Regarding the use of swear words in writing, speaking, and reading from my own works

When we use swear words in speech, there are certain do’s and don’t’s.  These have somewhat changed over the years, but I notice that despite the loosening of taboo, most people are cautious when using these words, and would agree with the statement, “It depends on the situation.”  I know a few people who choose not to use these words ever, and others who come out with the “F” word a number of times in each sentence they utter.

Toward the end of his life, Joe used the “F” word indiscriminately.  It wasn’t that he was angry, but rather that he’d adopted it as an adjective to use in a way that I use the word “wicked” in a sentence.  I believe he was hardly aware that he was doing it, and had no clue that someone might not like hearing the word.  People around us realized this, and lovingly forgave him.  They knew that when he came up with the “F” word, it was more often than not a sign that he was overwhelmed with positive emotion, or extremely impressed with something, such as, “That’s fucking amazing!”  I forgave him as well, even though I was occasionally embarrassed at places like restaurants where there were families seated nearby who may not want their kids to hear.

Which brings me to my next point: these words are still considered “adult language.”  So in many families, it is considered taboo to say these words in front of kids or to teach a child to use them.  We are warned of songs and movies that contain “adult language.”  In many situations, it’s the law that this disclaimer is stated in reviews, introductions, and  previews.  If “adult language” shows up in a movie, it may be given a rating that indicates it’s meant for older audiences.  If a movie is rated G, rest assured that you won’t find a single swear word in it.  But of course it’s rather naive to believe that a child won’t learn these words as his or her English vocabulary increases.

As a kid growing up in the sixties, I was a latecomer to this type of vocabulary.  To shelter a kid from “adult language” was the norm in those days.  Sure, my dad would come out with “damn” at times if he accidentally hit his finger while trying to hammer in a nail, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard the word.  It is weird how a kid mind works.   For whatever reason, if “shit” had ever been uttered in my presence, it didn’t register at all until I was taught the word by another kid, who told me it was a sin to say it and made me promise I wouldn’t taddle on her.  Eventually, we decided that some swear words were “dirtier” than others, so we ranked them.  “Damn” was barely a swear.  “Shit” was fairly bad.  “Fuck” was an absolute no-no.  We didn’t even think about “ass.”  Ass was a kind of farm work animal that was mentioned a zillion times in our very own  Bible, which of course among us Jews meant what the Christians refer to as the Old Testament, or, more specifically, the more holy part of the Bible, the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.  Yeah, there are asses all over the Torah.  I don’t recall hearing the word “asshole” until well into college.  These swear word compounds, such as “motherfucking” or “bullshit” weren’t used much back then, at least to my recollection, with the exception of “Goddammit.”

My dad said “damn” and “goddamn” quite a bit, but usually he’d mutter these under his breath and never used them in his “lectures” to us about poor grades or about the evils of faking an illness to stay home from school.  He’d swear to himself while fixing things if the fixes weren’t working out.  Occasionally, he’d get pissed and say, “Goddammit, Julie, can’t you see I’m busy?” or something like that.  My mom generally didn’t swear.

When I was in second grade…let’s see, I must have been just turning seven in the middle of the school year, in January…we went skiing and I had a bit of a tumble.  I had a minor ankle sprain.  I think I spent only a day on crutches, maybe two or three.  It didn’t hurt but it was a good way to get excused from stuff I didn’t really want to do, such as making my bed or cleaning my room.  My mom, remembering the advice of an aunt, had enrolled me in a music class, but I used the sprained ankle as excuse not to go.  (Actually, this kid Robbie Blake, who used to tease me horribly, attended this class and terrorized me with a clave drenched with his saliva.  Claves are generally used in pairs.  These are wood sticks you hit together that make a nice plunking sound upon impact.  I haven’t a clue if he had the other clave in his possession, but my main worry was the germ warfare.)  So I was delighted to use the sprain as the perfect excuse to get out of going to this music class.  My excuse worked brilliantly.  A few days without being tormented by Robbie was very nice.

It came  time for Show and Tell.  Do they still play this game in schools? I got up in front of Miss MacDonald’s class, my homeroom, and did my little song and dance about “damn music lessons.” I was clueless that this wasn’t said in class or anywhere at the school.  Miss MacDonald took me aside and lectured me on my inappropriate language.  I was so, so embarrassed and I rarely made any presentations for Show and Tell for quite some time.

