YOWO: You Only Write Once

As a writer I've been fascinated by the controversy regarding the discrepancies and potential falsehoods in Ben Carson's biographical writings and speeches. Dr. Carson is hardly the first politician to embellish, misrepresent or fabricate the "truth." What fascinates me is the increasingly common and truly shameless audacity of denying what one has previously stated -- regardless of whether it was in writing, presented orally, or captured on video. These are not anecdotal, he-said/she-said differences in memory. Rather they constitute a blatant disregard for the inherent meaning and lasting impact of one's words.

Words do indeed have specific meanings. Except for the subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses that fill the coffers of the legal set, most words and sentences are not subject to multiple interpretations. They mean what they mean - and if you're not sure, you can look it up in a dictionary. That's the very basis of human language -- the ability to communicate to and be understood by large numbers of people.

Now it's certainly true that one's beliefs and opinions can change over time. That's a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of. It's a natural consequence of gaining additional knowledge, insight, and life experience. However, you cannot deny having espoused those previous beliefs and opinions -- especially in a digital world where our words and images can theoretically last forever. Instead, suck it up, attest to your previous utterances, and explain how and why your thoughts and opinions have evolved.

From a writer's standpoint, none of this is new or problematic. The durability of our words is something we long for. It's the Holy Grail of writing. We yearn for readers to devour and dissect our writing. That's why we write. And it's why I've never heard of a writer who denied his/her previous works. Some may disparage their earlier work as immature or amateurish. Others go so far as to write "popular" fiction under a pseudonym so as not to devalue their more "literary" work. But none denies having written the words that bear their name.

In the ethics portion of an MBA class I teach, I always advise my students to consider one thing before speaking or acting: how would you feel if your words or actions were featured on the front page of The New York Times? How would your spouse or parents feel? Your boss or colleagues? Your children or grandchildren? Would you be comfortable defending your words in a court of law or public opinion? If any of those scenarios spark pangs of conscience, then you probably should say or do something different.

Writers adhere to the YOWO (You Only Write Once) mindset. That's why we edit and edit again. Do-overs don't exist in the real world, and that's something Dr. Carson and his pals from both sides of the aisle would do well to remember and understand.