On writing honestly

When I started this newsletter roughly two months ago, I typed down an idea for a post that sat dormant until now. I included no links, no references, no excerpt from a news article or addition thoughts. All I wrote was this: “A chance to write honestly.”

I’d had a nagging feeling for a long time — for as long as I’d held my previous job — that I had not been writing honestly. Jobs can do that to you. When your income (and therefore your family’s wellbeing) becomes dependent on someone else’s good graces, you begin to make compromises. We all do.

My compromise was this: I withheld, obfuscated, and omitted. I was not writing honestly.

So what?, you might ask. That’s civilization. As soon as we are around other people we bend ourselves to be agreeable. We preserve our relationships above all else because we are social animals. If that relationship is with our boss, we bend all the more. And, perhaps, protecting relationships at the expense of full truth is good and right. What is it that we live for if not strong relationships?

But there is a perversion that goes on when money is involved, and it will always be there so long as we remain financially dependent on others. That’s what I’m concerned with here. When you become financially independent, you can, quite literally, do whatever the hell you want. Say what you want, write what you want, and be as disagreeable as you’ve always dreamed. It’s not called “fuck you” money for nothing.

How exactly I was being dishonest

The writing I did on behalf of my company and the clients I had is one thing: marketing people are used to, shall we say, writing around the ugly parts of the story. Marketers must be anchored to the truth in the content they put out, but they don’t exactly write the content with that intention. They write to support business goals.

That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ways in which I was distorting even my non-business writing. I would publish occasional stories on my personal blog, but I was always careful to avoid certain topics.

I didn’t, for example, write about how often I traveled. Though I worked remotely as a supposed full time employee, I often switched states, traveled on work days, even left the country a few times without telling anyone at work. My travel never impacted the quality of my work, or my output - but still, I felt that I was hiding a certain part of myself, simply by not being able to talk openly about the travel experiences which I valued so much.

I also avoided talking too deeply about healthcare — the business I was in. As a marketing person, I had to be a cheerleader for my industry. In marketing, you can be honest in your personal life, but not too honest. Everyone working in every industry maintains willful blindspots about the nature of the business they’re in. In my case, it was the business of emergency medicine. The people I worked with took care of patients when they needed taking care of the most — and that was good. But I never thought too hard or too deeply about the ugly implications of what it really means to make emergency care into a for-profit business. (I have started to do that in another healthcare-oriented newsletter.)

Mostly, though, I avoided writing about my profound discomfort with the nature of work itself. For example, many people I worked with liked to refer to us all as a family. At least, a “work family.” That phrase always offended me, but I could never say that, at least not in public. I already have a family, thank you very much. My work is my work. I do it to support my family, not because they are like a family.

“Work as family” is just one of the ways in which companies - not just the one I worked for, but many others around me - create a sort of myth to convince its employees of half-truths in order to get them to devote more of themselves than they otherwise would in service of profit. But your labor is one of the most sacred things you can give. It should not be given lightly.

I also have a profound discomfort with the nature of the U.S.’s brutalistic form of capitalist striving, and with the idea that my company should own my time. Once I was at a meeting of company leadership — about three hundred people were there — where I was asked to donate money out of my paycheck into the company’s Political Action Committee. You see, legislation was currently being debated in Congress which threatened the business, and my money was needed to make sure the company’s view of the situation prevailed.

Now that I’m out and have had a chance to dive deep on the issue in question [click this link if you are a healthcare wonk], I am glad I decided not to give.

Does it even matter to be able to speak honestly in public?

So I wasn’t writing honestly on my personal blog. So I wasn’t saying all the things I really wanted to say about the world. Did it even matter? It’s not like I was suffering under some semi-despotic regime that was monitoring my every communications, looking for apostasy.

Honestly, I could have said everything I wanted to in public, on my blog, on social media, wherever. But I did risk damaging my work security by doing so. Anyway, I could always talk with my family and my friends. My free speech was not being impinged. I didn’t live in a totalitarian regime. So who cares if I was self-censoring?

Well. I suppose I cared.

To write honestly is to strive toward truth

I care about being a writer, and writers have to be read, and if I’m going to care about that, I better damn well care about writing honestly and publicly.

It’s not clear to me that every writer feels this way. Many, including myself, write for money, and perhaps it’s better for all of our income earning potential to write dishonestly. I can think of more than a few political opinion writers who would rather be sensational than honest because it will get them more attention, and more attention will get them more advertising dollars. Give the people what they want, I suppose.

There are plenty of incentives floating around the world which would lead writers to write dishonestly. I’m just not interested in making myself beholden to them, and maybe that means my writing won’t get as much attention, and maybe that means I won’t make enough money to keep devoting all this time to it, and maybe that means there will be less honest writing out there in the world.

That would be fairly tragic. In my humble opinion.

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. Or, perhaps it’s time to turn to fiction. There, one can be as honest as one likes, because hey: the character said it, not me.

Yes indeed.


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