With just a little effort, we can avoid cruel, discompassionate writing.
This post is in response to a thoughtful, well-written comment sent to me by a reader. It helped me to open my eyes and to be more mindful of what flows out of my pen onto paper.
Never my intention to offend, of course. The human language is a minefield of hidden explosives just ticking towards detonation. Eventually, you will, innocently, step on a reader's toes. It’s how you react to that one person’s reaction that will set in concrete how you move forward, at least to a slight degree. We’re not talking major, life-changing surgery here, but every little bit helps and forms building blocks to improved skills.
Still, as a writer, it has been one of my bylaws or perhaps better said natural inclinations to make sure not to unfairly offend. This differs from say going after an entity who knowingly is causing hurt, either spilling cancer-causing substances into the environment or a politician making self-centered life-changing decisions, the list can go on.
Years ago in a small town in Honduras, I sent the national paper my sentiments on a newly arrived faith group from the US. They printed my words. In it, I shared research shedding light on this organization’s heavy-handedness and under-the-table economic practices. I felt good about alerting an unsuspecting populace, to at least have a sense for the kind of people that had come into our midst all smiley-faced and in one hand gripping bibles while in the other scraping away money from an already impoverished people.
This post in part is in reference to those of us who mistakenly or intentionally and unjustifiably go after an individual or individuals in a way that could be considered cruel, bullying, indicating an utter lack of consideration or compassion.
In fact, some would say why waste the energy or the ink to form a response to your disgruntled reader. It is fair to say that to a certain extent this reader is an extension of you! Surprised? Shouldn’t be too much. After all, when you write for an audience you are knowingly or otherwise casting your fishing net over whoever deigns to read you. Makes sense if you ascribe to the theory of interdependence, as many do.
In a way they, your readers become a part of you. They really do. We’re not islands. The written word is just like the spoken word or the whispered word in art or even the intuited word. Language amongst fellow humans completes us, confirms that we are part of the same fruit tree.
Then there’s the question of responsibility as a writer. To what extent must we as writers feel responsible for our content? At what point in what you’ve written, say the last short story you sent in a few days ago: does it cease being ‘yours’ and becomes part of your readers?
Serious and valid question.
Imagine then what things might look like if we overwhelmingly understood that one’s writings belong to no one other than to the author. Does this mean a writer can exercise and abandon to an extreme where he or she is writing cruel, unkind, untrue things about one’s neighbor or about your town’s mayor?
Oh, of course not that we don’t see it every day, from any number of perspectives. It’s everywhere! Pick up almost any publication! Doesn’t make it right.
Still food for thought, right?
Right now, a reader who took the time to read one of my stories commented on what appears to be a complete dismissal of my wife’s feelings regarding something I wrote. In other words, there was no implication of my wife beside the fact that I was purchasing something for her from a lingerie store.
Here’s the cruncher: after reading the reader’s comment, said nicely enough, graciously I might say, pointing out my lack of consideration to my wife, it brought me immediate pause. The way she wrote her comment didn’t give room for an offended reaction on my part. Rather, her comment left the question hanging skillfully, as though leaving it very much up to me if I shouldn’t think over what I said.
Think over what I said is exactly what I did. My conclusion is that my reader is right in this particular case. Goes without saying I’ve read other writers, readers, commentary which are completely overboard, and unfair. Reactionary and inflammatory. This was not the case with my reader.
I have learned something.
Rephrasing perhaps, I should say, that her comment got me to dwell over the one or two lines my reader found offensive. I have found her perspective to be right on. Putting the shoe on the other foot, I saw instantly that for the lack of something more erudite: what I said was totally out of line, and though utterly not intending any harm was lacking in consideration for my incredible wife.
I am thankful for readers that have an eye open, for those readers who will take their gut-felt reaction to the page and public forum.
By agreeing with my reader, I even feel as though a previously unknown weight has been lifted off of my shoulders!
But it took the reader to highlight the ill-guided words. What scares me most is what else have I written that perhaps could have been worded in a wiser and more compassionate manner.
I am grateful.
A final observation is the flip side to the expected reactions on the part of our readers. That being that it can go too far and can dangerously swing into that dismal zone of censure and judgment. Especially in today’s environment, regardless of where one may sit on the political spectrum. While there is absolutely a necessity for readers to help writers watch what they say to help avoid causing hurt or pain or false accusations, as with everything in this life, there is a limit.
There is that point where the critic becomes much worse than the written ‘infraction’, and though this was far from the experience I’ve had it's good to keep eyes open.
As a last word, I am thankful for my readers, every single one. Perhaps especially so to readers such as the thoughtful individual who showed her very clear and on-the-mark reaction to what I wrote. It pleases me to say that in my writers’ tool kit I’ve added yet another tool: ‘stop, think it through before committing it on paper, and be more considerate…’