"Not the fastest horse can catch a word said in anger."
~ Old Chinese Proverb
I used to keep this proverb taped to my computer, back in the day. That day being one in which newspapers still mattered and when I, as the managing editor of one, unsuspectingly took on the Herculean task of public trust.
You see, regardless of what the movies (or TV newscasts) lead you to believe, conscientious journalists take the weight of public responsibility very seriously. What you say, once said, can never be unsaid. The best you can hope for in the event of an epic fail (or even a slight transgression) is to be forgotten or forgiven.
To me, it was always better to avoid doing things I felt I would have to later apologize for. And so to remind myself of exactly what my responsibility to the public trust was, I tacked this note to my computer. Right next to the one that held a quote from Justice Potter Stewart to journalist Fred Friendly during the Watergate era: "The trouble with your profession, journalism, is that it is often confused between what it has the right to do Constitutionally and the right thing to do."
I had no idea that my writing and editing life outside journalism would be so affected by this set of quotes. When we write our fictional stories, craft our make-believe worlds, and devise our sinister villains, how often do we wonder what our work will contribute to the world? What, in other words, does it mean to be a responsible writer of make-believe?
I have this question on my had because I have decided to kill my novel. Though I'm quite sure its presence in the world would not spark the downfall of western civilization as we know it, my novel (a crime story with a particularly anarchic villain), doesn't sit well with me. I just don't think it would contribute anything positive to the world.
That sounds really weenie when I say it like that, but it's true. The shame is, it's a good story. But it's ugly. And I'm tired of ugly. I don't feel the urge to add yet another loquacious psychopath to the pantheon of English literature. So my shrewdly plotted crime novel will never see the light of day.
None of this is to suggest that crime novels and loquacious psychopaths are a problem in literature. If that's your bag, then by all means, have at it. It just seems that I've found out, after many years and truckloads of effort, that such fiction is not for me as a writer anymore. If the world is to read what I have to say, I would rather the world find something helpful and positive and fun in my work. And I'd rather smile at my own stories than feel a sense of relief that some crazy asshole got his.