We spent our final afternoon at the book festival in Ubud yesterday with a diverse group of writers talking about questions of ethics. I’ve been interested in the relationship between ethics and writing for a long time, and I am often puzzled by the way that creative writing programmes – unlike, for example, journalism programmes – pay such scant regard to matters of ethics. Sometimes, perhaps even frequently, I have encountered the view that the writer’s job is simply to write the best thing that they can, often accompanied by the implication that asking too deeply about ethics can only get in the way of this. But writing is not something magical, something that is entirely separated out from the world to exist in its own higher realm. It is a kind of communication, deeply rooted in the messiness of the world. And so even the claim that we should value art over any other considerations is, it seems to me, at root an ethical claim about what ought and ought not be the case here and now, in the midst of this messiness. And if this is so, then in the end ethics is inescapable.
So the workshop that we were running (as a part of our Wind&Bones project) aimed to open up – although not necessarily to fully resolve – ethical questions for the participants in their own practice of writing. When planning the workshop, we decided that we wanted to stress this point about not fully resolving these ethical questions. During the workshop, I was repeatedly reminded of something that the tremendous Clementine Ford said in her festival talk a couple of days before: that if we care about change, then we need to be willing to be made uncomfortable. The desire to fully resolve, and thus lay aside, ethical questions can all too frequently simply be a way of killing off this discomfort, and thus killing off ethical reflection precisely at the point what is needed most is that we deepen it.
One of the most fascinating things about the workshop was having so many writers who worked in so many genres – anthropology, journalism, personal memoir, family history, fiction, poetry – discussing these ideas together. The conversations were wide-ranging and often insightful. And although none of us got to resolve the issues that we raised, I came away (as I hope others did) with a deeper sense of some of the issues with which I myself am grappling as a writer, and some of the strategies that I might use to address them.