Last week, I had a very sad experience. We found a stray cat in the woods and brought it home, hoping to find its owner. The cat was horribly thin but very friendly and I was certain he belonged to someone, although he had clearly been lost for some time. So we did what we could - fed him, stroked him, nicknamed him Huck and the next day, took him to the vet to see if he had a microchip.
The vet had bad news: Huck wasn't chipped. Even worse, he needed a raft of expensive tests and treatment, which I couldn't afford on my own. So I put a shout out on Twitter and Facebook, asking people to donate if they could to Help Huck to recover from his ordeal and get back to his family. Many, many people donated and we smashed the £500 target in less than twenty-four hours. It didn't take long before I noticed something: almost all of the people who gave money were writers. Now you might think that there's nothing so very unexpected about that - I know a lot of writers, after all. But I think there's more to it than that. I have a few thousand followers on Twitter, several hundred Facebook friends. The proportion of people donating from that pool was very small, especially when you factor in retweets and shares. And they were mostly writers. Lovely, lovely writers.
I think it's because as writers, we empathise. In Huck's case, we empathised with the owners, searching in vain for their lost cat. We imagined he was our cat, lost and scared, and hoped that someone kind might find him and do what they could to help him. Some of us put ourselves in Huck's place, lonely and hungry. And because we could imagine ourselves in some or all of those situations, we were moved to do something to help. And we wanted a happy ending, the one where Huck got better and was reunited with his family. We wanted that so much.
Ultimately, the kindest thing for Huck was to let him go to sleep one last time, without fear and hunger. I am still desperately sad about that. But one of the things that helped me do this very difficult thing was the messages I received from the people who'd donated. Eloquent, heartfelt messages of support, reassuring me that I had done the right thing, thanking me for caring and pledging support to my idea of using any left over donations to create a small bursary for any owner who was struggling to pay for their pet's care. Some people donated even after I'd told them Huck had gone, wanting to help another animal in Huck's name. These people were writers too.
It's proof (if proof were needed) that writers are the best people. Writers empathise to make their characters and stories work. Of those people donors who were not writers, I am willing to take a gamble that they are readers, because readers make the best people too. And it's why I will argue and argue that children need to have access to books, need to be readers for pleasure. Reading teaches empathy and empathy makes the world a better, kinder place. In fact, we all need to be readers.