The Ethics of Writing (Larry Woiwode)

Speech delivered at the World Journalism Institute’s June term closing banquet (New York City, N.Y., June 27, 2003)

By Larry Woiwode

Nearly all ethical systems and formulas fall into one of two categories, either ethics of intention or ethics of outcome. Ethicists are divided whether the morals of an act or the result of an act makes the act moral. Agape combines both. Agape is a motive of good will for the other that is rooted in God’s love. It never intends evil, but rather hates evil and wills good for the other. A problem with intention-based ethics, however, is that they cannot guarantee outcomes. Sometimes what we intend for good works for other than good. When we act according to agape, however, we can be assured that our action conforms to God's nature, and will be used for the fulfillment of his eternal will. Agape is a commitment to a course of action that is divinely inspired, for whatever results from agape is the will of God.

James R. Edwards

The Edwards Epistle

Volume XII, Number 1

Spring, 2003


The Gray Lady and the Golden Fleece

I chose my topic months ago but in recent weeks the ethics of writing--of journalism, namely--has been so much in the forefront you might imagine I’ve taken my direction from the headlines. I mean, of course, the scandals at the banner newspaper of this city, The New York Times, the Gray Lady as she was known in the industry, largely for her decorous, mannerly, and classically reserved tone, with every news story adhering to the traditional ethics of journalism, from objective reportage down to jog-trot pyramiding.

The Gray Lady, now gone, existed into the eighties, when opinion began to creep into news articles, and now the acts of a young reporter have removed two reigning editors from its staff. Editors are writers, publishers businessmen, generally, so the cream of the Times’ writing staff, according to the Times’ own judgment, which is gauged by position, are gone. Quite a fleecing by a Jason, no?[1]

What surprised me were the statements of the senior editor, his superior, who resigned. And let’s face it, this editor's resignation probably went along the lines of one in a recent movie, where an employer says, “I’m going to fire you for that!” and the employee answers, “You can’t do that to me! I resign!”--though in a more mannerly and decorous and reserved manner, of course.

The senior editor confessed he had kept the young writer on, encouraged him, in fact, in spite of errors in his writing--factual errors, invented facts, and so on, until the young fellow fell into outright plagiarism and invention of news stories--kept him on because of guilt about a tradition of prejudice in the region of the U.S. where he grew up. Prejudice, in his mind, continued to exist, and he was compensating for it at the expense of objective journalism and a general adherence to professional standards. These standards are gauged by ethics.

We are flawed and carry prejudices of one form or another. We have to eventually recognize that and take ourselves in hand, so our faults and flaws don’t cloud our ability to carry on the measured ethical life of daily decisions, or stain the performance of any professional duties we find entrusted to us.

Speaking Truth and the Golden Rule

“Don’t lie!” I used to say to writing students. More pertinent to the dimensional application writers must consider is, Don’t bear false witness against others. That is the way the commandment is given, without any mention of “lie” or the lying it provokes.

This means, on the simplest level, not saying anything about anybody that you wouldn’t say to that person face to face. And don’t say anything about anybody to others, such as readers, you wouldn’t say to that person face to face.

That’s the major ethics in any form of writing.

Don’t lie! is still the easiest way to make a beginning entry into the carefulness of thought you as a writer will encounter when you consider what the commandment actually states.

Novelists alter characters or circumstances or events drawn from any original, as most stories are, to protect the person who may have exposed him- or herself in a moment of personal revelation. The writer is guided by the knowledge that one must live with the consequences of one’s conscience.

If you continue to write or make writing your career, you will face similar ethical quandaries--maybe not of the magnitude of the young writer at the Times--and these will bring about in you a series of sharp moral decisions, for better or worse, as the young journalist and his editors were brought to, each in his own way.

The Blurring of Truth

Ethics can be viewed as the ability to make mistakes along with the desire to right them. The practice of ethics is often divided between those you apply to your personal life and those of your job or profession, besides the measurable physical laws of the universe and other cultural traditions, prohibitions, and laws.

