Thoughts on *&#$%! language

Over the weekend, the Poetry Princesses launched back into the fray with work on the sestina project we started six months ago (oy!) and were talking about a certain excellent poem, which is rich in imagery and feeds the senses. We discussed the uses of language in poetry — specifically, some language which could be described as evocative and “salty,” which might raise brows and produce blushes. It was a good conversation, as we spoke of our strengths and limitations in terms of language. I didn’t add much, but it was good to be a part of the circle.

I’m always in awe of the Princesses, because they’re so very real — in ways that I am not, and fear that I can never be. It seems that I am not yet grown up enough to get past the way I was raised, the voices in my head are still ones belonging to my parents and other adults — and I don’t yet see myself as tall enough to escape from their shadows. My writing struggles — like a worm on a hook — to escape. I feel sometimes that I’m standing in the stirrups, cranking back the reins on a runaway horse, which is pawing the air and doing its level best to throw me off and pulverize me. I hold back, I hold on, I censor and edit myself, and I fear that not only can I not do that, but that I can never be a great writer because of it.

A conundrum, in a way. But a necessity in another way.

Our talk about language got me thinking again about the conversation I had with my S.A.M. about a year ago, in which he exclaimed in frustration, “#$%&%! Let the character’s swear!” It was actually a pretty hilarious moment, as far as that goes, but I could not take his otherwise good advice. It wasn’t how I was raised (oh, that again), and it also seems in many ways as big a linguistic shortcut as dropping brand names in a manuscript.

(Now, I’m blogging about this because I’m thinking it through — please don’t jump down my throat and criticize what I’m saying. I really don’t care if or by what you swear or not. I’m just thinking “out loud,” here.)

I remember reading a very popular book a couple of years ago that got a lot of Cybils kudos, but we discussed it in terms of, “Wow, great story — wow, that’s a lot of language.” We went round and round about whether or not it was realistic to the setting (it was), or the ages of the characters (it was), but even having drawn those conclusions, a few in the group had some serious qualms.

Some print reviewers drew some of the same conclusions, and actually alluded to the idea that language and setting together were just iconic earmarks, a kind of hipster in-speak that meant less than nothing. The book received very mixed praise — which probably didn’t mean that teens didn’t read it — and we went on to the next book…

— but that incident stuck with me, and I’ve mulled it over for quite awhile.

Do some words seem to carry with them a kind of cachet, a kind of …intangible attitude? Does a character using profanity automatically allow us to assume other things about them — class? Religion or lack, race or ethnicity? I am not sure — and as long as I’m not sure, I want to use other words to allow readers to come to their conclusions about the characters I write in different ways. I don’t want assumptions or to use characterization shortcuts — unless that’s deliberately what I’m after. So many people have written that unless you’re disturbing the universe with your work, you’re not truly writing… that you’re not being real.

This is how it’s been explained to me: Using profanity in one’s writing is like… not ending a sentence with a preposition (English Major Nerdom Alert). You really avoid going there, if you can, but there are some times — especially in dialogue — when this makes the speaker sound overly stiff and clunky — that you simply have to recalibrate the sentence, or you’ll end up using it. What you’re talking about must be more important than how you talk about it. Surely if how you talk about it gets in the way, there must be a problem…

Are there times when you absolutely positively have to use vulgarity or profanity? Probably not. BUT…

As I write, the universe remains undisturbed. I cannot yet figure out how to disturb it, and keep true to where I’m at…

5 Replies to “Thoughts on *&#$%! language”

  1. I don’t think the universe always needs to be disturbed. Sometimes we need comfort, reassurance, hope, a laugh, beauty. All in good measure. If it means anything I think you are doing a bang-up job of being yourself Tadmack.

  2. I’m struggling with this same thing in the YA novel I’m working on. I don’t use profanity, but this one minor character I’m writing definitely would — in fact know exactly what she would say IF I could bring myself to write it. But I can’t — it just bothers my conscience too much, and I’m not convinced that trying to make the book “realistic” makes it okay. So I’m trying to work around it and still make this character’s dialogue sound natural, but it’s really hard at times!

    So I have no solution, just sympathies. 🙂

  3. I have a big potty mouth so as a reader I don’t mind profanity Sometimes a cuss word says it all. As long as the writer doesn’t become dependent of profanity I am okay with it. I love mysteries (stay with me) however I am quickly turned off when a writer finds its necessary to describe every cut and slash making it as gory as possible. To me that says the author doesn’t have another way to keep the readers interest. I enjoy gore but everything has its limits including profinty. So if I feel an author is leaning too much on bad langauge I am quickly turned off.

  4. TadMack asked me to contribute to this post, but I hate to disturb what’s already there…so I’ll put my two cents in here! 🙂

    For YA novels, I tend to agree with what you wrote, Tanita, in your antepenultimate paragraph (woo! I finally get to use that word!). There are situations where it would sound weird or clunky NOT to use profanity, or, by the same token, characters for whom it’s an essential part of their voice. In a YA novel–generally because of what I’ve been told about what Those On High look for in a manuscript–I tend to avoid most profanity except for the occasional interjection that seems natural. Not that I’d be swearing left and right otherwise, though.

    I think that my opinion is this: go with what seems natural 1) for the character/situation, and 2) for the WRITER. If the writer isn’t comfortable writing profanity, it’s possible that it will read more awkwardly than it would if they’d simply left it out or written it in a way that they were comfortable with.

    For non-YA writing, I generally feel the same way, but I do feel there’s more room for profanity insofar as it, again, is a necessary part of the voice. I am not a huge fan of ginormous amounts of profanity, in most cases, but I’ll bring up the movie The Big Lebowski as an example here. (We recently watched it again after several years.) There is an incredible and almost disturbing amount of profanity in that movie, but it works. It’s how those characters are, and although it makes me a little squirmy, the characters wouldn’t be the same without it.

    As for profanity as a reflection of social class or ethnicity, etc.–that’s a tough one. I think that it’s important to be aware that readers might use it as a cue…but it’s always very difficult to get into readers’ minds. And are we talking about all readers? Some readers?

    I tend to think, if the writer IS using it as a shortcut, it WILL come across as such. If it’s thoughtfully and appropriately used, there’s still a chance the reader may interpret it that way, but…not to sound simplistic about it, but I feel like that’s the reader’s problem at that point, not the writer’s.

  5. In my AK flying writing (both in the memoir and the novel) there is profanity because that is how we talked on the job – all the time, everyday, everybody. I can’t remember a single person who did not cuss at the Company; it was just pretty much standard to our language. We cursed the weather, the planes, the bosses, the post office, the competition and even the gods who had placed us at such a piece of shit company where no one gave a flying f**k what happened to us as long as we got the mail delivered on time.

    I mean really – it would be the ultimate act of dishonesty not to use profanity in those stories!

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