My bad habit is something I’ve by now given up. Well, mostly.
Swearing. It’s coarse, tacky, definitely unladylike … but let’s face it, nothing vents pressure like letting fly with a really satisfying curse. The apex of my swearing history occurred during my news reporter days when, in certain situations, I would swear like a merchant marine. I’m a little ashamed to admit this when I consider certain people who have never heard me swear and would be shocked to imagine this filthy habit. But then, not really ashamed. It was situational: I wouldn’t swear in front of children, or people who would be offended, or during settings where professional, appropriate behavior was expected.
But newspaper people can be a boisterous, gruff bunch. And the beat that I covered at the paper, City Hall, meant I was often rubbing elbows with old-school politicians and union guys: at work, yes, but also at happy hour downtown or the neighborhood dive bar. I was acting like one of the boys. It wasn’t a calculated effort, it just happened. And I can’t lie, I’ll admit I enjoyed watching the union guys look shocked when I cursed right along with them. See, I’m of petite stature, and overall I’m a pretty boring, do-good kind of gal. There’s not much about me that’s shocking. It’s a rare treat.
Though the late George Carlin seemed to think the shock over swear words is pretty stupid, I think we have to admit that these words have power. Maybe their only power comes from the fact that they’re forbidden, but it’s power nonetheless. If there’s a word we are not allowed to say because it’s shocking and crude in polite society, when a really strong, sudden emotion comes up, it’s only natural to want to exclaim with one of those forbidden, powerful words.
Cursing is on my mind lately because I recently received a gentle admonishment from a relative about some swearing in Real Life & Liars. It went something like this —thoughtful and intelligent people find other words to use. Well, she’s right. But I fall back on the classic author defense: My characters were not behaving in a thoughtful and intelligent way when they cursed. I write realistic fiction, and the kind of people I write are fallible in many ways, occasional foul language being only one of them.
I’ll give you an example, but I’ll bleep it out because we have young-adult authors and readers around here. My character, Katya, is furious because Charles, her husband, seems confused and overwhelmed by what to do with his own children, and she thinks – she thinks it, does not even say it out loud – Tend to them yourself for once in your life, you lousy, selfish (blankety blank.) It rhymes with “what a trucker.” Not thoughtful or intelligent I’ll grant you, but honest and angry.
Recently, when working on my second book, I was writing an exchange of dialogue and in one character’s speech, the worst swear word I know came right out of my keyboard. Four letters, starting with C. Yep, that one. Even in my merchant-marine days that would have made me cringe.
The character uttering this vile word is a despicable, abusive cretin, and he was trying to be as vicious as possible. In other words, absolutely in character.
However, I deleted the word and used another expression that still drove the point home. You see, that word is the most shocking one I could choose and I fear that if I used it, the reader would be yanked out of the moment, shocked so badly that the one word would overshadow the whole scene.
Even in swearing, I choose my words carefully, and that’s what being a writer is all about.
Now. This post is supposed to be about Deb bad habits. I’m not a reporter anymore. I’m a mom, and as such I’ve (mostly) cleaned up my language. That means if I drop a pan on my foot I’m inclined to mutter, “Son of a.” and stop right there. (Which meant my infant daughter went around once saying something that sounded like “Suh-va! Suh-va!”)
I generally try to use thoughtful and intelligent language in my everyday speech (though it’s harder when I drop a pan on my foot). No promises, though, when it comes to my badly behaved, impulsive, occasionally crass characters.
[Brief aside: The fabulously successful and talented Jennifer Weiner had to confront this recently in the setting of a public reading, when a bookstore asked her to please tone down her language considering the Sunday afternoon time of the reading and the proximity to the children’s section. The whole story is here on Edward Champion’s blog. Looking this up allowed me to Google “Jennifer Weiner reading cock” by the way, which I thought was really funny.]