I believe I was in junior high when my brothers made an amazing discovery: Philip Roth’sPortnoy’s Complaint. Yep, they had leafed through the pages and bookmarked (a real bookmark?  Huh?) the pages where there were zillions of swears.  We read this in secrecy, over and over to ourselves and each other, clueless as to what was going on in the book. Looking back, I am fairly certain that our absolute favorite passage was just someone’s rant.  There was a big problem that my brothers and I ran into when this paperback book ended up with its spine creased right at that page.  I think it was then that our parents found out.  I was embarrassed.  We weren’t punished, though. The book was right on the bookshelf and not hidden away somewhere. It wasn’t like we’d gone leafing through my mother’s underwear drawer.

The word “nigger” had long since change status, but was far from the swear word it is today.   My mom explained that the proper word was “negro,” and that “nigger” was bad because it was slang. We weren’t allowed to use slang, believe it or not.  The explanation as to what constituted slang was very confusing.  Slang was for low-lifes, my mom explained.  We are a proper Jewish family.

In our neighborhood, we kids joked that parents, upon hearing their kids swear, would put soap in the kids’ mouths. We kids debated at length whether this constituted morally appropriate punishment.  I heard rumor that there were a handful of parents that did, in fact, do the soap thing.  They were probably from the same families where having Dad take off his belt to dole out punishment was an everyday occurrence, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

I believe it was one of my brothers who sang the praises of the word “fuck.”  He pointed out that it was perhaps the most versatile word he knew.  What I know now is that when a word becomes that versatile and flexible in the way it is used, it automatically becomes meaningless.   After all, if one were to say “fuck you” to someone, what is one saying specifically?  Nothing harmful, really.  It does not constitute any kind of threat in the legal sense of in any other way.  It says nothing that is tangible, so how can it truly be an insult? Saying “fuck you” causes no bodily harm.  Bad vibes, yes, if you see human relation in terms of vibes.  One thing is clear, though, it is generally considered to be a rude thing to say.  One has to be careful when saying it in friendly manner or in jest, because surely it can be taken in a way that is not intended.

The last time I said the words “fuck you” to anyone, if I recall correctly, was while I was a patient at Walden Behavioral Care.  This was after I had gone to my room and burst into tears in utter frustration because once again, I’d tried to make a point while in a group and I’d been interrupted and told that what I was saying was “inappropriate.”  The staff absolutely loved using the word “inappropriate,” a word that is often used while correcting a child’s behavior.  Of course, I hadn’t even finished making my point.  My point was quite appropriate.  I was interrupted mid-sentence, in fact.  As a writer, I abhor censorship.  I was furious.  This was the one meeting I literally walked out of.

When you’re locked up and completely under control of these staff people in an eating disorders unit, that is, all bodily functions controlled and monitored by staff, all conversations monitored and eavesdropped on for “appropriateness,” you feel so, so vulnerable.  If you have never been to one of these places, you just don’t know.  The idea is that we are to completely give up all control over ourselves and bow down to these staff and their so-called research-backed “treatment.”  They make every attempt to brainwash us into thinking that we know nothing, we are totally wrong about the world, and they are always, always the right ones.   For some unfortunates, this brainwashing lasts a lifetime, and this is precisely how people are turned into chronic mental patients.  I’ve been there, trust me.

In my utter despair, I ran to my room, burst into tears, and let myself have a nice good cry.  I sobbed aloud.  A staff person came in after a while and, assuming wrongly I was approaching a state of mental instability instead of reaping the benefits of letting out my frustrations aloud, attempted to tactfully calm me, saying, “Julie, deep breaths….”  I was so furious, only because of her attitude, that is, her desire to censor my nice good cry in the name of keeping this unruly patient “under control,” that is, control of staff, that I blurted out that lovely two-word phrase, “Fuck you.”  The look of shock on her face was priceless.  I knew all along that the three actions I’d taken, that is, walking out after being censored, sobbing loudly, and then making the statement, “Fuck you,” were symbolic acts done as a matter of principle.

