A few years ago we were sitting around the dinner table, hearing “school news,” when our then teenage son told us the story of his science teacher accidentally hitting a student in the eye with a cork out of a popgun. Apparently this teacher kept this ‘toy’ gun in his desk and when students weren’t paying attention, he shot the cork across the room at their faces, to ‘sting’ them into alert-mode. And sometimes he would use the gun without the cork in it, to give a student a wake up call with a puff of air to the face. On the day our son was telling us about, the teacher meant to ‘air puff’ a student but had forgotten the cork was still in the gun and ended up giving the student a black (and bleeding) eye with his popgun.
While our son was telling us this story I could see pressure steaming out from between my husband’s teeth as well as from his ears, nose and the top of his head. In our house there are rules associated with gun ownership, strong rules, starting with never point a gun – even a toy gun – at another living entity unless you’re planning to take its life (when hunting, for example). Those rules were bent when the kids played with squirt guns but my husband never wanted them to lose sight of the fact that guns are serious business.
A couple of weeks ago we were in Paris, just days after the massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve found myself thinking about rules associated with writing as a result. Especially since I managed to procure a copy of the Charlie Hebdo Journal that came out immediately following the attack, on the back of which there is a series of drawings entitled (my translation), “Front Covers That You Missed.” One of them is a cartoon of a shooter, leaping into the air holding an assault weapon, while an oversized pencil is being speared into his groin. The caption reads (again, my translation), “Our pencils will always be sharper than your balls.”
I liked this because firstly, it suggests that it takes more courage to write than it does to gun down people for expressing themselves. Which is true. Writers have to be courageous. They can’t stand on the edge of life observing; they have to get in the huddle and pick a side. And there are bound to be people who disagree with the side that they picked. Secondly, the cartoon alludes to the power of the pen which, when well honed (or sharpened), can really hit its mark. This is also true, but, for me, this is where things get tricky. I’m all for freedom of expression but if expressing myself hurts someone that I care about, then is it okay? Alf Wight, who wrote the books about being a vet in Yorkshire, England, under the pseudonym James Herriot, was mortified to learn that he had hurt his partner and friend, Don Sinclair (Siegfried in the books) with his depiction of that character. Fortunately his partner, after threats of legal action, moved on to forgive Wight this injury from his pen and I will always be grateful to the friend who gently walked me through some changes to the manuscript of my novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons (inspired by the Herriot books), so as to avoid that very same situation.
Not everyone is so forgiving, however, especially when they think certain words are aimed at them, and I’m sure many writers have found themselves on the outside of a circle they used to be welcome in as a result of their writing. I know I have. As a result, I have some rules that play in my head when I’m writing. They are:
- Know your audience.
- Never talk down to children
- If you’re going to write to relatives, try to avoid hitting their soft spots.
I don’t think these really take from my freedom of expression; they just modify its sting. And unlike the teacher in my son’s high school, I’d rather not sting my audience into paying attention. I’d rather engage them instead. So I hear these rules and try to stay within their confines, no matter how quickly and easily my pen is moving.
None of which excuses what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which was an horrific affront to the right to free speech, as millions around the world agreed. Another great cartoon on the back of the Charlie Hebdo journal published after the killings was a drawing of the attackers, up in the clouds, asking, “So where are the 70 virgins?” and a voice answering, “With the staff of Charlie, you losers.” Nicely put.
In case you’re wondering, that teacher that our son told us about, he’s no longer teaching. Nothing happened to him after the incident with the popgun, which shocked us no end, especially since other staff members were aware of the gun and how he used it. But a year after our son graduated from high school, he received a call from an investigator working on behalf of the Office of Public Instruction. Apparently they were looking to gather evidence against this teacher. Boy, did our son have a story for them.