupation with perfecting our exteriors, our profiles—which often determine what we have access to in the social world—has caused us to lose touch with our interiors, making it all the more difficult for others to be able to feel our feelings, connect with us.

Communication that originates in the true self, according to Winnicott, feels “real,” whereas communication from the false self doesn’t. Still, the false-self desire for acceptance prompts people to hide whatever they imagine might be judged, their true selves and their clowns, the motley colors within. “It’s easier for other people,” Bayes told us repeatedly, “if you’re less—that’s why we have the social contract on the subway: no eye contact, don’t take up space. I want you to be more:

You can be less if you’re going to sell real estate, but not if you’re going to be an artist. It demands that you live hotter. I’m trying to undo socialization: stop wiggling, sit still, please behave. When someone says please behave, it means please behave less.

Behaving less supports the status quo and increases your chances of having access to the benefits that accompany belonging, which is often achieved by putting others first. Giving the mother what we know she will affirm trains us to develop a radar for what is wanted by other people, as opposed to tuning in to what is inside of us. “You have an obligation,” Bayes told us, “to be more expressive, vulnerable, fragile, fierce, beautiful than the rest of us.”

In clown school, Bayes kept describing the moment when the audience felt moved by the clown on stage as “poetry.” I thought of the poet J.S. Prynne, who, after listening to a poetry reading, described the poems read as “written by a poet,” which he “could do without.” Prynne explained that he wanted “a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him—or herself.”

A new set of possibilities can unsettle the poetic order, as it can the social—like when a poem doesn’t look like a poem, which most often results in its not being published. Most poets struggle with this split between the true-self urge to, as Sylvia Plath described in a notebook, “grow ingrown, queer, simply from indwelling and playing true to my own gnomes and demons” and the false-self desire for approval, to catch what she termed “New Yorker fever, as if I could by main force and study weld my sensibility into some kind of articulateness which would be publishable.” Yet in cleaning up beta elements and polishing work into publishable “articulateness” rather than “indwelling,” you face the danger of writing a fake poem. Still, many yearn for the status public recognition brings even as they recognize the possible falsity involved. As Theodore Roethke wrote in a notebook, “We all long to create a great dreary masterpiece that everyone will have to pretend to read.”

A fake poem will not lead to an authentic conversation with your audience or yourself. The cost involved in not playing true to your gnomes and demons—your clown or true self—is, for some, too high. To live by formula, according to Emily Dickinson, leads to feeling closeted:

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me ‘still’ –

Here, the equivalent to staying still—behaving—is to write in prose, which restricts one to the sentence, described by Roland Barthes as “hierarchical: it implies subjections, subordinations, internal reactions.” To write in poetry is to write “outside the sentence, to take pleasure in the text,” which Barthes says, “is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father.” Political resistance, poetry, self-revelation spring from that provocative, impish drive to burst free from external constraints.

The moment you think, “I want to catch New Yorker fever,” write something “publishable,” you become the clown standing before an audience, thinking, “What can I do to make them laugh?” By not planning, you train yourself to listen, Bayes explained:

When you wonder, how do I make them do something, affect the audience, you disconnect from the source. Your good ideas will kill you because they’re attached to your ego. Don’t present ego material, it’s not funny. Let it not be so precious whether you succeed or fail.

Like the infant in early-stage addressivity trying to give the mother what she will affirm, putting forward ego material in an attempt to control the audience’s response will strengthen the development of a false self, which, detached from the source—the true self—won’t have the capacity to move anybody.

The defining element of poetry—whether on the page, in the theater or in life—is the transformative feeling it creates in its recipient, what LeCoq calls the “universal poetic sense” of having been brought “into contact with the essence of life.” “So far, about morals,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Perhaps Hemingway’s thinking can be extrapolated to poetry—regardless of expectations surrounding its form, what is poetry, at base, is what you feel moved after, which is another way of saying when another unconscious has made contact with your unconscious, your mirror neurons have fired, your true self has been stirred.

Often what moves us is beauty, that feeling that crops up when we are at play, in the grip of freedom or pleasure, most self—but we can just as easily be moved by beta elements carrying the energy of messier emotions, such as rage, repulsion or despair. For an authentic conversation to take place, you have to be willing to follow whatever comes up in whatever form—the free associative path your mind takes—so long as it is accurate and honest.

