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Creating With Empathy

One of the attributes that I hold most valuable in myself, and in the people around me, is the ability to empathize.

To me, the quest for a better path begins first and foremost with kindness, and kindness begins with making an effort to understand and relate to the people we meet in our lives.

It means recognizing that everyone we come across is a human being with their own struggles, and they're all worthy of dignity and respect.

This goes extra for creatives, in my opinion.

I have a pretty high tolerance for shitty art, but one thing I cannot abide is when a creator is very clearly using his subjects as a punch line, instead of as a window into a particular aspect of the human condition.

Often, these punch lines are marginalized people: drug addicts, sex workers, the impoverished or the mentally ill. People whose behaviour falls outside the pale of what we consider normal and thus judge worthy of mockery.

Sometimes, it's worse than a punch line. There are a lot of dead prostitutes and strippers in crime fiction, and it's not because a lot of crime writers are concerned with the rights and well-being of subsistence sex workers.

I will straight drop a book if it becomes clear that the author is using the murder or torture of women for some sort of sick titillation. And I'm usually pretty anal about finishing what I'm reading.

One of the most thought-provoking pieces of writing I've ever heard read was a short story my friend Robin Spano wrote from the point of view of the former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Ford was widely regarded as a laughable, probably corrupt buffoon, and it would have been easy for Robin to play up the comic side of his outsized personality for cheap laughs.

But Ford was a human being, and I know that sounds pat, but I think it's worth considering. He had substance abuse issues. He had a family. He died tragically young.

There was a person behind the headlines and the pratfalls and the tabloid scandals. And that person may not have been someone who Robin particularly liked or agreed with, but she made an effort anyway to delve into his character and examine what made him tick.

And that's a much more rewarding and I would argue worthwhile pursuit than making fun of a drug addict for the sake of a few laughs.

I'd like to talk about a couple of instances in my formative years as a writer where I could have been more empathetic toward my subjects.

Both took place while I was working in the online poker industry. I was paid to cover high stakes poker tournaments, and in one of them, a man had a heart attack at the table and collapsed.

My immediate impulse was to take out the telephoto lens on my camera and get some shots of him on the floor of the playing area.

Luckily, a photographer I respected saw what I had in mind, and with little more than a gesture, conveyed how inappropriate that instinct was.

Come on, I thought. This is news, isn't it? Aren't I being paid to cover what goes on at these events?

Well, yes and no. Technically, I was being paid to create news-like content so that my employer's website would score high in Google rankings and thus sell more subscriptions to online poker sites. There was no mandate to do anything but score page views.

And that's what my instinct had been. Not that this person's struggle was in need of documentation (it wasn't), but that holy shit we could totally go viral on the forums with this story.

I didn't take the photos, but it was more because I was afraid the photographer I respected would see me.

Now, I'm ashamed I even raised the camera.

Speaking of shame, if you mention the name Brandi Hawbaker to a certain group of poker media veterans, you'll get plenty of people who can't quite look you in the eye.

I'm one of them.

Brandi Hawbaker was a young woman who burst into the poker scene at about the same time as I was starting out in the industry.

She was young and beautiful and outgoing and glamorous, and she announced herself with a deep run at a high stakes tournament at Bellagio in Las Vegas in the fall of 2006.

By spring 2008, she was dead.

We in the poker world, and the media especially, were complicit.

We knew that a beautiful woman was the surest way to get page views, and we churned out as much content as we could about her.

Originally, that content focused on her play at the tables. But as she got mixed up in scandal with a number of predatory men, of which poker is unfortunately rife, we gleefully reported on that, too.

We trolled the forums for rumours and innuendo to reprint with winks and nudges, sensationalizing the life of a woman with mental health issues who was clearly in way over her head.

Not once did we stop to think about the human being. The struggle behind the stories.

We should have just left her alone.

In April 2008, a year and a half after I and the rest of the poker world had watched, rapt, as she walked into the Fontana Room at Bellagio and took her seat at a table, Hawbaker ended her life.

She was a desperate, unhappy woman, and we'd all preyed on her.

I won't ever do that again, and I won't fuck around with people who do.

Fiction or reality.

Be kind.

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