Writing Ethics

Today, something slightly odd is on my mind. Despite this, though, I’m confident that someone, somewhere, has thought about this very same issue and has come up with some conclusions, so I just want to throw this post out into the ether and hope for the best. In a lot of ways, today’s question is related to the ideas I talked about here, but I think it deserves its own post.

Here it is. Do you ever worry about the ethics of what you write?

A couple of days ago, I started writing a short story. It began innocently enough, with my narrator reminiscing about a lovely summer she’d experienced as a child, where the sky was always blue and most of her time was spent on the beach, or hanging out with her friends. However, as the story progressed I realised I was doing something rather larger than writing a short story. I was, in fact, talking to myself about something that had actually happened, a real-life tragedy; I was writing a fictionalised memoir of a very sad event that took place in my home town a long time ago. As a result I began to wonder if it was right, or fair, or proper, for me to take an event like that and use it as I saw fit in order to create a piece of writing out of it. I’m still not sure.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Image: amazon.co.uk

The very sad event in question involved a tragic accident where young lives were lost, suddenly and terribly. Of course, I realise that the story I wrote may never (and, for a variety of reasons, probably never will) be read by any eyes except mine, so the issue is largely moot, but the question is still nagging at me. Is it fair, or right, to make use of real-life events, particularly sad events, to create a story?

The story I wrote doesn’t slavishly follow each detail of the event as it actually happened, but creates a world where a similar accident takes place. Characters are invented, timelines are shifted around, and the people in the story are older than the real-life players. Nevertheless it is, I suppose, my attempt at fumbling my way through the jumble of emotions that I obviously still carry with me surrounding this event. I know most stories have a grain of truth somewhere in them, and may be sparked off by a real-life happening, but I’ve never before written a story which had such a firm basis in fact. I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do again. I feel, in some ways, like it’s a violation of the memory of those who passed away, and that it’s disrespectful to their families and those who dearly loved them. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure why my feelings run so deep. Perhaps it’s just because of the emotive subject itself, and the particular loss that I remember experiencing at the time.

Another story I’m currently working on features a child – probably about twelve or so – who is being bullied at school. I’m trying to create a story where the child finds the courage to stand up to his bullies, but I’m concerned about whether that’s the ‘right’ thing to do or not. Should a story ‘teach’ a child to take certain actions in the face of aggressive behaviour? Should the story fall in line with whatever is stated in the official guidelines provided by schools, or failing that, the State, or whomever else? I’ve written this story, and I’m happy with it, but I’m hesitating to send it around to publishers. I’m just not sure it’s right, and I’m also not sure if I should be worrying so much about this issue.

I realise writers can’t tailor their work to suit an agenda, and they have to write whatever they feel drawn to. Despite this, do any of the questions I’m raising here make sense to anyone else? If you’ve experienced an ethical dilemma in your work, how did you solve it? Do you even agree that what I’m describing counts as an ‘ethical’ dilemma? Writing shouldn’t be didactic, of course, but I think it can sometimes be a fine line when the audience you’re writing for is composed of children and their parents. While what you’re writing shouldn’t teach, or preach, I’m not sure it should exhibit behaviours or thought processes which would be alien to the children’s experience or their parents’ wishes either.

I think I’m going to put away my story about the summer, and leave it to posterity. It will be my private memorial to a quiet, personal pain. Even if it’s not unethical to write a story based around a sad event like this one, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to make work like that public. Perhaps I feel this way because of the nature of the event itself; I’m wondering if this whole issue is bothering me so much because the event is one that had an impact on my life when I was at an impressionable age. Perhaps tragedies that are devastatingly personal (as opposed to historical events, for instance) shouldn’t be made use of in order to create art. Having said that, of course, I didn’t set out to write a story around this particular event – it came, fully formed, out of my brain. So, if there’s something in my mind that needs to be said, who am I to deny it the chance to be expressed?

*sigh* Back to square one.

Opinions? Comments? Flying tomatoes? I’d love to hear your views.

9 thoughts on “Writing Ethics

  1. sarahgracelogan

    This is a debate which, I think, has raged a long time and will continue to do so, both in general and specifically in writers’ minds. When you say that it’s a personal tragedy rather than a historical event, I actually disagree with you completely. Every historical event was very personal to the people involved. Nowadays many are beginning to think of the Holocaust as a historical event, but many, many others still view this as a deeply personal tragedy. The same is true of every thing that’s ever happened in history. It’s personal to someone.

    Not that I come here with any answers! At the moment I’m writing a lot of short stories that are quite autobiographical, and while I’m comfortable sharing little bits of memories, they necessarily involve friends and family members – how much do I bend the truth for their sake? How honest can I be without hurting them? It’s a difficult situation to be in. If you feel that you’re happy keeping this story to yourself, that it’s more about you expressing something you felt/feel, then I’d write it however you like.

    To be honest, I might say write it however you like anyway, it depends on who will see it and how important it is to you to tell that story. For me, I think it’s more important I tell these stories and just hope my friends/family will understand that, and that it’s just my point of view.

    Regarding the story about bullying – I believe that parents who are strongly concerned about what their children are reading and how it influences them will generally check books out first before handing them over. Sometimes, sure, kids might read something they shouldn’t, or that gives them ideas their parents wouldn’t like, but at the end of the day no child will act out of their nature. If it’s not in their nature to stand up to a bully and punch him/her, they won’t. If it was something they might have done anyway, it was probably a matter of time and something would’ve pushed them into it. Either way, they’ve learned about life and a story has helped with that. Children are smart enough to see through motivations in stories and know instinctively how to respond.