One of the most important lessons I learned from clown school has to do with connection: it’s not the content of what you bring onto the stage that the audience connects to, but the emotion associated with your content, the beta elements, the movement of your mind. “The essence of pleasure,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “lies not in the thing enjoyed, but in the accompanying consciousness.” Think of Proust’s madeleine, which, outside of his writing, is nothing more than a bland bite of cake. We love it because he loves it.

That is not to say that ideas and thinking have no place in poetry, but that, as the first step in ethical thought is to feel into the shape of another, bodily communication—by way of the direct access it gives us to another’s experience—has the potential to widen our horizons of understanding. A communication that provokes feeling in the body will have been encoded by the specific body that created it—with all its genetic, racial and desirous markings—and will therefore, in being incorporated into the experience of others, have the potential to expand their modes of relating.

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It’s difficult to resist the urge to play the part you imagine other people will find interesting or entertaining, the thing you think will receive approval—we all want to be loved. The problem is you’re less likely to connect with your audience at the emotional level if you’re leading with an idea, an ego communication, rather than a spontaneous impulse. When your goal is to get a certain response—which involves projecting yourself into the position of the person creaking the floorboards to anticipate and meet their (imagined) expectations as opposed to staying connected to the source—you’re bound to flop.

The aim should be to experience genuine feeling within yourself so that your emotion—transmitted to your audience as beta elements—triggers their mirror neurons to fire. It is then that they will experience and process your emotion as though it had originated within their own bodies—feel moved. “Indeed,” wrote composer Arnold Schoenberg, “a work of art can create no greater effect than when it transmits the emotions that raged in the creator to the listener, in such a way that they also rage and storm in him.”

One of the actors in clown school had the nervous tendency to say, “It’s cool,” when he was flailing and we would boo because we knew he was being disingenuous. It’s devastating to flop. When someone pretends everything is fine when we know it isn’t, we recognize a false self and disconnect:

If you’re honest in the moment when something isn’t working, we love you more. Acknowledge it. When it’s going well, you can celebrate that. If it’s going badly and you admit that, you’re alive. If you pretend it’s okay when we know it isn’t, we hate you a little bit. If you’re bad and you admit it, we love you again. Like a shark, you have to keep moving.

Another actor, by contrast, began to sob and berate herself in face of the audience’s silence, sparking us to laugh uproariously. “We love her when she despairs because we understand her,” explained Bayes. “We have our own version of that.” We feel her feeling as our own.

At the end of clown school, Bayes named our clowns through a process that lasted days. We each took the stage and underwent a kind of interview process that culminated in his deciding on a name that flagged something in us that needed to be explored. Most people cried—I mean sobbed, snot into red nose—as their clown was being named: Everyday Spencer, Take It or Leave It Karen, Maybe Someday Donna. One actor was given a name he hated—Little Tiny Regret—but accepted in the expressionless way most artists are trained to listen to a critique. Bayes pushed him:

You come all this way, and what are you waiting for? Yourself. Don’t regret the things you’ve done, regret the things you haven’t done. Don’t regret the mistakes, regret the mistakes you didn’t make—because you tried. Did you try? Did you really try? You have to really try. Why do you want to be invisible? Get out of your own shadow. Say, “I’m alive!” Roar.

The actor, sobbing, said, “I’m alive.” Then repeated it a second time, at a roar, “I’m alive!”

“Now we see you,” said Bayes.

On the day I was to be named, I was terrified. I knew I had been seen, but didn’t feel ready to own it. As Winnicott says, “It’s joy to be hidden, disaster not to be found.” Unable to access a state between being hidden and found, joy and disaster, I scrambled my signals. My clown name reflected the ambivalence I often experience being on stage—lost in holy intensity until the floorboards creak behind me and I become gripped by existential shame, imagining how others will perceive me if they see my enjoyment.

In the end, he named my ambivalence, marking it as the thing I needed to explore. My clown name was “Next!” The name incorporates the inflection of a director calling the next actor onto the stage for their audition, being dismissed, sent away, an irrelevant number. If you’re not going to bring it, really give it your all, let yourself be most-self beautiful, seen, then get off the stage. You had your chance. Next!

What would I do with the name, the internal struggle that had just been spotlighted? Give up, tail between legs, or give it another shot, express how vulnerable, flailing, fragile and exhilarated I can potentially be? I took what I learned and used it in the process of writing Fourth Person Singular—an imperfect book full of beta elements, impulsive gestures, addressed to a reader whose absolute understanding was presumed. The book was my next.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Nuar Alsadir
Nuar Alsadir
Nuar Alsadir is the author of the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland; and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012). She works as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice in New York.





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