Write Honestly

“Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves. To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”

Henrik Ibsen

 

“It was only influenza,” as was implied in the media. The world was at war, and war inevitably breeds diseases. And so, in 1918, mass graves were dug not only for those who died in combat, but the other millions of civilians who suffered from the raging pandemic. 

Influenza kills either slowly, in that it unhurriedly strips our bodily defenses and opens the door for bacterial infection and a more common form of pneumonia. Or it kills quickly, with a violently aggressive and viral form of pneumonia, which is comparable to having our lungs set on fire. 

Yet, media reports in many countries downplayed just how deadly the pandemic was, as they didn’t want to hurt their troops’ morale. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson made no public statements, even though he had caught the virus. Top health officials claimed that it was “ordinary influenza by another name.” A wartime sedition act was even enforced, whereby newspapers were threatened and persecuted for reporting the truth. 

In Philadelphia, a parade was planned and it was to be the grandest in the city’s history. Before the event, 300 soldiers returned from the war, and the doctors were pushing reporters to warn about the dangers of having the parade. The pieces were written, but nothing was published, and the parade went on.

Philadelphia quickly become one the country’s hardest-hit cities and within just a few weeks, more than 12,500 Philadelphians died. The lesson was still not learned, even as schools were shut down and public gatherings were prohibited. The city officials insisted that these were not public health measures, and that people didn’t need to be alarmed. 

The Spanish media was one of the first to report on the pandemic honestly, instead of providing half-truths and outright lies. In honor of their contribution, the 1918 pandemic is what we now know as the Spanish Flu.

The Spanish Flu, which killed over 100 million people worldwide, teaches us the importance of telling the truth in our work. It’s worth remembering that our writing has effects on people, and these effects can be more serious that we might imagine. The Spanish Flu might not have been as catastrophic if the public had reliable information. But the distortion and shameless censoring of the news turned them against one another, as some folks really did believe the pandemic was nothing to be concerned about. 

As John M. Barry wrote in The Great Influenza, “As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. They terrified by making little of it, for what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured. People could not trust what they read. Uncertainty follows distrust, fear follows uncertainty, and, under conditions such as these, terror follows fear.”

To write is to touch a raw nerve in your readers, and you can’t do that if you are pulling your punches. If you’re afraid to tell the truth, that’s probably an indication of how important it is — and that you must tell it. That’s one big reason why writing isn’t easy. 

As Stephen King put it, the best writing comes when you’re acting more like a secretary than a creative person, because you’re simply noting down whatever is going on in the world and what you’re thinking. 

Even if you’re writing fiction, honesty must be your key policy. Because a work of fiction that is written honestly could render a more accurate and thought-provoking portrayal of our world than other mediums ever could. 

Take the novel Catch-22 for example. Whenever you see a media report about a military bombing, it’s almost always justified as being meant for military targets. Joseph Heller addressed this in his novel, because he was a bombardier. He knew well that a military bombing always results in civilian deaths, that it doesn’t just affect military targets. He knew what it was like to tell yourself otherwise — to the point where you believe it — because it’s the only way you can live with what you’ve done.

Another great writer, Mark Twain didn’t just write stories for fun. Whenever there was a need for him to speak out, he did it courageously in his work. He was a strident critic of the government’s inhumane actions, particularly a military operation against Muslims in the Philippines, who were virtually unarmed. 

He understood that patriotism is love for your country, and not necessarily for its government — that being critical of the government is in fact, the greatest act of patriotism that you can ever exhibit.

As he wrote in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, “The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death.”

Write honestly. Speak out about important issues that most people are afraid to bring up. Because you might even change the world and save lives by doing so. 

Your work is important than you might think. Keep this in mind whenever you feel afraid or doubtful.

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