So in comes the covering weekend doc to see patients.  Let me tell you about weekend doctors: These are highly paid folks who see patients for about two minutes each, or not at all, and charge a zillion to their insurance.  At Walden, specifically on the eating disorders side, our weekend docs varied in quality of advice and prescribed “treatment” doled out.  Most were residents from nearby hospitals.  It is the law that while inpatient you have to be seen by a doctor every day, or at least I think it is, so this was all done as token so the hospital could say it had been done.  We were told by staff that the weekend docs really couldn’t do anything, anyway, except to prescribe something like an antacid or Tylenol, or, in rare cases, to respond to an emergency.  The weekend docs varied, like I said.  From my point of view, some were worthless, some were…shall I say, assholes?…and some were darned interesting to talk to.  Once, one of them took the time, quite a bit of time, actually, to carefully read my chart, but this, trust me, was a glaring exception, and this didn’t take place at Walden, hardly.  (Let me add that most doctors of every specialty in most hospitals do not read patient charts but lie and say they do.)

It was no surprise to me, after having made this “fuck you” statement, that I was assigned as first in line to see the weekend doc.  The staff, or, rather, most of the staff, probably figured I needed to be heavily medicated, that is, chemically forced to shut up and obey.  Meanwhile, I had done quite a bit of written analysis of the situation.  I considered myself well-prepared to see this doc.  And I hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with one that fell into the “asshole” classification.

I walked in.  The young doc I saw before me was a bearded guy, wearing, if I recall correctly, the classic hospital uniform often worn by nurses on medical floors.  They no longer wear white, neither males nor females, except for their lab coats.   This garb consists of loose button-down shirts or shirts that are snapped and have handy pockets, and drawstring or elastic waist pants that resemble the “johnny” pants often worn by patients.  Women might wear flowery tops, and nurses in pediatric wards might wear teddy bear tops or tops that have candy canes, confetti, and ice cream cones printed on them, or perhaps cutesie cartoon kittens and puppies.  You get the idea.  The guy had a pen in his hand and my chart already out there before him.

He grinned at me.  I grinned back.  Our eyes met.

Anyone who sets pen to paper is a writer, but I was the only patient there, to my knowledge, with graduate training in writing.  My training gave me incredible ability.  I was only then beginning to realize this power, to seize it and put it to good use.   So the fact that I had my notebook, with my writings inside, right in my hand while I sat there gave me all the confidence I needed.

The doc had already been primed by the staff, of course.  I knew they’d told him I was “out of control.”  I knew they’d hoped he would medicate me so I’d be less of a nuisance and less of a threat to them.  I was a threat, actually, because I challenged the lies they used to keep control over the entire patient population.

The person he saw before him was hardly out of control.  She was intelligent, well-educated, well-poised, witty, and articulate.  In fact my skills in these areas were emerging rather suddenly and were a delight to me.  With my written notes to back me, I told him in the most organized fashion I could, the story of what had happened.  I ended with the statement I made a bit ago regarding the absolute harmlessness of the phrase “fuck you.”  I pointed out that I had not hit anyone or caused bodily harm and I had not harmed myself.  Then I said, “You know, doc, I could have said something far, far more hurtful, but I didn’t.  I could have said, “You’re fat.”

Even before I said this, I had already won him over.  We launched into a lively, intelligent, and enjoyable discussion.  We laughed quite a bit.  He seemed curious about my writing, so I shared a bit about my history, how I earned my degree…stuff like that.  I asked him questions about his own life, how his studies were going, and I must say, of all the talks I had with doctors the entire time I’d been there, this was the most enjoyable and stimulating.  I skipped out of there, precious notebook in hand, grinning at the nurses, whom I guessed would soon hear of the outcome: no meds, no chemical restraints for me.  No sirree.  Mostly because of my well-thought-out analysis of the words, “fuck you.”

Yes, writing is empowering.  It’s the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.  But powerful writing cannot be overdone or it loses its power.  If you use too many exclamation points, they lose their power.  If you use all CAPS, you risk discrediting yourself. And the same goes for overuse of swear words.  Depending on your style, a swear word can be used to shock or amuse, or both.  You might have one of your characters swear, and the meaning, intensity, and perhaps shock value of the swear will vary depending on the character.  If the reader sees too much “fuck this” and “fuck that,” the word “fuck” fades into invisibility, losing all meaning and power.

