These days, I don't read nearly as much as I would like to. But when I do find the time and the motivation to lose myself in a book, it is often one on the art of writing. Why? Because I am rookie and a work-in-progress and eager to improve. Because I am obsessively curious about the experiences and tactics of other writers. Because, in reading good books on craft, I glean tips on writing.
One of my favorite writing books is Norman Mailer's The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. I love this book for many reasons, but largely because Mailer wrote it toward the end of his career and of his life. He wrote it looking back. Ultimately, this vantage point lends a compelling critical honesty about life and literary lessons learned. In this book, Mailer writes,
Anyone who worries about whether he is going to hurt somebody's feelings by his work is no more a writer than a surgeon who says to himself, "In making this incision, I am going to give this woman a scar on her belly that could injure her love life for the next thirty years." The surgeon just makes the cut. He may be right or wrong in the need for the operation, but he keeps a necessary insensitivity to the rest of the context. Writers also have their own kind of restricted vision. They cannot afford to say to themselves, "This portrait is going to scar my good friend." Or my father. Or my sister. If they feel such sentiments, they can't write. Indeed, a great many young writers think of all the people they're going to hurt or, worse, those they're going to make enemies of, and, full of funk, begin to brood on the retribution that will ensue. So there has to be something a bit maniacal about a young man or woman who would be an exciting writer. He or she has to be willing to get that book out no matter how many psychic casualties are left in its passage. On the other hand, a good young young writer does well not to take an immediate advantage over people he dislikes by dumping on them in his pages. It's a bad habit to cash such easy checks. Ergo, the moral vision of the young writer is on a tightrope.
Alas, a dilemma. For me. And maybe for you too?
I want to be an exciting writer. I do. I want to tell stories stuffed with reality. I want to be productive. And yet. I worry - all the time - about the effects my words will have. Who will see themselves in the pages of my novel? Who will be hurt by a particularly raw blog post? Who are the psychic casualties of my creations?
Mailer's words in the passage above hit me. They also haunt me. Because I do not think I will ever be that insensitive surgeon he conjures, slicing away without pondering the possible scope of psychic scars. I don't think I will ever achieve that stark level of insensitivity Mailer seems to prescribe. Does this mean I will never be the writer I could be?
Thankfully, even Mailer seems to acknowledge the grays here. It is one thing to write honestly and openly without undue anxiety about harming others. It is another thing to write without filter, dumping the contents of our heads and hearts - however hurtful and harmful - onto that blank page or blank screen.
Alas, Mailer's tightrope. And the writer's dilemma. And the blogger's dilemma.
Wait. It's not just the writer's dilemma or the blogger's dilemma.
This is the person's dilemma.
How do we make decisions and take actions and live our lives freely and fully without being paralyzed by a fear of harming others, of scarring souls and selves dear (and less dear) to us?
- As a writer or blogger (writers are bloggers are writers), do you worry about whom your words might affect?
- Have you ever felt creatively or personally paralyzed by a fear of harming others?
- Do you agree with Mailer that we need to achieve a certain modicum of insensitivity in order to become nuanced and exciting writers (and people)?
- Has anything you have ever written hurt someone you love?
- How do we fashion a balance between creative freedom and interpersonal respect?
- Do you enjoy reading writing books? Any favorites?