Writing as a Moral Duty

12 Jul

Drama alert – don’t laugh. The recent RWA conference in New York changed my life.

Okay, laugh. It’s an outrageous statement. True, but outrageous. Oh, I’ve been writing professionally for decades, but thousands of writers in one location made tangible the abstract of what it means to tell stories.

These committed, passionate, driven human beings (mostly women) stunned me with the positive web of support and warmth. I have never experienced this in any venue – wait, I take that back. With the exception of my critique partners, I’ve never participated in a group so concerned about the well-being of its members even as individuals strive for success and recognition.

To make this point during a breakfast conversation at the conference, I offered the most dreaded of moral philosophers – Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf (or Puhfendorf depending upon your source). And my dining companion, goddess that she is (trust me on this), didn’t even flinch.

Pufendorf’s thoughts aren’t mainstream. This circumstance is due more, I think, to his name than his message. I don’t mind the name; writers gravitate to words that roll through their psyche onto their tongue (newbiety, epiphany, and . . . poo-fen-dorf). This philosopher holds my added affection because he distilled right from wrong by describing moral obligation as a hierarchy.

Now, in full disclosure, I don’t care for everything he said in the late 1600s. The man held the same barbaric women-as-subordinate-chattel opinions as most of his contemporaries (shared, unfortunately, in the centuries since, though I refuse to fixate on how depressingly common these beliefs are in 2011).  But, he articulated three fundamental human obligations worth considering for writers: duty to God, Self and Other.

I won’t touch a discussion of duty to a higher power as I believe it a deeply private matter. As to Self and Other . . . prepare to get naked – in a cerebral sense, of course.

Duty to Self.  We have a responsibility to nurture our souls as much as our bodies. Pufendorf argued we wouldn’t be much good to anyone unless we were good to ourselves. As a writer, this means that I’ve a duty to hone my craft and temper my skills as a story teller. I also must devote sufficient attention to my health and well-being. Without a healthy body and mind, I’ll default on the first duty to my soul. For the record, Pufendorf would exempt Lays classic potato chips, hot chocolate chip cookies and wine consumed in the presence of other writers.

Duty to Others.  My duty to others begins first with my family, but within a heartbeat I look to my friends. Pufendorf divided duties to others between absolute obligations that transcend particular relationships and responsibilities that derive from the agreements we make within those relationships.  My blogging/writing friends encourage me with honest critique and advice. I have the happy charge to offer the same to them. I find attending to other writers feeds my soul and scours away guilt that comes from doing things for myself (every caregiver out there knows exactly what I’m talking about).

Will you join me . . . in saying ‘poo-fen-dorf’ and sharing your thoughts on a writer’s duty to herself and to others?

P.S. If you are compelled to learn more about Pufendorf (and really, I gave you the good stuff, but feel free), please visit


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23 responses to “Writing as a Moral Duty

  1. johannaharness

    July 12, 2011 at 5:21 AM

    Thanks for this, Liz! I’m getting a contact buzz from everyone returning from conferences. I love it! 🙂

  2. Carley Ash

    July 12, 2011 at 6:14 AM

    This is a great blog, Liz. Very motivational and up-lifting. Thank you.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 7:08 AM

      Buzz away, Johanna! The best part of conferences is – whether or not you attend – we can share the wealth. I am glad to be back; I missed the sky.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 7:09 AM

      Ahh, Carley, a kindred soul – it is fun to say.

  3. Meredith Conner

    July 12, 2011 at 7:49 AM

    I love Poo-fen-dorf – it reminds me of a character on my kids TV show. Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz – than again he is a Dr. Evil wannabe, not a great philosophical mind but that all being said . . . it’s still a great name.
    I think that writers – especially women writers – struggle with the Duty to Others, but as you so clearly put it we aren’t good to anyone else if we don’t take care of ourselves. My writing enhances me a a person, as a mother and as a friend. It allows me to grow, celebrate myself and challenge myself. I’m a better person for it.
    Go Poo-fen-dorf!

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 8:42 AM

      You’re exactly correct about writing as a venue for personal growth and challenge! I’m most interested in your reference to Dr. Heinz Dooffenshmirtz; I’ll be checking out cartoon network. I love cool names and evil wannabees.

  4. Janis

    July 12, 2011 at 7:49 AM

    So, I could make it a verb and say to writer friends, “I POO-FEN-DORF you. Thanks for being there.”

    Yep, I’m going to use it.

    As to the guilt for being self-ish, it’s very hard, but let’s all try! 🙂

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 8:43 AM

      You’ve got something here, Janis! I’m sure that poo-fen-dorf is an active verb so it’s fair game for writerly types.

