Tag Archives: word choice

Ethics of Blogging: Writing, Interpretations, & Responsibilities

So, I cracked the depression nut in a rant on the weekend that had a lot of positive response from people who’ve been there, with more than a few quietly thanking me for saying what needed to be said: People usually don’t choose to be depressed.

Now, apparently my tone was full of “hate,” according to the writer of the post that originally angered me, who commented on on my piece (psst… she sounded angry too).

Come on, I don’t hate anyone. I just get angry. I channel my rage into my writing and other areas in life. It’s a productive fuel. In fact, studies are coming out in which they’re realizing that anger is actually among the best catalysts one can have. Don’t like things in your life? Get angry and change them.

But I don’t wanna go into the philosophy behind Darth Vader’s School of Wellness here or anything. Another day, another soggy blog post, friends.

You know what kills me about posts like the one that irked me on the weekend? The arrogance of bloggers.

Okay. Whoa, Nellie. Wait for it. This is a complicated stance I have, but it also needs to be said, even if a bunch of bloggers might get grumpy at me.

First: If I didn’t think my voice mattered in cosmic mix, I wouldn’t have more than 2,000 posts, 4,000 drafts, and seven years of blogging underneath me. Clearly I think bloggers belong in the cosmic mix.

That said: We’re just bloggers.

We need to write responsibly. We need to use disclaimers that remind people that we’re not certified in all things awesome. We’re a voice with an opinion, and all we’re often bringing to the table is our experience.

As someone to whom edge and attitude come naturally, I understand wanting to turn a cool phrase or have things sound awesome. I know why we get stylistic, chuck some hyperbole in, and embrace flippant whimsy. I get it. I do it. I love it.

But there are times you have to stand back and really see how your words will be taken, and you have to watch it.

This writer accuses me of misconstruing her words, like it’s my fault they mean BOTH things.

I didn’t pull my interpretation out of my ass. It was RIGHT THERE, honey, in the words you wrote. If you’re going to take something huge and life-altering like depression and throw 90 words at it, you can bet your ass you’re leaving a wide door to walk through on the interpretations front. This is why we have DISCLAIMERS, and I’ll get to that after.

As a writer, while I absolutely love pushing buttons, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many examples of when I’ve done so irresponsibly in a way that could hurt people. Depression is one of those topics I wade into very trepidatiously, because I know people are unhinged to begin with, and I know how easily the wrong comment can trigger something in someone.

When I write about depression, I now do so from a largely “PAST” perspective. I’m not “depressed” anymore. I’m normal now. I have ups, I have downs.

Someone out there’s probably going “Oh, see? You’re ashamed. You won’t cop to being depressed.”

No, you know why? Because I’m not depressed! I love the snarky side of me, and that’s staying around. I’m not ashamed of my experiences with depression — but I’m proud I’ve battled out of it for a pretty average, stable existence. It’s proof one can get out of chemical depressions and get away from that horrible crushing place. I pulled a Gloria Gaynor, man. I survived.

It takes a long time, but it can be done, and there’s no one answer, which is why it seems so insurmountable.

And BECAUSE I know there’s no one answer, I know there are people out there who are as smart as me and as big on research as I am, and I know they’re at home late at night Googling for things to read about depression (or insert whatever other hot-button topic people don’t publicly discuss — like domestic abuse, etc) so they can get other perspectives.

And when they DO find something on Google about depression, I hope to fuck they’re reading someone realistic like me, and not someone bubbling on about choosing to be happy and making it sound like it’s some short-term project that’s easily accomplished because that suits the smaller, quicker, more upbeat post they’ve been tasked with writing.

If you’re clinically depressed, it is mental illness. It’s not when you’re thinking clearly, and that’s exactly why I try to be as straight-talking and clear as possible, for that 5-10% of my audience who might currently be experiencing that hell and who need a relatable perspective that might make them feel like someone else has lived in that world too. It’s okay for it to be hard. It’s okay to write about that.

You’re goddamned right that it’s arrogant of me to think I might play a role in shaping how they think about X-subject this week or five years from now, and to care about writing in a way that’s relevant on these things, but I’ve been given good reason to feel I’m relevant.

So, yes, many bloggers are arrogant. They’re sometimes more concerned with having a good read or getting their $50 payment from some blog magazine site. There’s this “nutshell” syndrome where everyone thinks just touching on a topic is good enough.

God help you if your post is over 500 words and you actually SAY something, you know.

