Readers of my articles will know that as a rule I tend to eschew profanity. Not judging those who use it, just it is not part of my personal style.
This article is going to use several Family-unfriendly words. Be warned.
I recently read a Facebook post encouraging someone to write a story that the author was worried might offend people. The advice boiled down to, “Write what you want, follow the story wherever it goes, and never worry about offending people. Anyone offended has the problem, not you.”
This is unmitigated horseshit.
The greatest, most important power a writer has is to create communities. Writing — indeed, any artistic form —IS emotive; one of its strengths is to create emotion where none existed before, or to strengthen pre-existing emotions. But that is not its primary purpose; it is a tool through which its purposes are achieved.
Writers wield the extraordinary power to tell stories which (when done correctly) weave themselves into the DNA of our psyches. They become a part of us in a way no less real than our eye color, or the shapes of our cheekbones… and in a way that is far more influential in our lives then a great many chromosomal markers.
Storytelling is the oldest non-biological practice in which humans have engaged. The religious speak of the origins of our species as outlined in holy writ. From a scientific standpoint, the earliest examples of humanity survived and thrived not because of their hunting prowess or their physical attributes — people are quite clumsy and weak compared to other apex predators — but because they could tell stories of where to find food, how to build weapons, and the like.
Eventually those stories grew to include great questions — where does lightning come from? Why does this animal attack us? Where did the world come from? And from those questions grew mythologies, creation stories, and more. Stories that did more than influence cultures, they CREATED them.
Storytelling is, without doubt, the greatest human power.
Even today, the greatest decisions are made based on stories: we should attack such-and-such country because we are Good and they are Evil. We marry this person instead of that because this person has stories similar to our own, or that complement our own in ways we deem important. We send a child to a particular college, because it has an important place in our own story, and we will wish that story to live on in our children.
The greatest power we wield. Bar none. And to quote the great poet-philosopher, Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Writers MUST think about what the effect of their stories will be.
And, like it or not, that includes questions of whether or not others will be offended. If for no other reason then because an offended person is less likely to listen to our stories, and certainly less likely to believe them. Alienating a person literally means we make of them The Other — the outsider; the one we fear and, if we feel threatened enough to buy them, the one we kill or who will try to kill us.
More than that strictly pragmatic consideration, however, is this: writers are storytellers — every last one of them, for what it’s writing if not a means to convey information: the important stories we wish to have passed around, and those most likely to outlive us?
And again, the greatest power of the storyteller is to create community, which means they CREATE THE WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE.
It then behooves us to consider every possible result of the stories we tell. Sometimes offending is a necessary part of telling a story… but that should not happen as an unthinking or unintended outcome, rather as a predetermined part of our purpose in telling the story. It is not nearly that we should consider whether others will be offended, it is that we MUST do so. Because that and other results, again, forge the path not only of our world, but that of others. To say we deserve to hold that power without considering its effects has the moral equivalency of saying anyone with the physical ability to hold a gun deserves to pull the trigger at any time, on any whim, to any effect.
Actually, the above comparison is wrong. It is a far MORE reckless, negligent act to toss out stories without considering the result or the effect on other people. Because ultimately, if I go around shooting a gun, I WILL run out of bullets. I WILL only be able to hurt or kill a certain number of people. And that number is relatively small compared to the potential effect of a story loosed.
A story loosed can hurt or kill MILLIONS. Anyone who doubts this need only look at history, filled with powerful men and women who slaughtered millions in pursuit of whatever mad story they peddled. “All Jews are evil, and they caused the damage we suffer here in Germany.“ “Those people are all enemies of the state, and to let them live will result in our way of life disappearing.“ “That religion is full of heathen, evil creatures who deserve death because they refuse to acknowledge the power of our God.”
A story loosed could destroy all of us: “If we don’t nuke them, they will do it to us, or perhaps they wouldn’t, but they deserve it” (the words “they deserve it” always carry with them and implicit story meant to validate our assessment of their punishment).
If your only intention in writing a story is to write it, and you burn it immediately after and never tell that story again, then you have much greater support for your claim that the offensiveness or other effects of that story need not be considered — though even then I would argue that it’s a reckless behavior. Cemeteries are full of the bodies of those who told horrible stories about themselves until the only rational response was to destroy the life those stories taught had no value or was a blight upon the earth.
Whenever I hear someone who says, “I never consider what this story will do; it is my art, and I follow my art for its own sake,” I cannot help but think that that is someone who either does not know or understand how powerful they are, or who simply is an asshole.
And yes, I use that last word purposefully. I use it knowing its possible offensiveness, and deeming that offensiveness necessary for the purpose of the story I here tell. Which purpose is NOT to offend for its own sake… but the fact is that anyone who blindly holds to their “principles” (artistic or otherwise) without considering its resultant effects is a zealot. And such a person, willing to inflict harm because of no better reason then their own desire and determined never to control themselves, is someone whom I believe should be clearly labeled as something anathematic, so that others will know to avoid a rabid wolf in their midst.
Writers can change the world. We do that with infinite possible stories. No tool is off-limits, but some outcomes hurt the world, and should be avoided.
To anyone who says, “Someone who doesn’t follow their art for its own sake isn’t a real writer,” (something that I hear often in conjunction with the “follow your story” idiocy), I guess I am not a real writer. Which will probably come as a shock to the hundreds of thousands of people who have read my books and articles, seen the movies I have written, or who voted to make me a finalist or semi-finalist or the like in things like the Nicholl Fellowship (arguably the most elite screen writing competition in the world) or the Bram Stoker Award.
And if being a “writer” means sacrificing my responsibility to leave the world a better place than it was when I entered it, then I am and always will be PROUD to not be a writer.