    Also, I think it’s more important to write a story that speaks to a child than not. I was bullied in school and through most of secondary I was very lonely: books spoke to me. Bullied characters in books were my allies, and even if I didn’t stand up sometimes, it was enough that they had.


    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Excellent response – thank you so much! Your comments on the bullying story are particularly helpful, because I really feel this one has something to it, and I wanted (despite my misgivings) to try to get it ‘out there’ into the world. Of course parents will check their child’s reading material (or, at least, they should), but I hadn’t thought about how comforting it can be to a child to read about another child going through the same things they’re experiencing. Thank you for reminding me of that.

      I’m going to be thinking about this issue for a while to come, but your comments will be such a help. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Kate Curtis

    *breathes* You’re post is probably unintentionally poignant – but poignant it is. You are probably over thinking it, but at the same time, I recognise your concerns and your desire to be respectful of a sad event. However, you’re not writing a comic parody, you’re writing something equally sad, and honest and reminiscent of a memory. Is this disrespectful? I don’t feel so. Just honest. Probably heartbreakingly honest.

    If in doubt, put yourself in the shoes of someone you think could be most hurt by it and read it again. There can be healing in sadness. xx

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thank you, Kate. Yes, you’re right – I probably am over-thinking it. Your suggestion about reading the story as though I was someone who could be hurt by it is a useful one, and I’ll do that. I hope I’ve changed enough detail for the story to be different from the real event, while still honouring the memory of those who were lost, but I guess I can never be sure of that.

      Then, the chances of any of the bereaved (or indeed anyone!) reading the story is small. However, the bigger question of whether it’s appropriate to make use of real events like this for fictional purposes is one that interests me, regardless. Thanks so much for your thoughts. xx

  3. aanderand

    If writers didn’t use real events as basis for their fiction, then we would have no fictional stories to tell. To me the role of the writer, in civilization, is to hold the mirror up to that civilization and show it what might have gone unoticed. If your writing is pure and true, then, there is no dishonor.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I think that last line – ‘if your writing is pure and true, then there is no dishonor’ should be the motto of all writers everywhere. Thank you, Rand.

  4. susan_lanigan (@susan_lanigan)

    Hi Sinead!

    The answer to your question is yes, it occasionally comes up. For instance I had a story out on sub that had made at least one shortlist, but then Life Imitated Art and an event similar to the one it discussed and satirised came up, and under the circumstances, I decided to stop subbing the story. I will probably never submit it again, which is a pity, but it’s for the best, especially as my style of writing is particularly dark.

    Have you heard of Kevin Power’s Bad Day in Blackrock? That’s an example of a novel based on a real event and it spawned a film called What Richard Did. I’m not sure if I feel the event could have been a bit more fictionalised or not. I do know that you can preserve a lot of things about a tragedy if you are careful to tweak identifying details. And as Robert Graves says, “there is one story and one story only”. The one thing I am finding out about my novel, particularly in relation to mental illness, is that there the one burning story demanding to be told that is relevant for both those times and these times.

    If one wants to avoid libel, one could change appearance, sex, geographical location, timeframe. The emotion remains unchanged.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Hi Susan,

      Not only do I know the book, ‘Bad Day in Black Rock’, I was at university with the author. We did our graduate degrees together. We were friends then, but I haven’t seen him in several years. I have a personalised, signed first ed. of ‘Bad Day…’ among my books, and I happen to think it’s a very good piece of work. I’ve yet to see ‘What Richard Did’ but I will see it at some stage.

      Also, what a good point you made by bringing up that particular book. Of course, its story reflects a terrible event in modern Ireland, but does so in such a way that the relevance of its message is clear. I remember having a discussion with the author about having to clear the MS with his lawyer, many years ago, and how he made sure to change as much as he could about the detail, while keeping the emotion and grief in place – much the same as what you suggested here.

      Where that story had huge relevance for modern Celtic Tiger (as was) Ireland, though, my story probably serves no higher purpose than allowing me to let out some long-held grief. I think avoiding causing any potential pain should outweigh that.

      But thanks so much for your thoughts. Really useful for my future creative dilemmas! 🙂

  5. anna3101

    You raise an issue that I feel very strongly about – as a reader. I never had such a dilemma because all of the writing I do is pure fiction. As a reader, however, I’ve seen numerous articles accusing numerous writers (both talented and not) of various sins, such as:
    – forcing young girls to think that being passive is ok (Twilight)
    – damaging poor young children’s brains with tales of death and magic (Harry Potter)
    – tainting the memory of the dead (any book about 9/11)
    – accustoming young readers to violence (Hunger Games)
    etc etc
    As much as I hate Twilight and books of its kind, I think all of those accusations are bullshit. These are books, not treatises on how to behave and what to do. It’s up to the reader to decide how he lives his/her life. Why blame the author?

    It’s exactly the same thing that annoys me so much about overbearing parents forbidding their children to play violent computer games and allowing them nothing but educational ones. Those who want to punch their classmates will do it – even if all their games and books are about cute fluffy bears. Those who want to do good will do good, even they play war with their friends. I think people demonize the influence of books and games simply because they like to point the finger at someone else – but not at themselves. Personally, I know plenty of people who played violent games and read bloodthirsty thrillers (I am one of them, by the way :)) and did not become bullies, aggressors, killers, thieves or anything even close.

    As for real stories, I really see no fault with telling them. Quite on the contrary – I think they must be told. It is the responsibility of those who heard about them, witnessed them, took part or simply felt touched by them to tell the tale. So that others can learn. So that the tragedy is honoured and remembered. So that those who died live on in our memory.


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