While the writer of the piece that angered me, she actually had a few really great points on OTHER topics, and if she’d simply put a ONE LINE DISCLAIMER in the paragraph about depression, the whole fucking piece would’ve been FINE with me. All she had to say was, “Depression can be a serious and fatal condition, and while it can be self-treated, one needs to talk to their doctor. Not all depressions can be handled the same.” Then, boom. Perfect. Responsible. Big picture.

That’s it. That’s what that article was missing.

When it comes to blogging, I feel responsible to speak truth, be honest about who I am, get my facts right, and respect that my words might be construed differently by others, and it’s up to me to take a solid look at what I write before I publish it so I know all the ways someone might read into it, and if anything’s going to come back and bite me, I fix it up.

(It’s an old editing trick. Pretend you have no clue what you just wrote, read it “out loud” in your head, and try to understand it for the “first time.” Works.)

And here’s a thing: Most of the time, no matter how someone “interprets” what you’ve written, they’re not wrong. Not really. Words are flexible. They’re like cattle. They’ll pretty much go anywhere they want, and it takes a skilled hand to rein ’em in. But that’s what writers do. Or, it’s what they should do.

Okay, gather ’round kids, and Auntie Steff will tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I took three weeks to write a post about my dead mother. Seven years later, I’m still proud of the writing and I remember how hard it was for me to get it done. I write in minutes and hours, not over the course of weeks. Very nervously, I published it.

Months later, it was Christmas, and I checked my email. There was a $500 “gift” on PayPal from a reader. She said she had never been able to express the world of hurt her mother’s death caused her, and reading this post of mine, she said she sent it to every friend she had and said “When I’m sad about Mom, this is why.”

Oddly, I’ve had very few donations in the years since, and nothing even close to that, but the Christmas Donation taught me something very important about blogging and writing.

In our very anonymous words, sometimes strangers around the world find some meaning, something they can relate to. On a microscopic scale, we can change lives.

I believe in blogging. I consider myself blessed to be alive at a time when I can have a voice in the mix. I’m astounded at readers’ abilities to connect and tell me what resonates.

And, like Uncle Ben told Spidey, with great power comes great responsibility.

So, when blogging about depression and other very serious things people are likely to take to heart in very dark manners, it’s worth a little time to ensure you’re not blowing things off, making light of dangerous conditions, and that your words have been chosen with all the right reasons.

Be careful, Grasshopper, because you know not who you write for.

This Word, That Word, Any Ol’ Word

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately; useful if you’re a writer paid by the word. Words count. Every one of them. That’s why we charge you for each.

That’s why, when I watched this opening passage from an episode of The West Wing this morning, this exchange really tickled me. They’re talking about a pianist set to play a concert in the White House.

LEO: He’s North Korean, God knows how he managed to even learn. Their music’s all hymns to the barley harvest, not that they ever have one.

C.J.: To busy reprocessing plutonium to feed anybody.

LEO: Why they’re a rogue state.

C.J.: “Rogue” state… makes them sound bravishly charming. Should be “thug” state; “psycho” state.

LEO: We’ll ask the UN to re-designate.

C.J.: Punk state — that’s what they are, a bunch of punks.

LEO: Bunch of punks, with what could be six nuclear warheads.

(west wing transcripts: here)

There’s a lot of weight behind them there adjectives. Each one changes the matter drastically.

As far as North Korea and the adjectives go, the “rogue” is the Count of Monte Cristo. I don’t mind him, a namby-pamby guy, not scary.

Perhaps if he had asked for assistance with a more well-thought sentence, we wouldn't be laughing at his untimely demise.

The “thug” conjures images of 50 Cent. Not a fan, he smacks of “itchy trigger finger.”

Then, with “psycho,” it’s Norman Bates; translation: “don’t ask for pillow service.”

Finally, you have “punk” Sid Vicious, which I guess makes South Korea their ‘Nancy.’ (Which takes on still more interpretations when you consider the British slang of “nancy.”)

The last three dudes: Ixnay the ombbay, eh?

Exactly who I don’t want to have a finger on The Button.

Speaking of people I don’t want with a finger on The Button: For anyone thinking cultural terms are as interchangeable as Lego blocks, I give you Sarah Palin. The Alaskan village idiot’s speechwriter sure got a lesson in that one when Sarah Palin made her ridiculous hyperbolic claims of “blood libel,” regarding the “target poster: let’s-get-Palin” fall-out after the Arizona shootings.

It’s just another Tea Party attempt to paint her in a Messianic light, but it’s also a cruel insult to Jews, who’ve had century after century of persecution, of which this term speaks, when it’s someone as privileged and plain-Jane white as Palin claiming that brand of persecution. And she’s being persecuted only for her own choice to employ irresponsible rhetoric, too!

