Saturday, July 26, 2008

Rough Utilitarianism

This is a passage from Dave Eggers' book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Dave's friend has just taken a handful of pills, declaring that he wants to commit suicide, and Dave shows up at the hospital. They're arguing about whether Dave should use this material in his writing.

"This is mine. You've given it to me. We're trading. I gave you the attention you wanted, I bail you out, when you spend three days in the psych ward, and say how you're still thinking of doing it, I'm the one who comes in and sits on your bed and gives you the big pep talk -- anyway, the point is that because of all that, all the shit I put in for you -- now I get this, this is mine also, and you, because you've done it yourself, made yourself the thespian, you have to fulfill that contract, play the dates, go on the road. Now you're the metaphor."

He's quiet. He has a pair of scrubs in his hand that he found in a cabinet. He tosses them onto the counter.

"Fine. Put me in the f*cking book."
Everything that I write about, or want to write about, is informed by personal experience. Sometimes I have ethical misgivings about writing about certain subjects. Sure, some people justify writing their own, or others', intensely personal stories in the interest of "truth," or some other vague justification. But I don't think truth is an all-purpose justification for making personal details public. So where's the line?

Dave seems to be advocating a pretty liberal standard. He participated in the unpleasantness of helping heal his friend's depression, so he gets to profit from it by writing about it. But that leads to some absurd, and undesirable, consequences. Anyone who writes about their own lives is motivated to do good because, in their own heads, it justifies exploiting the scene for profit later.

My dad, the Southern Baptist minister, doesn't drink. He doesn't say that drinking is a sin, either; the Bible never says that drinking is a sin, only that getting drunk is. But my dad's justification for abstaining is that "Nothing good comes from alcohol." While I don't necessarily agree with that as applied to alcohol, it's a good standard to apply to other things, and it's the standard I've settled on for determining what to write about on the blog and what not to. Is something good going to come from this? Am I being helpful or hurtful?

As I get older and (hopefully) wiser, my standards might change. But for now, I can't justify writing, on this blog, about a subject that will do more harm than good.


Anonymous said...

Was there a threat of you going the other way on this?

Phaedrus said...

That's such a great book

Anonymous said...

Now I want to know what you know that you aren't writing about.


Anonymous said...

I think you should write about whatever you want to on your own blog, chances are the person / people you are worried about offending or hurting won't care as much as you may think they do.