I, like many writers, have a moral purpose behind my writing.
This is not to say that I’m trying to write Moll Flanders or The Scarlet Letter or anything. I don’t write to try to improve the Moral Condition of my audience and to teach them Lessons.
But I do write with the aim of doing what stories can do best: Open people’s eyes to the world and the humanity of others. Make them laugh at or gasp at something which reveals themselves to themselves. Allow them to feel understood by seeing stories that reflect themselves. Giving them fantasies to aspire to. Just plain entertaining them after a hard day of work.
I want people to read, listen to or watch the stories I create and leave a little bit happier in some way, if not outright edified and more open-minded to their fellow human beings. It’s not a stretch to say that, in my wildest dreams, I hope that the absorption of my stories into the culture at large would make people everywhere just a little bit more likely to treat their fellow humans better. I don’t think I can stop wars, political squabbles, greed and ignorance with a few tragicomedies, but I think I can contribute to the human race’s ongoing effort to escape its adolescence.
Human race, when you gonna grow up n’ stop dance fightin’ all the time?
But (in typical fashion for me, as anyone’s who been regularly reading so far will be picking up on) I worry that this makes me a BAD PERSON. So you want to make the world a better place, jerkface? Why doncha go work in a soup kitchen, fer chrissake? Fight against AIDS in Africa? Plant a galdarned tree?
It’s awful hard to justify my writing as anything but privilege, the privilege I have of being able to spend hours upon hours, which most people around the world have to spend seeking sustenance or worrying about their safety, simply thinking about stories and writing them down. Claiming some High Moral Purpose just makes me kind of an ass.
This is, of course, the essential conundrum of anyone, anywhere who aspires to being a Moral Person. Is my vocation my own? Am I not a hypocrite if I claim to care about the state of the world, but then spend all my time pursuing solipsistic hobbies (e.g. blogging)? Even if my stories do slightly improve the lives of my audience — is that saying much when my audience will almost surely consist of nothing but middle-class liberals? (Most of whom probably work generic office jobs, complain about conservatives, and keep their money to themselves cuz they believe the government should do all the charity or what was it again something like that yeah.) These folks have no great want of comforts and see Meaningful Plays all the time. If all I do is write for them, I’m basically just adding one more drop to the pool at the center of some great bourgeois circle-jerk.
I was going to put in an “Imagery!” pic for that one, but decided to spare you.
Whenever I get into this train of thought, I always turn to two savior ideas. The first is a “lesson” from the TV show Angel (the spinoff from Buffy the Vampire Slayer — if you’re reading my blog you should know references to Whedon works will be ubiquitous). The lesson is that no one can defeat evil, or even do all that much Big Good; fighting the good fight, and leaving a slightly better mark on the world than you would have left by doing nothing is all you can aspire to –and that’s enough. “Well,” I think. “Yes, I could spend my writing-time in some direct and unquestionably helpful charity work, but the good I do by being a writer, if I can do some good with it, is still some good. It would be a horrible and boring world to live in without stories. Plus, the folks who do the real charity-work want stories to inspire them and keep them going, so in a way I’m a supporting role to the Good Work. No different than if I were a chef cooking their food or a conductor driving their Metro train.”
The second savior idea is existentialism — which probably doesn’t mean what you think it means unless you’ve at least read the Wikipedia article, and which is a longer topic that I’m going to go into any depth on. Suffice to say that it’s very clear and undeniable to me that storymaking is What I Do, the same way that it’s undeniable to me that I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate and find sorting mail terrifically boring but organizing file cabinets kind of alright. It’s something out of the subconscious parts of my being, it’s just the Way I Be, and any effort to justify, question or prevent myself from Wanting To Write is ultimately as fruitless as trying to convince that one friend to quit smoking. (“I know it’s bad! Should I stop?” “Yes.” “Well, I’ll just have one more.”)
The tracheotomy represents the hole in my conscience.
Yes, I go through all this navel-gazing crap as a fairly regular precursor to typing up some stage plays about raver monkeys. Theoretically, the very act of considering the moral justification for writing can itself be justified by saying that, if I want to be a writer in the grand conscience-for-the-world tradition of Kurt Vonnegut and Harper Lee and the like, the type that spends a lot of time thinking about Morals and People and Life, then I damn better well consider the implications of my writing itself. Moral authority comes from skepticism, from examining all the angles and experiencing the consequences, so Moralizing About the Morality of Moralizing is necessary in a way.
The danger of all this is that, to feel good about myself, I could end up force-feeding into my stories all sorts of those Important Lessons I said I had no interest in imparting. A story shouldn’t be written with an eye to proving that story’s own value; that’s just going right back to the masturbation metaphor again. I believe strongly that there is no shame and plenty of real good in pure entertainment, and that writing for your audience, not for your own ego, is the way to go. There’s got to be a balance point, where a little bit of self-reflexive medicine keeps my work morally healthy, without overdosing me into catatonia. Question, but do not fret. Doubt, but do not indulge. This is okay.
…just remind me to stop altogether if I ever get to the career point where the only “entertainment” I’m writing is mindless junk.