What Cannot a Writer Do?

You’ve probably been told that all the things that happen to you as a writer, good or bad, you can write about. You’ve also probably been told that people who treat you badly should be careful because you, as a writer, can reveal to the world, through fact or fiction, how you’ve  been mistreated.

Well, both of these statements are true. However, the second statement comes with conditions and consequences.

For instance, someone verbally and emotionally abuses you at work. So you want to write a story talking about that. Fine. Don’t use anyone’s real name. Why? Because if it’s printed, which includes Ebooks and paper books, as well as audio books, and film and television,  it’s slander. And slandering someone in fact or fiction, where it’s “printed”, becomes libel. And slanderous and libelous works can be sued.

Likewise, even if you don’t use the person’s real name but describe him or her too well, for instance “he was short and fat, his cheeks puffy and red all the time, his nose was bent towards his right eye, his hair was cut short, he grunted as he talked, he smirked more than smiled, when he walked, it was as a cowboy walked, bow-legged…” if that’s a fairly accurate description of your bully or abuser,  you’re screwed.

See, in a criminal case, the prosecution has to prove motive and guilt. But in a civil case, such as a lawsuit, the opposing counsel only has to prove intent. If you actually intended to punish this person for his or her treatment of you, your abuser could quite possibly sue you for everything you own, and maybe much more. You could spend the rest of your life paying off your legal debt.

You might think or say, “What’s the good of writing if I can’t get even with my enemies?” Well, let’s consider this for a moment. You might have heard the phrase, “don’t get mad, get even!” But what’s the good of that? Does it make you feel better about yourself? That you’ve defeated or destroyed your persecutor? That you’ve proven that you’re better than him/her?

Well, maybe it does. But so what? What good have you done?

Actually, all it creates is a circle of revenge and getting even. If you punish your persecutor, doesn’t he or she feel persecuted by you and might seek to do the same to you? In the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, and Asia, you have these feuds (even everywhere in the world) that go back generations, if not hundreds or thousands of years.  Is getting even really worth it.

If a family member, your mother perhaps, or a sibling, or one of your children, slighted you, would you spend your whole life trying to get even? And if you did get even, wouldn’t they feel justified in doing the same to you? What are you willing to sacrifice for revenge?

Okay, maybe we’re spending too much time talking philosophy here. The point is, writers cannot blatantly punish someone. If you don’t like President Trump, or President Obama or President George Bush or his daddy, or Clinton or Nixon or JFK or Lincoln or George Washington, you cannot just make them into bad guys or portray them in bastardly ways. Somewhere, they’ll have family members, or organizations, that hold any one of them in high esteem and they can sue you for slander.

Is getting even worth owing millions of dollars that you can never pay off? Wouldn’t it be better to write a story that portrays the kind of abuse you’ve suffered and someway of dealing with it, where the character or characters rise above it? Where they made a better life for themselves rather than remaining victims all their lives?

But, of course, don’t make the villain resemble in any way your own abuser or abusers.

As writers, we are all enamored of becoming famous, of being recognized, of making money and maybe of gaining riches and fans and whatever else we dream of. But writing is so much more than that. It’s more than living the adventures through our characters that we want to live. Writing has social responsibility to it.

Writing can reveal the best in us and the worst in us. Writing can help heal individuals and societies, or at least start that healing.

So many people today want to be Social Justice warriors, but too many of them are hung up in their own fears and hatreds. Many of them just want to get even. But writing can help shape societies and world views.

However, it takes dedication to change the world. And not just dedication, but good thinking, good writing, good editing, and humility. But so many writers get stuck on themselves. They fall in love with themselves. They think that people will read whatever they write, regardless if it’s just pure trash.

It takes courage, character, integrity, maturity, and wisdom to be an effective Social Justice writer. Think of Charles Dickens. Most people don’t think of him as a Social Justice warrior. They think of him in relation to his novel, “A Christmas Carol.” But he wrote of the failings of the early Industrial Revolution and how people were getting left behind by it in stories such as “Oliver Twist”, “Great Expectations”, and even “A Christmas Carol”. And he wrote about the horrors of the French Revolution in “A Tale of Two Cities.”

And then there’s Erich Maria Remarque, a German soldier who survived World War One and wrote of his experiences in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, quite possibly the finest war novel ever written.

And consider H. G. Wells, who wrote “The Invisible Man”, about a researcher who invents a serum that makes him invisible and how he commits the most horrendous crimes because no one can prove that he did them. Wells’ main theme is how absolute power corrupts absolutely through invisibility. Leaders can send out killers to do their dirty work, commit assassinations and no one’s the wiser.

And consider “Valley of the Dolls” written back in the 1960s, about young actresses in Hollywood and the drugs and sexual encounters they have while trying to become stars. It’s not just about sex, it’s about how these young women were used and abused in the search for fame..

There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of books like that. “Doctor Zhivago” isn’t just about love and romance, it’s about the Russian Revolution and its horrors.

The thing that disappoints me the most is that the most common story line in American fiction is the revenge tale. As Americans, we’ve come to believe that getting even is our national and personal right. Even romance novels have revenge tales in them.

In the Summer of 2016, all those shootings of police officers in the Midwest were people getting even. They felt either that it was their God-given right, or as Social Justice warriors, they had obligation to punish others for wrongs that weren’t necessarily done to them.

It’s said that Americans glorify violence. In fact, we glorify revenge.  And the irony is, that even as we glorify it for ourselves, even as we’re getting even with someone, someone else may be planning to get even with us.

Maybe the idea I’m really writing about in this post isn’t so much about getting even or not, or slander or not, but being mindful of the consequences of what we do as writers. We can influence readers, good or bad, and we’re all guilty, we’re all dirty, when we disregard the impact our words can have on others just so we can make money or have a good time.

See you out there.

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