On Writing: Consequence, Responsibility, and Healing


I was going to post a bit more about Dragon*Con today, though most of what I’ve been thinking about the con has already been expressed by others.  And really how much can you say about remote-control shark dirigibles anyway?  Besides, I’m not really in the mood this morning.

I generally write my posts for Magical Words on the Sunday before they appear on the site, which means that today I’m writing on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  So I hope you’ll forgive me if I stray a bit from the usual writing topics.

There’s a staff writer for my local paper whose columns make my blood boil.  He and I are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and he takes great pleasure in contributing to the partisan vitriol that fills our airwaves and papers.  But I thought that today, of all days, he would refrain from this, that he would strike a less strident tone on this one day when we are all supposed to be Americans first and partisans second.  I was wrong.  His column this morning was just as hateful as ever; it simply had a 9/11-related theme.

And all I could think was, “Really?  This is how you mark the occasion?  You obviously have some talent with a pen (or keyboard).  You can put together pithy phrases and use both humor and righteous indignation to convey your points.  And this is how you choose to use that gift?”

There is nothing more powerful than the written word.  One hears a lot these days about the impending death of print media.  Magazines and newspapers are on life support; can books be far behind?  And yet, the fact is that people throughout the world are reading more than ever.  Literacy rates are on the rise, and new content is being generated every day.  It’s not that the written word is vanishing, but rather that we’re receiving it in new ways.  We scroll down screens rather than turning pages; we surf sites rather than browsing a bank of magazines and books.  But we read.  Be it Thomas Paine or one of the bloggers who helped spark the Arab Spring, a writer can stir our passions, give voice to ambitions and dreams we didn’t even know we harbored, and spur us to actions we might have been too timid to take otherwise.

Nor does it necessarily take a polemic to touch our hearts and our minds.  Luther and Edwards, Galileo and Darwin, Shakespeare and Miller, Twain and Salinger, Wolfe and Proulx, Stowe and Wright, Plath and Angelou, Sendak and Seuss — the writings of these men and women — and men and women like them — have been shaping our world for as long as humans could read.  The written word can edify even as it entertains.  It can move us to tears, and it can shake the very foundations of our belief systems.

But, of course, you know all of this.  You come to this site every week, perhaps every day, because you understand the power of writing, because even if your only goal is to tell a story, you understand how transcendently powerful narrative can be.

And maybe that’s my point; maybe that’s the message I wish I could convey to this idiot writer who angered me so this morning.  Writing is an act of enormous consequence.  No matter what we write, our aim is to affect our readers.  Maybe we want to make them vote a certain way.  Maybe we want to make them cry for a lost character.  Maybe we want to make their skin flush and their breath quicken as they read of some imagined romantic encounter.  Whatever.  We strive for a reaction.  But we need to recognize that writing to reach people in any way carries with it a level of responsibility.

I tell stories in which people sometimes do terrible things.  I write of violence, of vengeance, of betrayal, of bigotry, of deception.  I have written scenes in which people are tortured.  I have written cold-blooded murders.  I have written rape.  I have written of the killing of children.  One would think that I have no right to lecture anyone else on matters of content and responsibility.  But there is storytelling, there is character and narrative, and then there is advocacy.  Those of us who write of horrors acknowledge the obvious:  We live in a world in which horrors occur every day.  I would never claim that my books are intended to rid the world of evil, even if my heroes and heroines manage to defeat evil in the course of my stories.

I do believe, however, that in writing stories that touch on prejudice and ethnic conflict, perhaps I encourage my readers to think about such things.  Maybe when I write about friendship or love, even if those relationships are tested in my books by the most extraordinary of circumstances, my readers look at their own relationships in a new light.  Or maybe they don’t.  Maybe they are carried away by my stories for a few hours and then return to their own lives fundamentally unaffected.  That’s all right, too.

I write to entertain.  I write to evoke emotion.  Occasionally, I write to provoke something stronger.  I write to pay bills.  I write to give voice to the stories and characters clamoring within my head for my attention.  I write so that when I’m gone, my children and their children and their children will have something tangible to hold onto and experience, something that will tell them a bit about who I was.  I write because it’s fun.  I write because it’s a challenge.  I write to be surprised.  I write for catharsis.  I write to express things that I wouldn’t dare say aloud.  I write to touch base with friends I haven’t talked to in ages.  I write to convey some sense of how and why I write.  (How’s that for a tautology?)  I write when I’m grieving, when I’m remembering, when I’m celebrating, when I’m longing.  I write when I’m feeling combative.  I write when I’m struck by something beautiful, ironic, sad, goofy, awe-inspiring.

