Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas





July 2006

"When people ask, 'How much of herself can she keep digging out?', I say, 'You've only seen the tip of the iceberg, mate'…I want to take from life. What travels through me is what I make. Something comes into me, spirals out, and as it spirals I pull it in, create something, then throw it back into the world."


Tracy Emin, The History of I, quoted in Tate Modern, the Handbook, Iwona Blazwick & Simon Wilson, ed.


Writing & Ethics


Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I was involved in a conversation with a stranger. It was one of those spontaneous talk sessions in a library. We didn't know each other, but we began to exchange travel stories about Russia. After an hour, we traded email addresses and parted ways. We corresponded one or two times, and then, as usually happens, our relationship ended.

As the months passed, however, one of stories she told continued to haunt me, which was a sure sign that I needed to write about it. Like Tracy Emin, "I want to take from life," and a few weeks ago, I decided to draft a poem. One of the first things I did was to dedicate it to her, using only her first name. I did this because, at some level, I knew that I should credit her.

As I worked on the poem, it developed into one with potential for publication. Now I am faced with an ethical dilemma. Am I able to submit the poem to journals, or will I be infringing on her privacy? Does her story belong only to her? What is my obligation to her?

I could think about the situation in several ways. I could say, "Hey, she said all these things in public to three strangers, so her stories are fair game." However, that seems unethical to me. Standard practice when including something in a poem or article that has been said to me, is to contact the person and to provide a copy of the piece to allow him or her to see how I have created something from our interaction and "throw[n] it back into the world," as Tracy Emin said so aptly in the above quotation. Unfortunately, in this case, all of my attempts to email and Google the young woman have been unsuccessful.

I could do as they do in "Law and Order." When producing an episode that is "ripped from the headlines," they change three details. So, instead of Russia, it could be… but wait. It has to be Russia! An incident like this could only happen there. It tells the reader something about their government's treatment of the poor.

I could change the gender of the storyteller, but wait! Her experience has everything to do with the poem's speaker thinking, "These things happen to men, not to young women."

I could change the setting of the poem. Instead of a library, it could be… No, wait! Surrounded by books filled with history and literature, the library is the perfect place to open up and tell stories. My argument to keep the details as they were has everything to do with authenticity. And if a poem doesn't sound authentic, it will fail.

I could ignore the dilemma, send it out and hope that if it is accepted, my muse wouldn't read it because who reads poetry anyway? or she would read it and be thrilled by the transformation of this event in her life. But here I am back at the threshold of ethics again. Whether she sees it or not, whether she is happy or not, am I not obliged in some way to let her know what I have done with her story?

If you have read this far, you probably have already decided to be wary of talking to strangers (if your mother hasn't already drilled that into you). You might add to that, "especially if the stranger is a writer." (Yes, I did tell the young woman I was a writer on that day in the library.)

Until this dilemma is resolved more than it is at this moment, I will continue to work on the poem, but I will not send it out. If you have any opinions or suggestions about what I should do, please write to me at

Next month's Judy's Journal will be dedicated to the making of a series of paintings. It's a phenomenon that I have experienced and written about in June 2005, when I wrote of my "Kinship with Rocks." This time, I will write about "Pulses," a series I began in April and can't seem to stop painting. Ah, obsession-isn't it grand?