Ethics should derive from a standard, without any distinction between the internal and external, or else ethics is as changeable as Changeable Charlie and Changeable Charlie’s Aunt.[2]

This is the primary dilemma young people suffer. There is no standard, all is a blur, yet you must be “open” to every opinion, however destructive or arcane. Instructors of ethics tend to relate this practice of random inclusion to the theory of relativity, which Einstein wrote to refer to particles in motion, not morals. “Relativity is physics,” he himself said, “not ethics.”

The very first sentence of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind goes, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

This concept has echoed down the corridors of thought for centuries, from the time of Pilate’s question to Jesus Christ: “What is truth?”

The irony of his question, which appears in the story that uses the word “truth” twice as many times as the other three accounts added together, the Gospel of John, is in Pilate’s addressing it to the only epitome of truth who actually inhabited the earth. Either you believe that or you don’t, and, in a further sense, you are Pilate or not.

In the questing disbelief so many champion as heroic, life is such a formless blur you can’t decide whether the “truth” of the bag lady on the corner isn’t as valid as Plato or Einstein or Pascal or, indeed, the Bible.

In April I attended the first national conference of state poet laureates, held in New Hampshire, where members of the press were waiting for the arrival of Amiri Baraka, the laureate from New Jersey who was in the throes of being removed from office by his state legislature; he had written a poem about the Twin Towers, and in four lines of it implied that Israeli nationals received advance warning of the disaster on its way.

Baraka never appeared at the conference--perhaps a warning for him arrived--and the members of the press were disappointed, disenchanted, to say the least. Two of them gave impassioned speeches on America and foreign affairs, focusing on the war in Iraq. These were reporters, mind you, speaking in public at a panel discussion of poets on the topic of “Poetry and Politics,” the exact event they were covering--and finally I asked one who was referring to Baraka, “Do you believe what he wrote is true?”

“It’s true for him,” he said.

So if I invented a scene from the war in Iraq, say, which was true for me, would that be acceptable? Could I sell it as news? Less than a month later that is roughly what the Times reporter did--wrote about a rescued hostage from that war, a young woman he never took the time to meet and never talked with.

Accurate and Charitable Biography

Ethical decisions aren’t often clear-cut. I once met an evangelical writer whose name you would know if I mentioned it, so I won’t. He was working on a biography of a Korean missionary of a nineteenth-century cast, much older than he, and asked me to look at a chapter.

I was surprised to find it entirely written in first person: “I woke to a radiant red sky and set to rights my cases of fruit flies before I sat to breakfast that April morning of 1941.” I’m making this up, of course, as I have the biographee, only to illustrate how the book went: “I did this, I did that.”

I asked the writer if the person he was writing about sent him recordings of his activities, or kept a diary, or if had he interviewed him that extensively, or what, and he said, No, he had talked with him, and the man had written things down, yes, even tried an autobiography that didn’t work, so he enlisted this writer for the task, and he had done research on his own.

“But this is all in the first person. The reader will assume it’s written by the person you’re writing about.”

“But it isn’t,” he said. “I wrote it.”

“Then is it ethical to use first person?”

“Hm,” he said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

A decade later I wrote a biography in the third person, though I incorporated long quotes from the subject. These were in first person, of course, and in the acknowledgments to the book I wrote, “after experimenting with several ways of telling the story, I found it best suited my ear when, as much as possible it unfolded in [the biographee’s] voice, colored by his choice of words. Because of the dozens of interviews [he gave] over the years, I had at hand two or three versions of each story-- always the same but with fuller detail on occasion. So every speech of his that appears within quotation marks is actually a reconstruction, a palimpsest arranged and edited from several.”

I interviewed him myself for a year, and had typed transcripts of our tape-recorded talks, but now and again he mentioned something as we were walking along, off the cuff, and I sometimes took notes on these and sometimes didn’t. Here and there I included moments I held only in memory, which I mistrust, as I mention in my own memoir, “Memory is a magpie after chips of colored glass and ribbon rather than the upright accuracy of objective sequence.”

I felt I was skating the borderline of ethics by including in his speeches words whose only reference was my memory. I lightened my conscience by asking him to read the manuscript--he read, in fact, three drafts of it--and to mark any passages where he felt his tone was off or I had him saying something he sensed he wouldn’t say. You see how entwined this can become.