I write.

Because while I am humbled by the tradition of which I am merely a tiny and inconsequential part, I am also willing and resolved to assume that responsibility.  Are you?

This day of reflection and mourning, of unity and shared burden, exists because the writings of a few, undertaken with a conscious assumption of a different kind of responsibility — dark, deadly, insane, and yet blood-chilling in its purposeful calculation — spurred others to act.  Those of us who remain and remember should write as well with purpose and with resolve.  There is healing in the written word.  That’s another reason we write; it is, I think, what has me writing today.  We have a responsibility — that word again — to write for our children and the generations who will follow, to show them that while the writings of the hateful can do terrible things, the written word can be a balm, a source of light and love, a way to ease pain even as we remember it.

I hope that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing today, you will take a moment to write a healing word for someone you love, and also for yourself.

David B. Coe

15 comments to On Writing: Consequence, Responsibility, and Healing

  • David> lovely, lovely post. Thanks for this. I think you’re so right that writing is important, words are important, and they have consequences, even if the writing is never read, or never meant to be read, by anyone other than the writer. When I think about how important words are, it’s often in the context of the negative, like in fights when I think “do I really say this thing, this thing that cannot ever be taken back?” Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. And plotting, too, is all about consequences. If the MC does x, y happens, if they do a, b happens. But today I’m reminded by your post of how much words can help, too. And I think I’ll take you up on the idea to write just to make a healing difference to someone else. Again, really thoughtful post. Lovely to read as I watch the sunrise from my office.

  • Thank you, Emily. Like you, I often find myself thinking about the negative effects my words have on others — allowing my temper to get the best of me while dealing with my kids, or taking an argument too far with a friend. But the most rewarding words I write are often those I send to a friend in pain or simply someone I’ve been thinking of for one reason or another. I don’t reach out enough with my words, but I’m working on that. Again, thank you for the comment.

  • Wonderful post, David. We should all aspire for this fusion of passion and eloquence.

  • Thank you for this post, David, and for reminding me about why I write. I have to agree with Emily—I think a lot before I post negativity these days. And so I don’t usually post it. There’s already too much negativity in the world as it is, and I don’t need to add to it.

  • Thank you David. I hope, I pray, that you can heal with your writing. Powerful words, my friend.

  • Splendid post, David. The written word isn’t going anywhere, and we have to take full responsibility for those words we put into print. As a former New Yorker for whom 9/11 is still a painful memory, the idea than anyone–left or right–would use the anniversary of that dark day to promote an agenda enrages me. So thank you for for telling our little corner of the internet universe how it ought to be done–with honor and dignity and respect. I can only hope that it spreads far and wide.

  • Marvelous, inspiring, and right on time, David. Thank you. And you too, Ed – we do cover a wide range of political views in this group, but I deeply treasure the way disputes are carried out here with passion, but not vitriol.

  • Well said, David.

    I keep trying to write more here, but you wrote it all well enough. I’ve deleted about 10 sentences so far. I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead and just leave it at

    Well said, David.

  • Thank you all for the kind comments (and emoticons — lookin’ at you, Scribe . . .). I hope that all who read the post found in it something thought-provoking.

  • We definitely need more healing and inspiring words than we need hurtful and demeaning. Perhaps if that columnist had taken a more neutral stance and written something that speaks to all Americans, his/her opinion might have gained some sway with those who normally discount it. That and it might have shown some humility and put Americans before political agendas.

    The power of words is actually a theme in SONG OF FURY. I hope the power of my words improve the world, even if only for my betas and critiquers.

    Great post, David. off to inspire the world…

  • sagablessed

    I started writing as a way to deal with a murder in my family. As the story prgressed it became more about moving on. As my character moved on, so did I. It is my hope that if my story is published, some readers will be able to say,”I can relate”, and move on themselves.
    To touch the world, one must have been touched by it. Then that resonance brings all in harmony.

  • I’m way late to the party – I’ve been super-busy these past few weeks – but this was quite a lovely sentiment, and I appreciated it.