writing with a conscience

I had to look up the spelling of the word “conscience.” I am usually a very good speller, something I attribute to the amount of reading I have done. I am very used to seeing words written, so I remember the spelling. But I realized today when I began this post, I don’t see the word “conscience” very often. I know I’ve seen it, I know I’ve read about it. But in my everyday life, and in all the words I read online, I truly don’t think the word is used very often. I decided to look it up, because if I had to check the spelling, I figured it would do me good to revisit the meaning. According to wikipedia:

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Moral judgment may derive from values or norms (principles and rules). In psychological terms conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his/her moral values and to feelings of rectitude or integrity when actions conform to such norms. The extent to which conscience informs moral judgment before an action and whether such moral judgments are or should be based in reason has occasioned debate through much of the history of Western philosophy.

Religious views of conscience usually see it as linked to a morality inherent in all humans, to a beneficent universe and/or to divinity. The diverse ritualistic, mythical, doctrinal, legal, institutional and material features of religion may not necessarily cohere with experiential, emotive, spiritual or contemplative considerations about the origin and operation of conscience. Common secular or scientific views regard the capacity for conscience as probably genetically determined, with its subject probably learned or imprinted (like language) as part of a culture.

Commonly used metaphors for conscience include the “voice within” and the “inner light”. Conscience, as is detailed in sections below, is a concept in national and international law, is increasingly conceived of as applying to the world as a whole, has motivated numerous notable acts for the public good and been the subject of many prominent examples of literature, music and film.

One of the aspects to being a writer that I have long understood is the power of language and the written word. You could say that I am hyper-aware of it. I would think that most writers would be aware of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I would also think that most writers would be great readers, but that is not always the case either. Writers are not all of the same mold. Like any subset of artists, there is a wide range in how and why people choose to communicate in their chosen medium.

Because I have been writing and reading for so long, and because I am also analytical by nature, I am sometimes appalled by the things people write. This could be a whole other topic, considering the way “non-writers” write … say, on facebook or in comments of articles and videos or in message boards and forums. I use the term “non-writers” to indicate the level of awareness of the writing process, which is something I suspect others do not think about nearly as much as I do. There is a certain transparency to the way non-writers write that I find very interesting. But sometimes it is actually painful to see the complete lack of awareness that some people have for the power of the written word.

When professional writers display this lack of awareness of (or disregard for) the power of the written word, I feel that they are writing without a conscience. And I suppose one could say, “well who are you to judge whether or not they have a conscience?” To that I would answer, I’m not trying to judge anyone, per se. But this is a topic that I feel so strongly about, writing about it is a way for me to try to make sense of it.

I think these answers vary a bit depending on the type of writing. When we think of journalism, we want those writers to have a conscience. We want to be told the truth of what is going on with our leaders and our world. Yet, we know that writing is not only very powerful, it can also be manipulative. Many journalists portray events in a certain light, and no matter how objective the journalist may try to be, there are inherent biases in perspective. The reader is dependent on the truth-telling of the writer, and many people don’t realize that. The old headline of the New York Times was “all the news that’s fit to print.” Who determines what is fit to print? The industry? The writer? We depend on the conscience of journalists when we receive our news information. Many people aren’t even aware of that.

When we are talking about fiction writing, there seems to be less of a demand for conscience. First of all, fiction is basically an intricate lie. If you agree with Stephen King, then “fiction is the truth inside the lie.” When we start getting into ideas about truth, we are also getting into the territory of conscience. Can you apply right and wrong to fiction?

Recently, I came across a post by a writer who uses a pseudonym. The book she (or he, since it is a pseudonym, it could be either gender) had written was an erotic book. The tagline was something like “She’s 14! She’s hot! She just can’t wait to fuck her mother’s boyfriend behind her back!” And when I saw that, I got angry. I got angry because of what I feel is the writer’s lack of conscience. I have many problems with this. 1) “She” is an underage character, which is taboo, not acceptable in most published erotica, and is against the law in real life. 2) The writer is dipping into incestuous territory – another taboo- this is the “mother’s” boyfriend, which automatically puts him into a fatherly role 3) The writer is encouraging a serious betrayal of a truly terrible kind, damaging to a mother/daughter relationship and also a man/woman relationship 4) Who is exactly going to read this? 5) I just don’t understand why someone would write kind of material.

