Yes, I know the title is challenging, especially from an ethical perspective. It probably should be, “The Ethics of Writing While Moody.” Even clearer, “The Ethics of Writing While In A Mood.” Mox nix, as they used to say.

The prompt for this blog is a June 2020 syndicated article from the Associated Press with an equally evasive title. “Poll Confirms Americans Are In A Sour Mood.” Probably writers were included in the poll. We are as sour as we’ve ever been, right? We’re writing more about COVID than cupid. And we’re doing it while protesting, masked, and anxious, right? The poll comes from the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted at the University of Chicago. “It finds that just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, down from 31% who said the same in 2018. That year, 23% said they’d often or sometimes felt isolated in recent weeks. Now 50% say that.”[1]

Writers are probably moodier than most people, particularly comedians, ballroom dancers, and children under five. We are certainly less moody than prisoners, homeless people, and cab drivers. The leading indicator in the 2020 poll seems to be “isolation.” Apparently, most people think isolation is a bad thing. Writers depend on it. You can’t write in a crowd, or when others are yammering at you, or when your studio door is open. We need isolation like fish need gills. We breathe easy in isolation; fish breathe through gills. Maybe writers should evolve with gills and . . .  No, that’s outside my storyline.

This blog is not about the consequence of writing. It’s about ethical norms for writing while we feel changes of mood: bouts of gloominess, sullenness, temperamental, emotional, mercurial, unstable, fickle, flighty, inconstant, incontinent, erratic, fitful, impulsive, morose, glum, despondent, melancholic, sour, or dour. Which of those emotional states might cause us to write unethically? Any of them? All of them? Or none?

Creative writing is grounded in emotion. “Schiller wrote best when smelling rotting apples; Zola was stimulated by the ambiance of artificial light; the naturalist Comte de Buffon felt inspired only when dressed as if for a social event. Ben Johnson responded to the influences of tea, the purring of a cat, and the odor of orange peel, and Andre Grety composed with his feet in ice water. Einstein and Freud both worked particularly well during bouts of abdominal discomfort.”[2]

We write under age-old axioms: show, don’t tell. We don’t tell our readers the US Congress is disruptive and childish. We show them how disruptive and childish they are. When we construct those scenes we might feel disruptive and adult. Whether reporting politics or writing literary fiction, feelings are important. The writer’s job is to report on public events or create fictional worlds that resemble the one we’re in right now. We constantly report, hypothesize, or imagine what our characters or subjects are doing, and how they feel when doing it.

The ethical question is whether our mood has a negative effect on what we write. If so, we should take our fingers off the keyboard and lighten the mood—music maybe—a glass of wine—a walk in the back yard—watching clouds, sunrise, or sunset—finding a child to play with. Mood might positively affect what we write—even bad moods. And up or down moods might affect how competently we write.

Does mood affect competence? If so, wouldn’t that translate to ethicality as well? There are studies on the impact of happy and sad moods on efficacy judgments. “The results suggested that emotional states have widespread impact on judgments by making mood-congruent thoughts more available.”[3]

Does a writer’s emotional state influence their writing? Surely that’s the case. If there’s no emotion in the writer, there’s none in the reader. That’s true in nonfiction as well. We write nonfiction to teach our readers something. That’s done best when we move them, at least figuratively, to the place, time, and events we’re writing about. We use emotion as a writing device to connect with readers. If they sense our emotional state in the words and phrases we use, they can better understand perspective and engagement.

So, writing moody might be the acme of ethical writing. If not, it’s at least morally acceptable.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[2] Richard Kehl, “Breathing On Your Own—Quotations for Independent Thinkers.” Darling & Company, 2001. At 211.

[3] David J. Kavanagh, University of Sydney, and Gordon H. Bower, Stanford University. “Mood and Self-Efficacy: Impact of Joy, Sadness on Perceived Capabilities.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 9, No. 5, 1985, pp. 507-525