On the Ethics of Being a Writer

“…memory could save, that it had power, that it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized.”

I read a book last year—Alice Sebold’s Lucky. This book is the story of Sebold’s rape and subsequent recovery during her undergraduate college years. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do, write a book in this way. I set to work over the next several months putting together a manuscript, and while it was a good one that is currently on its way to shelves near you (though probably the small ones :D), it was not precisely the story I wanted to tell. It is overarching, a panoramic view that includes my marriage and my son, instead of a focused shot. The prose is good, but it is vague in places; it dances around the topic of rape without really zeroing in. It leaves out specifics that shouldn’t be left out because I wasn’t brave enough when I wrote it to fill in certain blanks. I want to write a book like Sebold’s, a book that follows the experience from beginning to end without holding punches to show the reader that while it does suck, there IS an end.

I believe I’m different now than I was when I wrote my first book, as evidenced by the piece that I presented to my graduate student workshop. I wanted a real critique on my writing, but it terrified me for weeks beforehand. I was worried that it wouldn’t be a good piece in their eyes, but I was more worried that I’d be judged. Neither of those things came to pass. Not only did the piece go over well, (can’t say “was well liked” with a piece of this nature), but it also caused a lot of people to think. A small ethical argument was inspired by my words. If another survivor reads my work, do I insinuate with the setup of that work that rape is the fault of the victim?

As writers, what responsibility do we have to the reader as to the message that we convey to them? After class, I asked this question of several people and got a few responses:

“I do think writers must consider their readers–but that’s not the same as censoring your truth to protect your readers, which seems presumptuous to me, anyway.”

“It seems to me that you intentionally juxtaposed the idea of it being your fault with the act itself to show the reader that, while you thought it at the time, it was in fact NOT your fault.”

“There’s a certain responsibility to women, to motivating them and teaching them that they aren’t objects and that they aren’t responsible when traumatic things happen.”

“If the book you want to write is the whole arch, from start to finish, could it eventually get to the point where the narrator acknowledges where the fault lies? Because as a stand alone piece, there is a chance that the fault could be confused.”

I still don’t know what to think. All I really considered was how I want my words to someday help people. And while this piece doesn’t cross an ethical line, it is a line that I need to remain aware of. In helping, one can also hurt. As Alice Sebold writes, “memory is often the only recourse of the powerless.” I want to use mine. But I also want to be very, very careful that message I am sending with my story is the right one.

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