14 June, 2011

Dojo Summer Sessions: Morality and Writing

Fair warning: there are no "answers" in this session, just some pondering and a lot of questions.  Of course, every Dojo session is mostly that: nothing should ever be taken for Writing Law.  As Captain Barbossa so famously said, what's said here is "more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."

With that caveat emptor in place, let us proceed.

I find myself struggling quite often with morality in my writing and the morality of my writing.  If I'm very, very lucky, what I write will have some impact on a reader or two.  And the last thing I want is for them to come away from the story believing war is glorious or that killing is always justified or that it's perfectly all right to be a sociopathic son of a bastard as long as you're on the side of the angels.

But.  I have to tell a good story, and a difficult story, and if I reduce everything down to bright lines and paint it all in stark black and white and never, ever made the reader confront shades of gray, I won't be doing a very good job.  So there's a cutting edge to walk, every time I put fingers to keys.  It's hard.  It should be hard.  We'd like to reduce things down to simple matters of right and wrong, but it's almost never that simple.

And it's not simple for my characters, either, even when they pretend it is.

Right now, I'm confronting the morality of killing two billion people.  Think about that number for a minute.  2,000,000,000.  If each of those people had one page in a biography, and each biography was five hundred pages, that would be four million books.  If it took you one minute to read each page, and you read continuously, it would take you nearly four thousand years to read all of those biographies. 

We have to reduce them to numbers, not faces, to think about them, but something important should be remembered.  Each of those people meant something to someone.  Each of those people had a story.  Those are not trivial lives.  They're not just numbers, to be shuffled about and added and subtracted without care or concern. 

Put a face to a few of them.  Plug in friends and family and coworkers and people you don't know personally but quite like and have had some impact on your life.  Turn the number 2,000,000,000 into a representative sample of names, faces, personalities, and life's works.  Make sure you include some children in there, because that number doesn't reflect just adults, people who can be said to have lived their lives.  There are infants and toddlers and tweens and teenagers.  There are young folk who never had a chance to get started with discovering who they are and who they'd be when they grew up, and there are young folk who were just embarking on that journey, and never got a chance to get underway.  Think of people in your life who fit that bill, and slot them in.  It's hard, but do it, because they're standing in for two billion people, so they've got to stand out, clear and whole in your mind.

(Even now, I'm shying away from it.  Let me just force myself to make a little list: my mom, who took me on adventures and takes care of my senile old grandad, who made me the beautiful wooden box I still have on my shelf.  My dad, who turned me into a survivor when I might have been a victim.  My stepmom, who became mother to my adult self when my own mother was too bipolar for the task.  Nicole, who is not only one of my best writer friends but has two beautiful young children, a toddler boy and a baby girl.  Suzanne, who rescued us when we were stranded, posts gorgeous sunsets and wonderful words and has a brand new granddaughter.  Kaden, my coblogger, who's just barely out of high school, working in a job where he takes calls from frantic people and gets help to them, and is working on a book that's been evolving since he was fifteen.  My intrepid companion, who accompanies me on all sorts of zany adventures and introduced me to the Doctor and has been there to rescue the hard drive that included my life's work.  George, who always knows just the right thing to say and sent me his rock hammer.  And now all of the people I know, all of the people I love, old friends and lost loves and my geotweeps and crazy coworkers and the Seattle Skeptics and my dad's brothers and my aunt and cousins and so many people, so many I can't keep up, come crowding into my mind.  That doesn't even address people I admire but don't regularly converse with: Dawkins and Myers and Greta Christina and Jen McCreight and Eric MacDonald and every blogger and writer and activist and producer and actor/actress and this enormous expanding cloud of people who have touched my life.  All right.  So I have them clear in my mind.  There are a lot of people in this world I cherish.  More than I could name and do any justice to even if I gave over the rest of my life to telling their stories and why they matter.)

I have them in my mind, now.  Do you have yours?  Good.

Now ask yourself: what could possibly justify killing two billion such people?

How could anyone forgive you for doing it?

How could you forgive yourself?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers.  There shouldn't be.  My characters have to face hard choices, and I won't let them retreat into easy justifications: "Well, if I hadn't done that, everybody would've died!"  That may well be true.  Still can't be taken for granted.  Still doesn't make it easier to bear.  It just makes it possible.

And you know something?  These are things I didn't struggle with before I became an atheist.  Because now I can't just say "Someone like unto a god did this, and therefore it was moral.  QED."  Being an atheist has forced me to face the fact that these individuals with individual biographies are dead, and there's no great and glorious afterlife waiting for them.  Their lives ended.  There isn't another one.  And that makes you dramatically more careful with life.  That makes you consider really carefully before pointing to anything that could end that one life they've got and calling it the right thing to do.

Ultimately, there may be no answers.  Just the question, and imperfect solutions, and doing the best you can.

1 comment:

Nicole said...

I think only writers fully understand the impact of questions like this. Killing two billion people....even one person...is painful for a writer. It's not as easy as writing words on a page for us. As writers, we don't create characters, we create people. I'm dealing with this right now in working on detailed character biographies for my collection. And I'm attached to every person I create and write about.

I have to kill at least two of these people, each in a tragic way. It's a ways off, and I'm already dreading it. I've been watching Stranger Than Fiction to build my confidence, and it isn't working.

Perhaps in these contexts, the justification is the story. Perhaps there is no justification in this world for killing two billion people. But as a writer, the story is why you do it, and what makes it tolerable.