    • Tracy Wilson-Burns

      July 12, 2011 at 6:36 PM

      A verb, yes! Now I know what to put into Outlook when I’m scheduling my writing time. Poofendorfing, Thursday, 7pm to 9pm.

      • Liz Fredericks

        July 12, 2011 at 7:09 PM

        I’m contemplating getting t-shirts made. It’s catchy!

  5. Kyrsten

    July 12, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    I had a similar experience when I attended RWA Nationals. Thank you for turning up all those great memories to the sunlight. Great introduction to Pufendorf. You always bring interesting things to the table.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 10:04 AM

      Thanks, Kyrsten! I’m glad you stopped by the blog.

  6. Eileen Dreyer

    July 12, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    Considering Pufendorf’s opinion–that lingers–about women, I’m not surprised that more of our breed haven’t heard of his concept of duty to self before others. But it’s a philosophy that I have also–very vocally–espoused for years, in fact, since my mom died at 56. I’m still convinced she gave herself away without refilling the will one too many times. Even if we never publish, as writers, there is nothing more vital, more essential to us than reweaving our experiences into words. They help us reorder the chaos of our lives; turn bad into good(nothing like a happy ending) bring order from confusion, reorient a world that seems inexplicable. As an addendum, as people and writers, we need to be fed the artistic work of others, or our thoughts begin to dry up and blow about like dust(been there, done that). So, in balance, I’ll give Pufendorf this one. After all, he certainly isn’t the only one too afraid of women’s power to acknowledge it. ;-}

  7. Liz Fredericks

    July 12, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    Eileen, THANK YOU for stopping by Gem State Writers. Your observation about ‘reweaving our experiences into words . . . [to] reorder the chaos…’ is compelling. We often talk about writing as a vehicle for the ‘voices in our heads’ but you’re dead on in noting stories as sense-making. Several years ago, a friend gave me Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, Women Who Run With the Wolves. One of her quotes has always stayed with me and is the probable reason I started writing fiction after a very long hiatus: “The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands – all these are the making of something, and that something is soul. Anytime we feed soul, it guarantees increase” (Pinkola Estes, 1996, p. 14).

    • Janis

      July 12, 2011 at 3:42 PM

      I found Women Who Run with the Wolves as well. Good content.

  8. eileen dreyer

    July 12, 2011 at 2:58 PM

    Liz–In addition to Estes, may I wax a bit grandious and cite Kierkegaard, who considered artists the true heroes, because we look more closely at life than anyone and then have the courage to create something better from it.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 5:03 PM

      Oooh, I adore Kierkegaard, though he makes my brain itch and I tend to worry and fuss over the smallest phrase. I can’t remember which work to attribute one of his itchiest phrases, but something along the lines of finding your purpose or your own particular truth in life, taking us back, full circle to duty to self. You gotta love the mesh of thought.

  9. Peggy Staggs

    July 12, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    Wow! I hang around with some really smart people. I’m so impressed (with myself, of course) that I not only have friends who know about 16th century philosophers, but they know what it all means. ; )
    The thing I have the hardest time with is the duty to self. I was raised to believe that everyone else comes first and if there is anything left that’s for you and you should feel guilty about the left overs. I’ve grown up since then and I’ve figure it out.
    Great blog, Liz.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 5:09 PM

      Isn’t guilt a damned poison? And we’re back full circle to the notion of duty – more and more a chicken/egg kind of riddle. I keep going back to what I wish for my kids – I don’t want them to subordinate their existence to another person (I think I’ve blogged about something along these lines) and my daughters often point out that the same should hold true for their mother. Peggy, we’re lucky women, surrounded on all sides by intelligent females.

  10. Tracy Wilson-Burns

    July 12, 2011 at 6:32 PM

    Very inspirational! And written in what I call the “Oh, I wish I could have written that” voice(/experience/education/wisdom/talent/etc). I just love it when I read something that captivates me as much by the writing as it does by the message. Thanks!

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 12, 2011 at 7:10 PM

      Tracy – What a lovely compliment! Thank you.

  11. Clarissa Southwick

    July 12, 2011 at 11:12 PM

    Liz, Your enthusiasm for writing is inspiring. I’m sure Pufendorf is right about Duty to Self. Now, if only he’d told us how to squeeze more hours into the day. Great blog. I love it when you bring these theories to life.

  12. Liz Fredericks

    July 13, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    Thanks, Clarissa! I’ll dig through the theories to see if there’s something to help us with the 24/7 issue. I’m ever-hopeful.


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