When I put my short story up for sale I immediately warned my entire family that it contained a lot of foul language. I did not mean that it had one or two cuss words, I meant exactly what I said: A LOT of foul language. My characters in that story had the dirtiest sailors’ mouths—F-bombs everywhere!—and I wanted to make sure my family, especially my ninety-year old Grammy, were aware of that before they read it. I thought for sure that all those curse words would make them loose all respect for me. That they were going to be disappointed in me and kick me to the curb, because as the baby of the family (the late-twenties aged baby of the family) I was shaming their name by allowing my characters to spew the ugliest four-letter-words with abandon.
Out of the handful of friends and family who read my short that first day, only one person had been dismayed by the characters’ language. They gave me the constructive criticism, “You shouldn’t need to rely on cursing to get your point across. There are more intelligent ways.” It’s a valid thing to say, I admit. But, and maybe I’m being a little unfair, I tend to hold that argument on the same dusty shelf as the classic reprimand, “If you are constantly resorting to curse words in your speech then your vocabulary must be lacking.”
When they said this to me at first, my initial reaction was embarrassment. Feeling like I needed to defend myself, I said, “Well, sure, they curse a lot, but not all of my characters do,” and assured them that not everything I wrote would be riddled with a ‘lacking’ vocabulary. It was just shy of saying, “I’m sorry,” and the realization made me pause. I thought about it for a while and I wondered why I was apologizing. Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of truly constructive criticism for my work, some harder to hear than others, but as I’ve done my best to absorb it all in, as a storyteller I’ve grown in skill immensely. Yet, whenever someone has pointed out errors or necessary improvements, I try to take them with grace but I have never felt the knee-jerk reaction to apologize for them the way I did about cursing.
It made me wonder why that is. Why did I react so differently upon hearing that particular criticism? Why does the comment that my characters were too foul-mouthed drive me to atone for them, rather than find a way to solve the problem?
Then it hit me: I didn’t immediately hunt for a solution because it wasn’t actually a problem. It wasn’t an obvious grammar error, a gaping plot hole, or awful prose, or anything like that. It was simply word choice.
As for why it made me feel apologetic, that was even easier to figure out: failed censoring. By censorship, I don’t mean the asinine practice of societal censorship as a whole (that’s a long conversation for another day); I mean the innate censors we put on our actions, words, and appearances everyday to protect ourselves and those closest to us.
Maybe you avoid talking about certain topics, despite your interest in them, because you know they upset your relatives. Maybe you get quiet when your friends put down a particular song or music style that you secretly like because you don’t want to offend them or lose their respect in your opinions.
You hide the things you know they’ll hate and don’t force the things you like on others because it could hurt their thoughts of you. You have learned to enjoy those touchy topics for yourself and only discuss them in particular company. You censor what you do, what you say for the comfort of others and you make yourself be content with that.
It’s when we slip up that we face those negative visceral reactions. When you allude to the pros and cons of the modern political agenda and accidentally rile up your extremely conservative uncle at dinner. When your friends catch you singing along to that really catchy pop song that you like, but they find so cliché. When you write the f-word about fifteen times in a 4,000 word short and put it out into the world for your family to read.
What do you do? You get embarrassed. You’ve been caught with your figurative pants down, or you took a careless risk that backfired. Now, they’ve seen something that you’ve always kept hidden and they’re confused or, even worse, disappointed.
For shame. Shame. Shame. *ding, ding*
But, they don’t have to be. If you apologize and show them that you didn’t mean it, their opinion of you won’t diminish, because they’ll know that that you—the one that likes political debate, bopper music, or writing gritty dialogue—that’s not the real you, right? Right?
So, when my relative confronted me about the exorbitant amount of cursing in my short story and told me that I should be smart enough to rely on more intelligent ways of expressing myself, of course I felt that first flash of embarrassment. I had created these characters, written their manner of speech, which meant they were a direct reflection on me. They were potty-mouthed barbarians and so I, too, was a potty-mouthed barbarian! With a poor vocabulary to boot!
Like my fictional characters I, too, must be lacking in resourceful terminology, relying on an antagonistically volatile lexicon employed primarily by the mentally deficient, or to carry out the juvenile objective of constituting instantaneous stupefaction while in the midst of an acrimonious debate with a colleague!
Or… maybe those two characters just tend to curse. And maybe that’s okay.
When I went in search of reviews of my short, something funny happened. With the exception of that one person, everyone who read it messaged me and said, “Geez, when you gave that warning I thought there would be a whole lot more cursing!” When Grammy told me she didn’t know what I was worried about, that the characters’ language wasn’t nearly as appalling as I’d let her to believe, I was the shocked one. I told her that while editing the first draft of “Hunting the Howl” I ended up cutting the amount of curse words in half, thinking that even that amount was probably too much. She laughed it off and said, “I think you’d need a bit more to shock me, anyway!”
That almost sounded like a challenge… But I digress.
I don’t create delicate ladies or chivalrous gentleman characters. I don’t write about plucky circumstances with conflicts that could be resolved through the power of love and dark chocolate. The worlds I create are dark and menacing. My characters are hardened survivors that I shamelessly send into the pits of hell and drag them through brimstone and bonfires in order to earn their (often temporary) happily-ever-after. Sometimes they speak intelligently. Sometimes they speak in obscenities. Sometimes they speak in other languages entirely! The important thing, I realized, was that they speak as they themselves would, and not as would a watered-down version of them that won’t offend.
I stopped feeling embarrassed by the fact that my family now knows that my writing style is not as upbeat as they wanted it to be. Not all of my characters curse, but Creed and Enid certainly tend to, and that’s not going to change unless their personalities do first. It is in their nature to cuss whenever they feel like, and if that is a reflection on me, well then so be it.
I’ve never been one to believe that cursing is a sign of poor vocabulary. After all, I have a tendency to cuss with the worst of them and I’m secure enough in my abilities that I don’t need anyone to affirm the quality of mine.
Does anyone else out there find you censor your writing or your work for others? Do you ever apologize to those closest to you when they encounter something that conflicts with their idea of what you should be doing?