Writing Lessons

Greater Freedom to Write

By Sissela Bok | March 3, 2014


“Sailing the Seven Seas of Truth” was the title my nine-year old son, Tomas, proposed for my first book in 1977. Looking at possible titles, the late André Schiffrin, then executive director of Pantheon Books, cut to the quick. “Just call it ‘Lying.’” A year before, I had sent him a proposal for an anthology of writings on lying and truthfulness, comparing the wealth of past writings to the paucity in more recent centuries. Instead, he suggested that I write a book of my own on the subject, with the anthology in an appendix.

This was unexpected advice, at first daunting, then energizing. Working on the book gave me the opportunity to take up so much that mattered to me, not only from philosophy, medicine, literature, art, anthropology, child-rearing, the history of religion, psychology, and sociology, but also from recent politics in the context of Watergate and the Vietnam War.

With the manuscript finished, I noted in my journal, “If the book goes well, I would really want to be a writer, one who can take work along on trips, live her own life, teaching and lecturing from time to time.” True, I had already written a doctoral dissertation on voluntary euthanasia and published articles on topics ranging from Samuel Beckett’s work and Nabokov’s novel Ada to abortion, bioethics, the care of the dying, and the ethics of giving placebos. Now, the prospect of being a writer seemed to offer greater freedom and the chance to embark on additional books addressing large issues of practical ethics— beginning with Secrets, barely underway.

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