In a recent discussion, over references to mental health diagnoses in a story, I made a comment to the effect, "Please don't confuse a character's opinion with the author's."
Immediately after sending that, I remembered a time when I did crit an author for what I regarded as attitudes very patronizing to women in one of his subs. He very rightly pointed out to me that the attitudes expressed were authentic for that character in that environment at that period. And while I did want him to give some indication in the story that these views weren't *right*, I had to admit to myself that it was hard enough to cover everything required by the exercise in 300 words, without also Educating Your Reader in Feminist/Humanist Principles, which was not stated in *any* of the exercise requirements.
This does bring up something that every writer has to deal with, though -- your responsibility for the effects of what you write. I think everybody has to make their own decisions on handling that, but I also think it's something we can benefit from discussing.
Personally, if I were to write a story in which someone carelessly labels any odd behavior "schizophrenic" -- and I probably will write such a story, someday, because it's a pet peeve of mine -- I would also make it clear in the story that this labeler was wrong-headed. I would try to explode some of the myths and stereotypes around schizophrenia -- because the sound of smashing stereotypes is one of the greatest pleasures I find in writing -- while writing a real and entertaining story.
But if a character is given unpopular beliefs and attitudes, and they *aren't* openly refuted in the story, is that always irresponsible of the writer?
When a story (or poem or essay or whatever) *does* offend a reader, to what extent should the author feel responsible?
My own responses:
- If my wording was bad, and communicated something I did not intend, I apologize and try to correct it.
- If I did get inappropriately personal or vulgar (if, for instance, any of my speculations about what our Mayor does with underaged hamsters actually slipped into print) I apologize and try to correct it.
- If someone misunderstood what I was saying and reacted inappropriately, I may try to correct the musunderstanding if I think there's any hope. I will probably laugh it off. In one of my poems, for instance, I listed many different historic images of Mary, both positive and negative, then speculated that Mary herself may have found her own identity, beyond
- what any others think of her. One reader called our paper to complain about my Catholic Bashing. I think all I can do about that sort of thing is laugh.
- If I used the word "candle" and a reader with dreadful childhood associations with candles is thrown into a traumatic episode by reading that, I feel empathy for them and may suggest therapy -- but I am not responsible.
Any other ideas on what we are and are not responsible for, as writers?
Anitra L. Freeman
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StreetWrites Workshop Exercises