The Morality of Writers


The Morality of Writers

So here’s the thing: all fiction writers lie. It’s our job to make up what doesn’t exist or at most, might have existed. In this mode, morality doesn’t come into it. It’s fiction and everyone knows it. You’re not meant to believe it.

And yet, we all understand the power of fiction to encourage belief in readers. Who has not written a story in which friends/family believe themselves depicted? Despite our protests, they persist in believing that the story is grounded in reality.

At some level, readers see the story as truth even while accepting it is fiction. It is both the curse and the blessing of good writing.

Morality and emotional truth

Of course, you’re striving for believability in your writing. You want your reader to sink into the continuous dream you’ve created and completely surrender to it. To do this, I’ve urged you to tell the emotional truth, even if it is not the actual truth. Or in memoirs, to make up the stuff you can’t remember. I’ve even pointed out when your writing needs to be less reality based to seem more real on the page. All in pursuit of a compelling story.

Is there a point that this can be taken too far? Clearly, there is as my last post on Truman Capote illustrated. But there must be a thus far, no further point.

What is thus far, no further?

Yes, there’s the rub. We know we’d never go as far as Capote. But when would we know to draw back to avoid the damage he did? As with all things like this, we know there’s no hard and fast rule but surely there are some guideposts. How about:

I’ll never write to hurt someone

So, your mother is sure the unflattering picture you painted in your novel of the mother is her. She is hurt. Do you change the character to cause less offense? Do you let others decide what and how you write? Is your mother even right? Who can tell in these situations? You wrote what was true to you. What else can you do?

I’d avoid bringing criticism down on my head

So, off the top, you’d censor yourself with respect to the type of story you choose, rein in how outrageous the characters can be, omit acute observations on life that might be controversial, and ensure the ending of the novel is morally satisfying. My god, does that sound like a boring story!

Nothing is ever universally praised or adored, no matter how much we writers wish for it. To write to avoid censure is to shrink your imagination to a timid, fearful thing which can hardly be seen.

My unique world view

I certainly don’t have the answer to this dilemma. The best I’ve come up with for me is that what I write is from my own unique view of the world. I don’t expect everyone to agree with or approve of the writing that comes out of it.

I’m trying to write a compelling story which reflects the truth inside me.

I believe that if you don’t keep yourself or your reality at the center of your writing, you aren’t being you on the page. At most, you’re being who you think people want you to be. And yet, even if you succeed in this dubious goal, they won’t like the finished product. Exactly because it doesn’t reflect the real you and readers can pick that up.

I know, kind of a crummy answer—but the best I can do.