The writer’s ethical dilemma

Admittedly, being a writer is not a strenuous job. It doesn’t require me to leave my bed, nor talk to people in a cheery voice. Expressing my innermost feelings, which some take to be a brave feat, is actually just cathartic. In fact, revealing details about myself has turned out to be the easiest way to avoid criticism. In this sense, I am cowardly.

Writing is a selfish occupation, and though I write with the hope that in sharing my experiences people feel less alone, I end up hurting the ones I love most. It’s one thing to talk about depression or my angst. But I am also guilty of bringing into the fold the imperfections and misbehaviors of those closest to me, so that I can reflect on what I have learned from them or offer a more authentic picture of myself. I tell myself I do so because being truthful about what I’ve experienced seems like a writer’s obligation. As soon as I begin censoring my words, I feel like I’m betraying a reader’s trust by committing the lie of omission. At least, this is what I tell myself.

I realize it’s not just the writer’s dilemma, but the artist’s. Does Taylor Swift go through the same ethical dilemma when she chooses to write a spiteful song about a former lover, the identity of whom is only thinly veiled? Surely, she must have resolved that dilemma long ago, since most of her songs seem to be rebukes against former flames. But no one, I suspect, would accuse her of being selfish or exploitative. Most would say she’s entitled to expressing herself. Joe Jonas broke up with her by text message. Is it not her right to express her anger in a song, or does that take the revenge too far? Doesn’t broadcasting Joe Jonas’s cowardice and insensivity to the world seem a little unfairly matched to his original sin? When put like this, it does seem a little cruel. Then again, a song like this has no doubt given solace to thousands of teenage girls who’ve been broken up with. Does the comfort she provided all those girls outweigh the hurt she caused Joe Jonas? At the end of the day, I’d prefer she keep writing these diatribes against famous men like John Mayer and Taylor Lautner. For her to stop writing would be a pity, many would agree; it would deprive her audience, teenaged girls navigating through the discomforts of adolescence, of sisterly guidance, of a voice that gently reminds them: “You’re not the only one,” and “If I can get through this, you can too.”

Then again, writing about an ex-boyfriend seems like a territory of its own. He hurt you, and in that sense, you have a right to hurt him back. Where the ethical dilemma becomes fuzzier is when it’s a matter of writing about someone you love and who has not necessarily done anything to hurt you. There’s a great story by David Sedaris, “Repeat After Me,” that’s about his guilt about writing about his sister. In the story, he writes about her nuances, neurotic tendencies, personal details of her life; all the while, she is noticeably tepid and guarded, afraid that should she reveal something about herself her brother will go and put it into writing. At one point, he reflects:

“In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love voluntarily chose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talk shows. I’m not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle.”

In the end, he cannot bear to stop writing about his loved ones; this he admits with both helplessness and guilt. He has accepted, albeit with much reluctance and self-delusion, that being a writer may harm the innocent. Would I want him to stop writing? Like many, I get a kick out of reading about his neurotic family; it makes me feel like it’s okay to not have a picture-perfect nuclear family. But is it selfish of me to disregard those who were hurt in the making, the people whose imperfections he has written about to alleviate shame of my own?

There was a story, a few years back, about an artist named Larry Rivers who recorded videos of his two young daughters, naked, as he asked them how they felt about their developing breasts. The daughters, now grown, were pressing NYU to remove them from their archives and return them to their possession. They attributed years of psychological trauma and anorexia to these videos. Of course, I said to myself at the time, they should give the videos back to the women. I didn’t even hesitate. Yet this too, not unlike the Sedaris story, raises the question of to what extent an artist is entitled to use the vulnerabilities of others in the name of art. Why am I okay with David Sedaris writing about the insecurities of his sister and not okay with an artist documenting puberty vis-a-vis his daughters? It goes beyond the uncomfortable child pornography implications. Is it that these videotapes have less value to the audience? After all, their motivation isn’t to help the viewer come to terms with his or her own experience with puberty or bodily insecurities. Rather, it makes us think about the nature of puberty in conceptual terms, not unlike an artist who does a series about a chair to complicate our understanding of what a chair is. Does this then suggest that the audience is a rather selfish creature who justifies the potential hurt caused by certain creative works based on their use-value to the audience itself? Am I quick to excuse Taylor Swift and David Sedaris because their work, though hurtful to a select few, gives me guidance and comfort? Conversely, am I critical of Larry Rivers because his art doesn’t have enough value to me personally to justify the hurt he caused his subjects?

What are your thoughts about this? Is occasionally hurting those closest to you a necessary evil of being a writer? Or can a writer avoid this, and still not compromise his or her truthfulness? Does the comfort of many justify the hurt of one? I ask because I don’t know. In trying to be selfless with my honesty, I have been utterly selfish when it comes to my human subjects. I am not ready to undertake the lie David Sedaris repeats to himself. But if I am to be a real writer, will I have to?

About Alex Bayer

  • http://www.facebook.com/darren.williams.716195 Darren Williams

    A note to the writer: David’s brother is Paul, not Hall.

  • Alex Bayer

    Thanks for catching that–just edited it!

  • Clevinger

    Perhaps you could try writing fiction?

  • http://www.facebook.com/darren.williams.716195 Darren Williams

    Sure thing. Repeat After Me is one of my favorite DS essays.

  • Amandine Dupin

    In many novels, the writer includes characteristics of several acquaintances into a single character. Friends and relatives may see something of themselves in the writer’s work, but there is not enough of a friend or loved one to cause undue embarrassment. In historical novels, fictional characters encounter real historical characters and react to real historical events. The observations of the author with real people makes the fiction more realistic. In my current novel, the main character George encounters real people on the Stanford campus in the 1960s, but his romantic life is pure fiction. (After finals, you might take a look at http://www.georgethenovel.wordpress.com. But now is the time for serious studying.)