Is this what the writer is interested in? Is this what the writer likes to write about? Is the writer trying to be edgy because s/he thinks it is cool to write about taboo? Is the writer aware of the potential for damage s/he could cause by making this type of scenario not only acceptable, but sexy? Does the writer have any idea how a 14 year old girl might feel about being put into that role? How about girls who have divorced parents, is this the template to throw out there – hey, have some fun and fuck your mom’s boyfriend! Does the writer care that women who have daughters might consider a sexual relationship between their “boyfriend” and their “daughter” a nightmare scenario? Is the writer writing for the man who is dating a woman and is attracted to her daughter – as a wish fulfillment? (Which is what I suspect, and that makes it even worse to me.)

I have felt this lack of conscience in other books too, and not just the erotic kind. Somehow I came across the book “Gone Girl” and I felt similarly. That book was extremely popular and very well received. People said it was brilliant, so when I came across it, I figured why not. But after I read it, I felt disgusted. I was disgusted by the story. I was disgusted that it was so popular. I felt that obviously the writer could write, but what a thing to write. There was nothing redeeming in that book at all; it was a cleverly told tale of the horrendous capacity for manipulation and cruelty in which people can treat each other in relationships. And life goes on … Okay? Can I have those hours of my life back? This is how you choose to use your gift?

I don’t know why I feel so strongly about this. Am I the one off here? I mean, I feel such a sense of responsibility as a writer. I care deeply about language and I know the power that it holds. I can write anything! I can write a story about the worst taboo being broken and everyone having fun doing it and I could write it beautifully. But I would never do that. I would never want to. Even when I was writing my story about Elizabeth Bathory, I was so conscious of not wanting to glorify her actions. I could have written that story in an entirely different manner. I could have written it so that she was a hero. But it was my conscience and my sense of responsibility that tried to see the humanness in her monstrous behavior, to try to see the themes in her behavior as based in the female experience, and to look at the horror of these human themes taken to the extreme, as she did.

When I was a child, I loved to read. I loved to read more than anything in the world. I would ask my mother to tell my friends that I wasn’t allowed to come out and play, because I wanted to stay in and read. The library was my haven. And to this day, I feel that way about most libraries and book stores. When I walk in, my whole being goes “ah”. I’m home.

Making the move from being a reader to being a writer was done with some trepidation. I respected writers as almost god-like, perfect beings, who wrote books! and had knowledge! Slowly, as I got older, that perception changed as I grew and learned more about the world. Even if I didn’t really like a book, I would read it to the end, figuring the fault had to be with me, not the writer!! There came a day when I said to myself, “why am I reading this? I could write better than this.” And that wasn’t a happy day. It changed my relationship to books forever. The pleasure and joy that books had brought me wasn’t always there anymore. I began to find it frustrating to read some books, to see the places where the story didn’t flow or were confusing, to see the potential and the failings, to see the ways things could be done better. I wanted to be amazed, enriched, enthralled.

And I am, still. I love nothing more than finding writers whose work I enjoy, whether they be contemporary or whether they have written long ago. I love books. To quote Stephen King again, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” I can pick up a book from someone who lived 200 years ago – I am reading their thoughts, I am in their mind. That is an amazing kind of magic, one that expands your understanding of your self, one that can teach you so many things, one that brings to you different worlds and allows you to live multiple lives …

Maybe that is why I feel so angry when I see people who write without conscience. It feels like a total disregard for something that I hold really close and is one of the most important aspects of who I am. I worry about the people reading these kinds of work, what they might be learning from it, what it is teaching them. Maybe I am angry because it seems like society doesn’t care if what people write or what they read has a conscience. Maybe I’m fearful that society doesn’t have much of a conscience either. I was going to end my post there. But that seems too depressing of a note to end on. Instead, I will close with one of my favorite quotes. This is from Anne Lamott:

For some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life…wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”




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