Many people write about their hopes, experiences, doubts, joys, and hidden faults. That kind of writing usually takes the form of diaries, memoirs, journals, grocery lists, or last wills and testaments. But there is another very special kind of writing—to yourself. The customary norms apply—be truthful, open, know your reader, don’t embellish or pretend, and for goodness sakes, make it interesting to yourself. Don’t try to make money from it—don’t post it socially or otherwise, and don’t retweet it.
The upside of writing to yourself is you never have to worry about a rejection slip, a snide reviewer, or a plagiarist hanging around your writing space. What you do have to worry about is which self are you writing to? You have choices—you could write to your present self, or yourself at sixteen, or the person you hope to become before you’re forty. You could write to your geriatric self—use large fonts and double spacing. You could, while in an optimistic mood, write to your inner introvert. Or when feeling a little down, write to the self that once climbed the highest mountain in your hometown.
But what of the ethics of writing to yourself? Are they different from the tried and true norms of writing to others? You have literary and genre choices, right? It might seem a little weird at first but you could write fiction to yourself. You could make stuff up—fictionalize yourself as you always wanted to be but somehow never quite got there. You could write to your inner astronaut, French chef, deep-sea diver, or law professor. Or resorting to nonfiction’s bedrock of truth, you could be truthful while still hoping for that chance to zoom up into outer space, cook oeufs en meurette, explore the ocean floor, and feel weightless. Maybe you should put off writing to your law professor self, until you’ve at least learned the rule against perpetuities.
What about self-plagiarism? Might this create an ethical dilemma when writing to yourself? It happens when you reuse work you’ve already published. That’s a no-no when writing to others. But if it’s just you the writer and just you the reader, does it matter? You could footnote it.
When writing to others, we have certain ethical filters in place, right. Like avoiding profanity, being inclusive, and watching out for gender insensitive pronouns. But would any of that matter, ethically, when writing to yourself? You need not filter yourself if it’s only yourself that will read what you write. Capture pure and impure ideas—who will judge you. You?
What about spell checking, source identification, bad grammar, infantile syntax, and using too many ly adverbs? Some of these go to the ethics if not the morality of writing to yourself. But most do not simply because you fool yourself all the time, right. Sometimes fooling yourself is the only way out of an undesirable conversation.
Do you talk to yourself? Scold yourself? Make promises to yourself that you know you’re never going to keep. Writing to your present self absolves you of those venial sins. But you ought to think twice about fooling your future self—what happens if turns out to be true?
There are many advantages to writing to your future self—it’s a sort of advance life planning. But ethically, you have to worry about past baggage. What about the things you did in high school—out behind the gym with whats-her-name? Would writing to yourself be a good place to bring that up or would it kill any chance of forgetting the whole sordid affair? Here’s the ethical answer. Don’t lie to your current yourself—write to an earlier, younger, dumber self, and make things right. Tell her how sorry you are. It will take a load off your forties.
Think about the parts of your life that you don’t want to think about. Writing about those things differs greatly from actually doing them. Maybe you hate the forty pounds you’re lugging around your waistline. Write about losing it in one month. It will make you feel thinner, happier, more self-confidant, and won’t require dieting. Writing does not involve eating.
Consider this. “Everyday stories we write about ourselves can help change our brains in ways that reinforce happiness, balance, confidence, love, joy, and peace. When we write down our stories, we reinforce positive narrative patterns in the brain to override the brain’s habits of negative thinking.” Real psychologists believe that. Writers don’t.
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.
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