He didn’t make a mark; he asked me, however, to cut a particular section; it didn’t deal with him but one of his acquaintances, Gene Autry--who happened to be my favorite cowboy when I was a boy. Autry was once a heavy drinker, I learned from my biographee, and I had recorded some instances only my biographee had seen, perhaps, and he didn’t feel that was fair to Autry, now that it was past.

Did I tell him the accuracy and art of my book, in its march toward verity, demanded I leave the details in--the ethical aesthetics of a writer? The biography wasn’t, after all, about Gene Autry, but a businessman whose first-person voice I enhanced. And I seemed advanced enough in the calendar of years to understand how the prejudice of youth against authority, against a heroic paternal figure, the staid and elderly, had caused the boy who once adored Gene Autry to want to see him, flaws revealed, exposed in public.

Charity (agape as Edwards puts it) is the other side of the coin of ethical concern, as my biographee taught me. I cut the scenes of Gene Autry as he requested.

In a philosophical sense I believe the Greeks were right, or were tending in the right direction, when they came up with the concept that ethics and aesthetics (artistic considerations applied to art) are inseparable.

As a writer and editor and professor I find myself having to say whether a piece of writing is good or bad, including my own. The qualities that identify it as not good are often self-satisfaction, inaccuracy that leads to distortion, lack of precision, of passion, of subjectivity, concern with superficialities, lack of even-handedness, a greater concern for the roll on one’s tongue of one’s prose than the people portrayed--all of which suggest a lack of charity. The list is one of internal ethical flaws or, to get downright biblical, sin.

Spelling and grammar can be fixed, but what can you do about the person behind the words, whether writing a news story or a fictional one, especially if the person is you?

You have to say, at the minimum, It doesn’t work.

When writers claim they deal in mere facts, as writers will about a genre, and especially reportage and history, we should understand that a bare fact is exactly that--bare of meaning, a mere shingle of information for the roof of a house not yet built. This is so as long as the fact lies outside a context.

When you start uniting a series of facts you arrange them along a story line, intellectual or temporal or both, and the story that forms reveals your interpretation of the facts you have used.

The best writers give the appropriate weight and authority, within context, to each “fact,” never ignoring the ones that may clash with a theory they happen to hold, which is something else altogether--a supposition formed before a person examines any facts, as for instance the biographer who told me he wrote the story he wanted to tell and filled in the facts later.

Writers understand that facts can be sifted, sorted, set aside, deleted, altered, inflated, or shaved down to achieve a slant to match the writer’s preconceptions or ambitions or, worse, his original theory.

The Brooding Mystery

One universal fact surrounding every living entity is the cosmos, available to the eye of the least
educated, as it sustains the body that holds the eye in equipoise, on a foundation of infinite precision. That the hidden attributes of God are revealed in nature is a mystery informing my writing from the first, before I encountered the passage in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, in its first chapter.

The simple fact behind St. Paul’s shocking revelation is that a wider and greater meaning to existence, a suggestion of a central truth sustaining it, is visible to anybody observing the natural world, even a city skyscape. So that none, St. Paul notes, has any excuse for saying there is no more to life than what one can see, touch, taste, or feel--or in any individual, natural way, sense.

This is the brooding mystery (as a reviewer or two call it) at the center of my writing, or anyway in the best of it. I never had an editor, whether at The New Yorker or The Atlantic or The Paris Review or Harper’s or any other publication I worked with say, “Now, Larry, we have to cut this because it deals with religion.”

That never happened to me.

I have never understood the fascination of the modern church, our Christian population, for fantasy. All of my novels, and especially Born Brothers and Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Poppa John, deal explicitly with faith. My editor at the house that published those novels, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, never said, “Larry, you have to cut this because it’s too religious,” or “You can’t write this openly about faith for a secular audience.”

He was, in fact, that audience. All he worried over and worked on, as all good editors do, was the task of getting every sentence sharper and clearer and more precise, closer to the goal I was aiming for (it seems almost absurd to say in this postmodern era amid the rubble of deconstruction): the truth.

As bread is the staff of life, which we learn in a truthful book, so story is the staff of the life of the spirit and mind. We see so in scripture. The whole Hebrew Bible is story after story of Israel’s ups and downs along its path toward truth; and when Jesus has a telling application to make about the meaning of scripture, he doesn’t launch into a fine-tuned theological exposition. He tells a story.

