Published word represents permanent record of point in time

Peter J. McDonnell believes that publishing new and innovating ideas, while never allowing previous work to limit the ability to re-examine approaches can help a practitioner. H.L. Mencken, an influential literary figure in the 20th century was criticized for his ideas in his past publications.

Key Points

"It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.

"Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking."

"All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it."

When I was in college, I was introduced to the writings of H.L. Mencken.

Called "the sage of Baltimore," Mencken was one of the most prominent and influential literary figures in the United States in the early 20th century. He authored essays and books and edited The American Mercury literary magazine.

To me, his writings reveal the keenest of intellects and a wit like Mark Twain, only more brutal. As exemplified by some of the quotations above, he often made his points with humor, particularly humor streaked with cynicism. It seems he thought he was the intellectual superior of most other men and women-this probably was true-and saw no reason to hide the fact.

Not one to suffer fools, he was very capable of heaping ridicule-overtly or subtly-on societal mores, government, newspapers, and the various authority figures and prominent institutions of his day. Many considered him to be mean-spirited, and he offended many people who came to dislike him intensely. I loved reading most of his work, though, and I recommend that you try some during your summer vacation.

As hinted in the last quotation, one of the conventions at which Mencken poked fun was love and marriage. He is also famous for saying that "love is the delusion that one woman differs from another." He proclaimed that he'd be a lifelong bachelor and that "the most superior men were never trapped into matrimony." He made light of older men marrying younger women. He wrote disparaging comments about suffragettes and the quality of work produced by "lady novelists." He also made fun of Southerners and people who drank Coca-Cola.

He published all of these comments, many in a book entitled In Defense of Women. Obviously, the man had issues.

Then one day, at 50 years old, while giving a lecture, Mencken saw a woman in the audience whom he virtually immediately realized would be the love of his life, and they eventually were married. Proving that life is full of irony, she also had many of the attributes that he had ridiculed in print during his career: she was a Southerner (from Montgomery, AL), a suffragette, a "lady novelist," a Coca-Cola drinker, and two decades his junior.

The people Mencken had roasted in his writings over the years, including newspaper reporters, seized the opportunity to get even, cutting him down to size by using his own publications against him. They embarrassed Mencken and asserted that he was a fraud.

Proving that life is also full of sadness, Mencken watched his love's health deteriorate from tuberculosis, and she died in their fifth year of marriage. Mencken never was the same.

The obvious lesson to learn from this is, never put things in writing. The more that each of us writes, the more likely we are to have people disagree with us, take personal offense (whether intended or not), or offer an opportunity for what we write to be used against us.

My sense with U.S. Supreme Court nominees is that being a legal scholar with many publications is now a major liability, because these publications can be scrutinized for use against the author. Being a "blank slate," therefore, seems to be a plus now.

In a malpractice case, anything a physician has written, no matter how unrelated to the case at hand, can be used by lawyers in an effort to convict the defendant.