Charles Bukowski posed this question. “Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?”[1] Socrates may have started a fad when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”[2] Supposedly, he was talking about impiety and corrupting youth. But the utterance got him sentenced to death. Maybe that’s why so many of us live unexamined lives—they don’t want to die.

Those who examine their lives, especially writers, do so because we want more out of life than just living it. We want it explained. We ask ourselves why, when, what, who, and whatever. Then we look to see truth, hope, and necessity. But what of the ethics of the thing? When the urge to write calls, we answer. When the urge to publish urges, we satisfy. When we write about ourselves, does anyone care?

This must sound like I’m writing in circles, asking the unanswerable of writers who write essentially for one reason, the same reason, all the time. We write because we can. And we examine the ethics of what we write because our self-examination demands it.

When we write about exposed lives, particularly others, we are truthful, an ethical standard. We are original, another ethical dictum. We try to heal, not hurt; goodness is an ethical trait. We write to inform, not accuse; we’re writers not prosecutors.

But when we dare to write about that part of life that is examined (the why, when, what, who, and whatever melody), must we give some space to the shants, dare nots, and other hidden bits of psyche that never sees our computer screens, much less our mouths? Perhaps to write well defined strengths and weaknesses. But the deeper meaning of an examined life is tied to a level of maturity. It’s the point where we examine ourselves in terms of others similarly situated. That’s examining our intellectual lives, how we were raised, and what we hold dear.

For most thinking people examining our intellectual lives is not a choice; it’s what life is all about. That makes it writing about. The ethics are limited to a published examination of a life. Those who write explicitly not to publish, but only for self-awareness and self fulfilment, need not fuss about the ethics of the thing. Just keep your journal in a safe place.    

[1] Henry Charles Bukowski was a German-American poet, novelist, and short story writer. His writing was influenced by the social, cultural, and economic ambience of his home city of Los Angeles.


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.

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