Writing with F-Bombs, Curses and Words of Power

I think a lot about curse words. I hear them from my children, the television, the world. They come at me from every angle. This may be, in part, why I don’t generally use them unless someone scares me or I stub a toe. It took me many years of consciously trying to get comfortable with the word “fuck.” If you paused when you read that to wonder why, you aren’t the only one. I often wondered why I wanted to desensitize myself to a swear that sits one from the top of the American swear chain. The answer is, now that I have lost my revulsion/fear of it, I can utilize it’s strength by adding it to my own. I’m still not there with “cunt,” frequently ranked #1.

I believe in the power of words. Throughout history, words have been considered magical–power words, true names, curses. Words carry community, define our abilities, group us in classes, restrain us, free us, transport us to other worlds . . . When it comes to illness or struggle, words can greatly empower, allowing us to understand ourselves or loved ones in ways previously impossible because we did not have the language to grasp individual need. And, just as easily, words can block us and tear us down.

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Recently, I read an interesting blog post from another writing instructor who said he disagrees with use of the term “shit” to describe any sort of writing, and will never use it with his students. Specifically, he was referring to applying the word as a quality assessment of one’s work. I shared my post Writing the Shit in which I talk about “shit” in the literal sense, as the mucky life experiences we often get mired in but can choose to metaphorically compost through writing and use as fertilizer for growing a better future. He said my essay didn’t sway him, and that’s fine by me, but in my classes, I teach students to write as a release, to accept their negative experiences as negative, so I have no qualms using “shit” in that context. Basically, I’m using “shit” as a power word. Still, I would never describe what anyone has written as “shitty,” even if I did enjoy Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” (read it here) as an affirmation that written words don’t have to come out right the first time.

My son uses “bitch” as a power word. He flings it at me when he is overwhelmed, overtaxed, hungry and unable to grapple with the multilayered demands of the external world. You know, when he’s having a tantrum. On one hand, this is not okay with me. I try not to take offense, but it happens. I’m human. On the other, because my son never uses the word unless he’s really, truly hit his max, it’s helpful. It doesn’t matter if he’s not even a tween yet and adolescent in his vocabulary–because he only uses it at critical mass, the word never loses its pungency, always grabs my attention. Plus, there is evidence to show that swearing eases pain among other uses. The same is true in writing.

Allow me to linger here for a moment. When you are learning to write more effectively, you spend time on long and short sentences, when to use them to heighten your emotional setting. Alternating sentence lengths and then using several short sentences in a row is a great way to build to a climax . . . which is where you would deploy your X-rated language and garner the greatest reader response. (It doesn’t have to be a power play. The four-letter word might just be the best word.) Pop-culture is dotted with humorous characters defined by their expletive-laced dialogue, but they are only funny when surrounded by straight-laced (and often highly intellectual) individuals who offset their (usual) idiocy.

To date, this piece contains the most nefarious language of anything I’ve ever written publicly. I’m sure I have a couple of mercurial pieces kicking around in my journals, but the gist of what I’m saying is I only deploy questionable language in two situations: when I privately need to express the emotion in order to release the thoughts associated with it, or to drive home an emotional point in a story, poem or essay. I try not to use this language verbally because it perceptually dumbs me down. Let’s face it, I’m a woman of color in America. I’m already viewed at a disadvantage. Just take a peek at the stereotypically gendered versions of this e-card:

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Sigh.

Back to the subject at hand. I’m a coach for people who are working through trauma. Aside from being perceived as less intelligent by the majority, if I come at clients with profanity in my conversational speech, I am choosing to make less room for their emotions because they may receive my strong language as emotional aggression.

This isn’t to say swear words can’t be used compassionately. I recently bucked to attention when my therapist reflected my emotions back to me using the term “fuck.” I’m sure I wore my shock through my whole body. The truth is, he got it just right. He said for me what I hadn’t been able to say to myself. The word and emotion connected and I sat up straighter, more equipped to own the issue and move on. It got me thinking about how friends will listen to what’s stressing you and tell you, “That’s fucked up.” It feels so good to be heard.