“Who is my neighbor?” somebody asks.

“A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho,” he begins, and we are inside a story we will never forget, about a person we call “the good Samaritan,” an outcast, and at the end we know that our neighbor is whoever is put in our way, in whatever situation we might find them or ourselves, down whatever road we travel.

The closer your stories adhere to the truth, as in Jesus, the larger the crowd you will find following you.

A writer or reporter must meet each person with the grace of openness, the leavening of compassion, rather than a preconceived or judgmental outlook. You might be speaking to a thief at the threshold of paradise or unaware that the snarling bag lady you’re entertaining is an angel.

C. S. Lewis wrote in a sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy only humility can carry it... There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, art, civilization--these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

Don’t distort or gloss over that. You can’t ignore the seaminess of life, which you are bound to encounter, and have already. My works of fiction have been criticized for their content, which seems too forthright for the Christian mind and community, but that I can’t ethically change.

I’ve never understood how a writer is to depict redemption from sin if the reader can’t see sin in any of his characters to begin with. No writer would equate any mortal work to the inspired word of scripture, the creature grasping at the Creator--other than bearing an image that is tainted and flawed to begin with and has excreted the further stain of its rebellion--and any work that I’ve been able to complete is, I confess, an infinity of distance from scripture.

That’s the exact measure: an infinity of distance.

Yet in scripture I find deception and adultery and incest and rape and rebellion and murder and nearly every destructive act I would care to imagine, up to a tent stake hammered through the head of a man who is lied to. I receive this as instruction, without attributing it to the author, as I take instruction from the spikes driven into skin and flesh, between the bones of the hands and feet of the one lifted up to heal me of the destructiveness of death.

By Faith

Do you worry about the ethics of all-nighters--when you have a story you must get in by a certain date and hour, a deadline? I can assure you that all writing is aimed at a deadline, whether for a class or the staff of life on your table, or a publication that pays enough to scare you witless, or the end of your days. All-nighters are not uncommon to the one who kneeled on rock at Gethsemane. And you can be sure that the one who causes cattle and wild animals to calve will squeeze from your mind the acceptable words to fulfill an assignment or a commission in an acceptable time.

Are you blocked--feel you can’t write another word? It means you’ve reached an ethical juncture you aren’t ready to face, or haven’t yet resolved, or are being held away from, because you’re not yet ready to handle it--a hand at your chest keeping you from the words or pages that may be irretrievable or rash or destructive.

So live in trust, which is faith, faith itself the exercise of love--giving yourself wholly to another in trust. Spend yourself this prodigiously in your prose. Carry on in the upright accuracy of objective sequence laid out by the one whose hidden attributes, unrevealed even in his Word, are visible everywhere in the cosmos surrounding you. And remind yourself daily, as I must, that as the ethics of the life you lead brings you nearer to the truth, you will more and more start to set down your own stack of stories within it.

Godspeed and bless you in your work.



    Author Larry Woiwode's work has appeared in Atlantic, Esquire, Harper's, The New Yorker, and Paris Review, among others, and has been translated into a dozen languages. His novels include Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Poppa John, Born Brothers, and Indian Affairs. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a John Dos Passos Prize winner, a recipient of the Medal of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.

Of his collection of short stories Silent Passengers, the novelist Charles Johnson wrote that Woiwode's “masterful hand and generous vision transform our most evanescent and commonplace experiences into something akin to gold....they are stories that sharpen our way of seeing from one of America's finest prose stylists.” In the recent What I Think I Did, an account of the fiercest winter in North Dakota history, Woiwode uses a “season of survival” to examine memory, and departs from the blizzards and ravenous cold to revisit his early days in New York in the 1960s, where his life as a writer began under the tutelage of the great New Yorker editor William Maxwell. Woiwode lives in North Dakota with his wife and children where he continues to write.


[1] In Greek mythology Jason, after overcoming many obstacles, was assisted by a sorceress, Medea, in capturing a golden fleece from a dragon. Despite his pledge of loyalty to Medea, Jason later deserted her, and she murdered their children in revenge.


[2] ”Changeable Charlie was a popular toy in the 1940s, made by the Gaston Manufacturing Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the box that the toy came in, ‘Changeable Charlie can create 4,194,304 different faces or expressions!’” (