I recently suggested to one of my co-workers that she might enjoy reading one of my favorite books. After discovering that like food and men, we have very similar tastes in books, I was excited to offer her a list of books I thought she might like. Among them was Sugar by Bernice McFadden.
Today, while we were sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops discussing everything from work (we’re teachers and we’re dedicated *shrugs*) to food (we really love food) and the psychological makeup of people and how they accept coaching (she was trying to help me get my mind right for my new position). As we were chatting, she happened to mention that she was reading and enjoying Sugar, which she called juicy. “She used the work pussy like six times already,” she laughed.
I paused. After the many times I have read that book, I could not recall ever reading a curse word. Not that I didn’t think the words were there. I just found it odd that this sounded like news to me. I was like, “Really? Pussy?” (Ok, transparency here, I didn’t actually say the word aloud, but I thought it okay?) Intrigued, I searched the shelves of the bookcases in my living room until I located my very worn copy of Sugar. I began reading it immediately. Actually, re-reading it. And sure enough, right there on page 33 I came across the first use of the p**** word. On that page it says, “They came for the conversation, corn liquor, catfish, and Lacey pussy.” Right there in black and white for all readers to see: the p**** word. But why hadn’t it stood out to me before?
Is it because I tend to swear like a sailor daily? And, so swear words have no shock value for me. Not unless they are coming out of the mouths of teenagers walking the halls where I teach. And even then, I’m not so much shocked that they are using the word as I am bothered by the fact that they feel it’s okay to say it in my presence. I want to feel like an adult around them and so that means no cursing, right? Or is it because the presence of the curse words didn’t take anything away from the story? If anything, they added to it. To use the word womanhood when referring to prostitutes would seem like a dishonest cheat. The word pussy fits in the passage.
But seeing the word did two things for me. One, it made me want to re-read Sugar again, so I’m currently reading the novel. I only paused in my reading to write this blog post and to finish tweaking a sentence in one of my pieces that I’ve been struggling with for a couple of days. And, two, it caused me to revisit my own discomfort of using profanity or swear words in my own work. Whenever I write a swear word, it feels awfully much like sneaking behind my mother’s back cursing and I have to look around to make sure she’s not there to be disrespected by my use of “bad words.” I have used “bad words” in some of my poems and a couple of my stories. In fact, at one of the book shows I attended where I was selling my books, a woman thumbed through Blues of a Love Junkie, saw the curse words and put it back. Then she chided me on my decision to use profanity in my poems. Including swear words in my writing has never been a deliberate decision. Instead it has occurred naturally during the writing process. And I sometimes have to resist the urge to self-edit and wash away some of the meaning of my text in order to present writing that is pure as fresh snow.
In my writing group a couple of months ago, I was reading a creative nonfiction piece I’m working on and it includes a couple of swear words and when I came across them as I was sharing it aloud with the other members, my voice grew visibly lower. It was as if I was embarrassed to say the words aloud. I knew the words I’d written were the best words to use; I’d tried revising the sentences several ways, but they always read better with the words in, so I let them stay in. My writing was stronger with the words, but I still couldn’t explain the level of discomfort I felt when reading my work aloud.
Was this the effect of my stern mother and her rule about using profanity or something entirely different? More than likely my upbringing has some impact on my use of profanity in my writing, but that can’t be the only thing that makes me feel uncomfortable using profanity. Could it be that I’m worried about how people perceive my work when I use profanity? That I think it will mark me as a lazy uninspired writer? Possibly.
There are many reasons for and against using profanity in fiction. The most obvious reason to advocate for profanity, though, is that it feels authentic. People curse. When they’re angry. When they’re unbothered. When someone is agitating them. They just curse. They do. And to remove those curse words to soothe the sensibilities of a few readers feels like using Clorox on a load of colored clothes: it’s just wrong. So, most times, I make the decision to leave the words in my writing. If I can’t be honest and authentic in my writing, what’s the purpose?
Norman Mailer is famously known for substituting, at the behest of his publisher, the word fug for the word fuck in his novel The Naked and the Dead. When Tallulah Bankhead met him one day after reading the novel, she said to him, “….you’re the man who can’t spell that word.” So, while the choice to remove the “bad word” appeased some, there were others who noticed. Still, Mailer has cemented a place in literature as a larger than life novelist, essayist, and playwright. Which means, if your writing is good, if it resonates with readers, and if you can make readers care, then you have succeeded. And, for me, that’s good enough.
So, it seems that when it comes to using profanity in fiction or literature, a writer should do whatever she feels comfortable with. Be honest. Be creative. And be true to your characters. Tell your stories in a way that is uniquely your own. What more can any reader ask of you?
Peace & Love,