‘Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes’

Understanding and empathetic

Writing my novella series about a fictional high-end shoe shop, which has drawn a number of clients with colourful pasts, I’m reminded of the phrase ‘Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes.’ It tells us that before we leap in and judge others we must learn to be understanding and empathetic and attempt to see things from their point of view. The saying comes from a poem by Mary Torrens Lathrap, an American poet, preacher and suffragette. Written in 1895, she entitled it ‘Judge Softly’. Later the title was changed to ‘Walk a Mile in his Moccasins’.

Imbibing the atmosphere

Some years ago I attended a series of weekend courses on NLP (Neuro-Linguistics Programming). The courses were held in a hotel on Hayling Island, south of England’s Hampshire coast. We listened to lectures and engaged in much role play, as well as participating in various exercises. One of these involved pairing with another person on the course, who we didn’t know very well, and going outside with them. It was called ‘Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Moccasins.’ Each of us in turn had to follow in the other’s footsteps, while the lead person stopped from time to time to admire the scenery while imbibing the atmosphere. Neither of us talked. When we all reassembled to discuss the findings of our experiences, everyone agreed that we felt we’d got to know the other person better by being fully present with them.

Sense of calm and appreciation

More recently I was riding the bus into town, a place where I often get different perspectives on my writing and life in general. It was a beautiful sunny day as we passed rows of smart houses bordering the main road. There was an unusual atmosphere on the bus. It took me a while to realise what was different; everyone sat quietly looking out of the window, engaging with real life. There was a sense of calm and an appreciation for the world around us. Then it all changed when several youngsters got on the bus and immersed themselves in their phones.

Watching, wondering…. imagining

I only use my phone to contact someone when travelling, if necessary. On a bus, train or plane, or waiting at a station or an airport, I watch and listen, remaining in touch with what is going on. I observe people, scenes, life. It’s where I absorb ideas for my stories, not consciously, but by just being part of the real world. It was at an airport carousel that I got the idea for the very start of my current novella series in progress – watching, wondering about, and imagining a possible real life scenario…..about a shoe.

Through different eyes

Lately I have been reading a draft first chapter written by a friend, and offered some comments. This exercise taught me how I must continue to step into the shoes of another, and see my own story through different eyes, getting away from the details themselves which, while also very important, sometimes blur the big picture.

Own viewpoint

At the same time I need to step into the shoes of each of my characters, and ensure that I am seeing everything from their own viewpoint. No matter how mean the villein, the writer must try to understand what makes them tick and give them a glimmer of decency. Writer, and subsequently reader empathy, is everything in a story. Empathy is everything in real life, too.


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