Writing Responsibly

My friend Chris recently blogged about comments I made at our monthly writer's group, and how vulnerability in a community leads to deeper honesty in writing. I wanted to return the compliment by pointing out how a question he posed at that same writer's group helped me reflect more deeply on the writer's call.

My friend asked: What does it mean to create responsibly?

In other words, can we speak in terms of things we should write, and things we shouldn't write? Ways we should write, and ways we shouldn't write? If I have a putrid, pus-oozing ingrown toenail, should I mix its minutiae in a word-cocktail for my reader to sip? Or should I describe instead the particular sensation I experience when I put a pearl earring in my ear? Or should I speak of my toe and my pearl, since both are part of me and only together reveal the whole truth about me?

I have a right to free speech. But "no one can stop me" does not equate to "I should." I can write anything I choose. But that's not enough for me.

I want to write something true, deeply true. I want to take a fact or a feeling and open it up and up and up until a beam from my head-lamp strikes some hidden, glittering thing. Precious because few venture far enough to see it. Precious because it's true, and the mere sight of it heals the lash of lies I have believed.


In the process of unearthing that astonishingly true thing, we will (even if we're writing a fictional account of someone of the opposite gender who lived hundreds in the past or future on the other side of the universe) have to stumble through some portion of our own interior landscape, its glories and its carnage. We'll recognize this landscape because it will stare out from the sentence we've just written, the comma we've just placed.

It can be treacherous terrain.

I've written about Tolkien's idea of the writer as sub-creator. Writing is a god-like activity. We create worlds. But before you start throwing thunderbolts and composing your own litanies, consider this: how tiny you are. Think of how many countries you have not seen. Think of how many ages of history you have not lived through. Think of how many possible types of upbringing you did not have. You are only one little you with your one little life, and you are expected to fulfill the role of a god.

Yet this one little you--the precise combination of things you have seen and not seen, heard and not heard, done and not done, felt and not felt--is not repeated anywhere in the world. This means that if you're able to map out any region of your interior landscape in words, sentences, and paragraphs, you open up to your reader a world he has never known, and could not otherwise have touched.

That world is not isolated from your reader's world; they intersect in a million points, and diverge in a million others. What's interesting is that your reader won't be most deeply moved by the ways your world intersects with hers. She will be most deeply moved by the astonishingly true thing your world has shown her. Maybe it will show her something in her own interior landscape that has been blighted, or barren, or buried under wreckage. And you may alter the map of your reader's soul.

What does it mean to write responsibly? It means to write the astonishingly true thing. And if, wandering our own interior landscape, we discover that the true thing has not yet found a home in us, we must go in search of it.

Is it open for my exploration, the world that contains the truth mine still lacks? Have they been written, the words that will show me what I cannot yet see?

Will you write them?