Then there’s the recent oh-so-asinine choice to willy-nilly swap out “nigger” for “slave” in Mark Twain’s lamentable “New South” edition of the classic Huck Finn. Like my friend says, such a context-lacking blanket noun switch is completely irresponsible. It ascertains that all slaves are niggers, and therefore all niggers are slaves. Hello?

Word choice is critical. Language is powerful.

Sadly, in an age where everything moves at the speed of light, people take too little responsibility for things said anymore — or too much. Either flippancy precedes everything and words zing across social networks with zero regard for their permanence, or else people are so terrified of permanence that they add very little of any consequence to the dialogue, or they magnify the least relevant detail because of perceived slights in the language.

I realise much of what I’ve said in the past few years can, and likely will, come back to haunt me, but considering the truth in what I try to say, and the standards I hold for myself, I can’t say I have a lot of regrets for putting my truth out there in as choice of terms as I have.

Do I wish I perhaps took the paid-by-the-word attitude of precision when choosing those words? Well, sure, that might cover my ass a little more, but it is what it is.

Sometimes we have to take a bigger-picture look at language. Instead of microanalysing every little word, take the whole of it together.  It’s often akin to a symphony. A piano can do wonderfully on its own, but really has so much more to give when played against, and with, other instruments. So too with any word you offer; they play importantly both ways — solo and ensemble. I like how mine play, either way.

But with so little regard paid to much of what we say these days, I’m afraid that, both ways, we’re often largely at a loss.

When it comes to language, think of words as your tools. Not just any screwdriver will tighten that couch leg when it wobbles, so why are we so given to such casual word choice?

Think. Choose. And then mean what you say.

Maybe then our conversations will offer more of consequence, more to be gained.

Curiouser and Curiouser

As is my custom on Tuesdays, when I’m home, I’m watching television. I had planned to write, but my smarts took the night off, so you’re stuck with a question — or is this an observation? — instead. (Okay, my smarts are fine, but I didn’t feel like ‘writing on demand.’ Sometimes it feels like a job, so I’d rather assume the position until inspiration kicks me hard in the ass.)

Tonight’s menu has included one of my guiltiest pleasures, Boston Legal. During the course of the program, there are a couple escorts included in background banter as William Shatner and Freddy Prinze Jr. chat in a bar.

I watch TV with the closed captioning on, for a few reasons. One of them being that I’m hearing impaired. Yes, you heard it here. I wear hearing aids. Always have. Itty-bitty in-the-ear ones, but they’re there. Such is life. Genetics, they fuck you every time, my friends. The loss is not overly severe, but enough that it cramps my style.

Anyhow, I also have worked in closed captioning, so I’m not deaf by any stretch. Back in the day when I did caption, we always would refer to unnamed persons by their profession first, if known, and if not, then by their gender. These identifications would be used in off-screen IDs for speech when a person wasn’t seen, and in character-specific SFX occurences.

So, there was this sound FX caption — done when action occurs off-screen that is distinguished by sound and is plot-pertinent — of [women giggling]. It was the escorts giggling. Their professions were known: They were escorts.

My question to you is, why wasn’t the caption reading [escorts giggling]? I mean, it was a crowded bar. There were other women. These women, the escorts, it was their giggling that was pertinent to the plot, not that blond ditz hanging off the bar with a Mai-Tai in hand.

Now, fair enough, my captioning house was one of the finest on the continent. My above-average grasp of grammar and such is evidence of that, no? Snicker. Right. Captioning styles vary from house to house, but when you have many, many women in one area and only two of them are pertinent, the tradition is to distinguish them. “Escorts” was the only way to do so, particularly when they had just been introduced to the viewers as “They’re not girls, they’re escorts,” by the always sharp-tongued Denny Crane (Shatner).

I find it interesting that the captioning house in question (the rather uninterestingly named “Closed Captioning Services, Inc.”) has opted to sanitize things for the viewers, when the producers of the program sought specifically not to do so.

But that’s the world we live in. A battle of ethics on every corner, a moral war written on every page. Only who is it we’re protecting from what, and why? Why not call a spade a spade when it is, evidently, a spade indeed?

The scriptwriters call it a spade. After all, the “escorts” are referred to later as “hookers.” A spade is a spade is a spade, it seems.

Is the reality of sex being so readily for sale so offensive that to see the suggestive words themselves written outside of dialogue is somehow even moreso?

Ah, who the fuck knows. We’re going to hell in a handbasket people, and the neocons are doing the navigating. Take a Right up here, folks. There ain’t no turning back now.