I learned this the hard way while writing my chapter “Walking the Line” in my soon-to-be release-in-paperback memoir, This Hunger Is Secret: My Journeys Through Mental Illness and Wellness.  The voice of my character, that is, my voice, is a bit different in this chapter from the voice I wrote in in other chapters.  My awesome advisor at Goddard, Beatrix Gates, was quick to point out my overuse of swear words.  She made many suggestions as to how I could trim them out of the text, showing me line-by-line examples of how I might do this.  I immediately saw what she was saying and realized how my overuse of profanity weakened my writing.  In fact, all at once it was quite glaring and obvious to me.  So I began the enjoyable process of very careful editing.  I paid attention to rhythm and timing, and kept in mind the subtle humor I meant to convey as well.

Unfortunately, I did a reading of this piece far too soon, before I had done adequate trimming.  It was the only reading I did while at Goddard that I’d say completely flopped.  Not only that, but the glaring faults in my writing came clear to me while I was actually standing there, reading aloud to the audience.  I watched in dread, out of the corner of my eye, the faces in the audience fall, and fall, and fall, not just a couple of faces, but what seemed to me like every single face before me.

Oh shit.  Shit shit shit shit shit.  I let my audience down.  I disappointed them.  I suck as a writer. I am an amateur, a coward.  And so on.

Since then, I’ve been very careful when choosing what to read to an audience.  Whether the work contained swear words or not didn’t matter so much as whether the work was adequately polished.  I vowed that I would never, ever suck in front of an audience again.  I decided that if I were to present an unpolished work, that is, a draft, it had to be presented in a certain way otherwise my presentation would flop miserably.

Yes, I have read unpolished works in front of audiences since then. But I learned my lesson.  Remember the show “Candid Camera”?  This was unpolished work at its finest.  Before us, we didn’t see professional actors, but ordinary people with no training whatsoever who didn’t even know they were being filmed.  And yet the show was hilarious.  It was tastefully done, ironically, by lacking taste. The scenes were filmed as is, and then–hey, listen up, this is important–the film was clipped and edited and introduced with oh-just-so-perfect explanation, not too much and not too little, taking into account the concepts of suspense and anticipation. My guess that after all these decades, the show is still on air and still well-loved by young and old alike.

So I kept this in mind, quite a bit ago, when I read from my work, The It Notebook.  This work is in fact what ended up being what I might call a “focused journal.”  I’ve never altered any of it from its original, unpolished state.  And yet I felt the work had enough merit and was timely enough that I wanted to present it to a live audience.

I picked out excerpts for their emotional intensity.  I made sure that there was not only variety but stark contrast between the segments I chose.  I kept my my entire reading relatively brief.  I put all my heart, guts, and soul into my delivery.  What I was presenting was a window, a rare glimpse into a very painful part of my life that had only recently ended, almost too recently.  I stood there and wept while I read, not a lot, not in a way that interfered with my reading, not in a way that would make me appear helpless or out of control or someone to be pitied.  My tears, which were of course involuntary, represented my candidness and honesty and depth of sharing.  And you know something?  It worked.  It worked damn well.

This reading, done at the now-defunct Mouthful Reading Series, was in a way a closure for me on a chapter of my life, the chapter I think of as the time I spent with It.  This time period seems like so, so long ago now, like history I guess.  While I was going through it all,  I had no clue if I would spend years with It, or if It would go away fairly quickly.  In fact, the latter was the case.  The act of writingThe It Notebook was what It was all about.  The notebook had to be written because it was an intrinsic part of what I was going through.  Never mind that while It was happening in my head, there was little else I could do but write.

I wrote.  I empowered myself.  It was all just so cool, now that I think of it.  Looking back, I was beginning to find my Power long, long before it became clear to me that I was anything but powerless.  This Power lay within the act of writing.  It was always, always there, waiting me to grasp onto, and for the sake of survival, hold deeply within me, with full commitment, ever so close to my heart.

2 thoughts on “Regarding the use of swear words in writing, speaking, and reading from my own works”

    1. Hey, MAZ, how are you and Mercy Sabeline? PZ and I are headed off to the vet very shortly. We’re going to Merwin Animal Clinic for the first time so that PZ can get a routine yearly shot. I’ll be holding her in my lap on the bus, so I’m glad I remembered to wait on the Frontline application until after our return. I’m sure that Puzzle will enjoy the adventure. I hear the wait is long, as the clinic does walk-in only, no scheduled appointments. All the more joy for Puzzle!

      Julie

Feedback and comments welcome!