We write for myriad reasons—to inform, explain, enhance, enchant, admit, deny, incite, encourage, apologize, and on and on. Sometimes, we write to reveal. So, do ethics change when we’re revealing? When it comes to the ethics of writing revelations, the standard ethical imperatives apply—truth, honesty, originality, un-plagiarized, not deceptive, and factual. But what else should we ask before we hit send, file, done, or save?

We should ask why we are revealing whatever it is we’re about to reveal. A revelation announces something “revealing.” It’s usually about yourself, but could be about someone else. It could be about the town, state, country, or planet you live on. What then?

To get to the why question, ask whether your revelation is a story, retort, claim, defense, or rant. One calls for an emotional plot, the rest for a psychological trajectory. They all call for interconnected revelations—not just one—that shape a moral or immoral journey.

Of course, you should ask yourself the final question—how does your revelation end? In climax, defeat, glory, haste, shame, life, death, or deliverance? Once you’ve noted all this, you probably realize you’re writing memoir.

Memoirs are rife with revelations. In memoir, revelations must be earned. The price the writer pays for that is self-revelation. The writer must ask whether the price is worth the gain. Revelations can be restorative or destructive. The difference in outcome often depends on whether all ethical norms are met.  

What if your revelation in the memoir is profoundly wrong? Is it founded on a factual encounter or experience that never happened, even though you are emotionally certain it did? What if it’s not a memoir, but rather just a story—pure fiction? Does that matter? History has a grand example of the difference between memoir and story. Ernest Hemmingway gave all writers that example in his famous “Indian Camp.”

His short story began,

“In the pre-dawn hours as the young Nick Adams, his father, his uncle and their Indian guides row across a lake to a nearby Indian camp. Nick’s father, a doctor, has been called out to deliver a baby for a woman who has been in labor for days. At the camp, they find the woman in a cabin lying on a bottom bunkbed; her husband lies above her with an injured foot. Nick’s father is forced to perform a caesarian operation on the woman with a jack-knife because the baby is breeched; he asks Nick to assist by holding a basin. The woman screams throughout the operation, and when Nick’s uncle tries to hold her down, she bites him. After the baby is delivered, Nick’s father turns to the woman’s husband on the top bunk and finds that he fatally slit his throat with a straight razor from ear to ear during the operation. Nick is sent out of the cabin, and his uncle leaves with two Natives, not to return. The story ends with only Nick and his father on the lake, rowing away from the camp. Nick asks his father questions about birth and death, and thinks to himself that he will never die, as he watches his father row.[1]

Hemmingway revealed a great deal in this short story, in present tense, as fiction. It’s not his memoir, or is it? History has it that “Indian Camp” is about Hemingway. “In the early 1920’s, Hemingway and his wife Hadley lived in Paris where he was foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. When Hadley became pregnant they returned to Toronto. Hemingway biographer Kenneth Lynn suggests that Hadley’s childbirth became the inspiration for the story.”[2]

So, writers should give some thought to how revealing their stories are. Hemmingway did. History reveals that Hemmingway was “terrified Hadley would not survive the birth, and he became ‘beside himself with fear … about the extent of her suffering and swamped by a sense of helplessness at the realization that he would probably arrive too late to be of assistance to her.’”[3]

Gary L Stuart

I 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.

If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Camp

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lynn, Kenneth (1987). Hemingway. Cambridge: Harvard UP. ISBN 0-674-38732-5.