How I Wrote It

Why White Coat, Black Art host and ER doctor Dr. Brian Goldman wrote a book about kindness

Goldman travelled to Brazil, Japan and through parts of Canada in order to hear, record and understand the neuroscience behind acts of kindness.
Dr. Brian Goldman is the host of CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art and the author of The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life. (HarperCollins/CBC)

As the host of CBC's White Coat, Black Art, Dr. Brian Goldman's voice has been heard over the radio since 2007. But when writing his latest book, The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life, he set out to listen to people around the world. He travelled to Brazil, Japan and through parts of Canada in order to hear, record and understand the neuroscience behind the stories of those who take pleasure in everyday acts of kindness.   

The Power of Kindness is Goldman's third book. Below, he talks about how he wrote it. 

The discomforts of writing

"I pitched The Power of Kindness as a book about empathy in health care. My publisher's counter-offer was, 'Why don't you go out and take a look at kindness in the world — on the subway, in the bars, in a coffee shop?' I was terrified because that took me out of my comfort zone; I thought I was going to be steeped in hospital culture, which I know well and have covered on the show White Coat, Black Art for years. I was completely at sea when I began. How do you write a book like that?

"I started taking a look at popular books written about empathy. The first thing I discovered was there were a lot of them. What I strove to do was write a book on the practical aspects of empathy. I wanted to see how empathy works — what it looks like and feels like in every walk of life. I was looking for 'super empathizers,' people who were known for being kind."

The cause of kindness

"I would do characters studies to find out what made people so kind — was it nature or nurture? I wanted to know what their family life was like, so I would ask things like 'What was the first gesture of empathy you remember extending to somebody else?' For instance, Tata, a little boy in São Paulo, Brazil, found a homeless man and adopted him. The uncanny thing was that he wasn't around when his mother, Shalla, had done the same thing — she still calls the homeless man her 'soul mate.'  

"If it was nurture, I was looking for variety — for different aspects of empathy and kindness. I had a large selection I ended up paring down. But each one of these stories paints an archetypal picture of why some people become kind."

Empathising with characters 

"Books would go nowhere if you didn't empathize with the protagonist. For me, [protagonists] have to have a good heart, but be flawed; they have to be on a journey I'm interested in, one which often begins from a dark place. I want a character who is textured. Those are the characters I relate to the most. I was writing about empathy, but to make the stories compelling, there had to be characters you might relate to."

Unexpected influences

"I felt from the beginning that there was no template for The Power of Kindness. Theodore Fontaine's memoir Broken Circle was the most influential to me because, up until that point, I had not read a lot about Indigenous people who had lived at residential schools. What I got from him was a gritty style of writing that hinted at the worst things that happened without actually saying them. I saw a lot of power in that."

Narration matters

"I was also searching my own heart and my own head — did I have the circuitry for empathy? I've written two other books where I've told stories of other people in the third person. What made The Power of Kindness different is that my own journey was the engine of the book. I wanted people to teach me — I wanted each of these stories to tell a different story and give me a different lesson. I can't even imagine writing this book in the third person." 

Dr. Brian Goldman's comments have been edited and condensed.

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