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But let’s not limit cursing to negative situations. “Shit” is regularly employed to positive ends. You just won one thousand dollars? “Shit!” Shout it, draw it out, whisper it. The aim is the the same. It’s an utterance of excitement, joy or approval. What if, instead of “Shitty First Drafts”, the chapters was titled “Shit! I Finished My First Draft!” It tells a different story, right?

Truth be told, I have significant difficulty wading through expletives when they are aimed at people. We are all complicated and make mistakes. I would even broaden the popular social definition of “profanity” to include any sort of name-calling. This is why I humble myself when I feel a grudge forming and guard my tongue. It’s tough to engage anyone who swears for the sake of swearing. I never know when to take them seriously. I tend to distance myself or ignore swearing when it makes me uncomfortable. But I don’t believe in censoring the individual. While I would step in and suggest a more gentle approach should they turn those words inward, I believe it’s worth it to know a swear and know when to swear it. Power in words.

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5 Discussion to this post

  1. the word “fuck” can also be used in a positive context. For instance, “That’s fucking rad, man. High five!”

    As an infant, I was baptized Catholic and started out in a parochial school. My Godmother made us drop a quarter in a can on her mantle over the fireplace if we used any language she considered a sin and using the word “fuck” would have led to soap in the mouth. She did that to me once. I never used the “F” word again until the Marines.

    Then in MCRD boot camp and beyond, I learned how to lace every incomplete and complete sentence that came out of my mouth with profanity. U.S. Marines are masters at using profanity in every context. If I could remember some of the songs we sang while running thirty miles with fifty pounds of sand in our backpacks, the vulgarity in the cadence of those songs we all sang would probably curl straight hair in most civilians. And when we were drinking (booze) the profanity thickened intensely.

    After going to college on the GI Bill, I eventually left the corporate private sector and went into teaching in the public schools where I never used profanity in my classroom, but teaching in high school I heard the F word often every day from students, and most of them used it poorly and it lost its shock value.

    When challenged by the occasional teen student who used profanity in my classroom and earned a referral, I said that I could cuss with the best of them and they were amateurs compared to Marines, but in my classroom profanity got in the way of learning because of its shock value to disrupt.

    Then there was the day our seven year old daughter (she’s 24 now) started cussing like a Marine in front of my wife, her mother. Boy did I get in trouble. It seems that the child picked up the profanity from me when she was helping me on projects around the house and when I made a mistakes, I’d often cuss myself out using what I had learned in the Marines. She didn’t lose what she learned from me in college either. While she was at Stanford her friends thought she was prim and straight laced in her 90 pound body until something made her mad one day in her second year and she shocked everyone within hearing in the dorm where she lived. What came out of her mouth that day was pure U.S. Marine vocabulary.

    In a written story,I think profanity has a place if it develops the uniqueness of a character in the novel. My second novel takes place in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and the main character is a recon Marine sniper and all the other marines including him use profanity throughout the novel that is fitting for them. But that didn’t stop at least one reviewer who complained about the profanity in the story that she thought was inappropriate. I don’t think she knew any Marines. Everything is relative.

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    • Lloyd,
      I have been thinking about this story comment and how happy it makes me. I keep coming back to reply, but when you love a thing so much you are sometimes rendered speechless. Every excited response I start to make, I then cut myself off. Thank you so much for sharing this. I love the multilayered uses of profanity. A friend is expanding my horizons, so I now text profanely with aplomb. 🙂 xoxo

      Shawna

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  2. […] Writing With F-Bombs, Curses and Word of Power came about through an interesting Twitter exchange. You’ll have to read the story. Also, it turns out a lot of you either love cursing or are too timid to try. […]

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  3. Raymond says:

    I just had to write something in here. I really enjoyed that piece very much. In essence I don’t like to swear in my writing either. I think it dulls the tone of the writer. Perhaps one or two times I will drop the F-bomb in a post such as one I wrote about Donald Trump earlier, but that was more-so to add effect. Like you said; when the Teacher unexpectedly starts swearing, everyone gasps in shock.

    I think I’ll be reading a lot more of your work. I’ve never heard of a writer that helps people overcome trauma; but I do know that it works. Early 2013 I took keyboard to WordPress to record my past discrepancies, traumas, my current struggles and everything that I felt wasn’t being heard. You know? It worked. And I became really good with emotions and writing.

    So I started a real blog eventually.

    I’ll be following you, lovely piece 🙂

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