Is your writing full of shit?
Do you write the words that your client or boss wants you to write, even if you know that these are half-truths, or are meant to manipulate people or have them believe in lies? Are you an accomplice to cultural manipulation or widespread control of consumer behavior? Journalists, screenwriters, copywriters, PR writers, even writers who work for NGOs, and many other writers working in similar positions often find themselves stuck between the devil, which is lying, and the deep blue sea, which is not having income.
Because once writers—save for those who are either upright or lucky, or both—choose writing as a money-making profession, then writing the truth is probably the hardest thing that they will ever do. The truthful writer will be hated, they will be unpopular, they might even get sued or killed, and they will most definitely not make a lot of money.
A friend once told me that even if I had to sell poison to earn money to give my son a good life, I should do it. He said that it would be a bigger sin to refuse to do what I could to raise my child well. Another friend told me that because I have chosen to do what I did, which was write copy for a living, then I should do it well. Otherwise, get out, he said. I think he’s absolutely right. No one can tell us what to do and not do. Whatever we decide on, and whatever consequence we need to face because of this decision, we alone are responsible for it. It’s all a matter of how much of it we can take—whatever it means to you.
We face the karma of our actions. It can be the “good” karma of having our own luxury vehicle and a nice place inside a posh subdivision. It can be the karma of not living the luxurious life that we could have had because we chose to go another way. It could be the karma of having peace in our hearts, or the karma of feeling guilt every time we think of the fact that we are helping sell poison, in the guise of chemical-laden junk food for example, to innocent children and clueless mothers every day. Or sometimes it’s the karma of a big name and the shiny trophies that go with it. Some writers embrace what works—sex, drama, sensationalism, gossip, mindless content—for the sake of ratings.
And we come up with various reasons to justify the lies that we tell. I call this the commercialization of truth. It is when we say, for example, that people have free will and that they have the freedom to believe or not believe what we put out there. It doesn’t take a lot to see that this tells only half of the story.
In his collection of essays, The Mind of Clover, Robert Aitken, Zen teacher, author, and activist, wrote that “Self-deception, deception of others, cheating, gossip, and carelessness with language are all disloyal to the peace in our heart of hearts.” In this book the fifth chapter is titled “The Fourth Grave Precept: Not Lying,” wherein Aitken wrote that the wisdom of Not Lying comes from innate honesty, and that this deep honesty is also creative.
The way the message is expressed, along with the message itself–these come from integrity. Those who are not in touch with themselves cannot speak faithfully. Truth, therefore, comes from knowing the self. What kind of message then can we expect from those who see no value in self-examination?
Aitken’s brand of truth in communication is being referred to as the “compassionate truth.” I interpret it as the art of writing the truth with love. Aitken wrote that unlike lying, which brings disorganization and suffering to families, communities, nations, and the world, the practice of truth, on the other hand, organizes the community and helps promote the consciousness of the interrelationship of all beings.
As a writer, I encountered this lesson for the first time when I was 20 years old. I enrolled in a creative writing class under the renowned playwright and novelist Tony Perez, and I clearly remember him saying that truth is the most important element in one’s writing. It seems so simple, but it has taken me two decades to understand how deep this lesson is.
To those who struggle with truth in their writing—sometimes I go through this still—take heart. It’s not easy, but if there is anything that I learned from the experience, it’s that once you make a conscious choice to tell the compassionate truth and not the commercial version of it, you will be rewarded in unexpected ways.