I went to collect my mum-in-law from the computer shop where I had dropped her prior to doing my grocery shopping. Parked right outside the door, expecting to see her in the doorway. Nowhere. So I went into the shop.
Overzealous store assistant: “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for my mother-in-law.”
(Straight-faced) “I’m sorry, we don’t sell those here.”
Don’t worry, I did find her. We laughed about it in the car on the way home, and again when we told my father-in-law, and again when we told The Dude.
“That’s hilarious,” he said, “You should write a blog about that.”
And therein lies the trouble, sometimes.
Writing is fun, and the particular fun of the blog is that it can be anything you want it to be. I could have written that story any way I wanted; taken one event and cast it a thousand different ways. Made a fool of the store assistant (who was only doing his job), my mother-in-law, or myself. Turned it into a social commentary about relationships, or technology, or identity. It was all of these things, and none of these things. It was a funny conversation with a man in a shop, and it was over in ten seconds flat. It has taken longer to describe than it took to unfold.
Of course, that’s part of the fun – the turning an event into a lesson – whether or not it was ever meant to be that. Making stories out of events, deriving meaning from nothingness is part of the charm of being human. But we do need to be careful that the meaning that we extract, and which we send forth into the ether, is something that we would be willing to stake our reputation upon for the foreseeable future. Ethics, and all that.
So, here are some of my ethical considerations.
- The Internet is forever. Be careful about how you describe your children. They will be reading that in twenty years. Always remember that they are worth every struggle. Even if sometimes you feel as though they aren’t, you have to write that they are. Because really, they are. Always and forever.
- People see themselves in things you write, even when you’re not writing about them. Sometimes this is brilliant. Sometimes not. Sometimes they won’t believe you when you tell them you haven’t written about them. What will you do if/when that happens?
- You will be misinterpreted and misunderstood. When strangers do this, it is not a problem. When it is not strangers, it can be more of a problem. Will you change your message to keep the people happy?
- Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. If you write about something that happened to you, be sure to write something that you are willing to defend. (“But I write such nice, positive uplifting stuff, about nothing much in particular. I shouldn’t have to defend anything.” Yeah, I thought that too.)
- Don’t write about things that it is not your place to write about. If somebody asks you not to write about something, respect that, as much as your principles allow. There is no harm in not writing about the time your friend managed to get the whole serving spoon in her mouth. But what about when keeping silent damages your integrity? And how do you decide if that’s what’s happening?
- You never know all the facts, and there is always another opinion. If somebody doesn’t agree with what you’ve written, don’t take offence. At least they’re engaging with your ideas. There’s no need to get personal. This goes for the readers too. And what do you do if things do get personal?
- What are the limits of what you would write about? What would it take to silence you? And why that?
- Sometimes strong emotion can inspire brilliant writing. Just because it’s brilliant, doesn’t mean you should stick it on your blog right away. Think a little – is the timing a little insensitive? Sometimes the same writing can be posted a few weeks later without the collateral damage. (“But I only wrote what I felt. I didn’t think anybody would get upset. I didn’t write anything about them.” Yeah, got that t-shirt too.) My blog is littered with posts that were written in frustration, and then posted weeks later with only minor alterations. It makes a world of difference.
- Respect goes a long way. Respect yourself. Respect others, as much as their actions enable you to. Respect your message. Respect your readers.
And here’s a bonus writing tip: I’ve heard it said, write what you know. I disagree. Write what you love. Life’s more interesting that way.