I took full advantage of the extra hour of sleep that came with the end of Daylight Saving Time. It was well after noon before I rolled out of bed and made my way to the shower. (I had planned to go to church this morning, but ended up sleeping through and turning off one alarm after another.)
This year’s project is non-fiction, but I find myself going over the battle about using “bad words” when I write fiction. Using them for the mere effect stopped being thrilling by the time I was in junior high, and when I was 13, I felt so daring and bold by writing, “It was one hell of a night” in my diary, which was for my eyes alone.
Parents are usually unsuccessful in sifting bad language from the ears of their children. It’s a moment of truth when an elementary school-aged child asks, “Mommy, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” It’s especially sobering when the parents, if they are at all honest, realize their child has heard it from them, and not in the back of the school bus.
My mother was always fond of telling people that, at age seven or eight, I had set out to write my own dictionary. When I began the project (I think I got as far as aardvark), I asked if I was allowed to include “bad words” in the dictionary. Both my parents assured me that it was fine for me to do it. I think they figured that if I had gotten that far, I was entitled to indulge myself.
Henry Digby Beste wrote a memoir about when Samuel Johnson heard a compliment about his dictionary:
Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister Mrs. Brooke, they were, every now and then, honoured by the visits of Dr. Samuel Johnson. He called on them one day, soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Among other topics of praise, they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. `What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’ said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.
When I first became active in the Unitarian Universalist Church’s youth movements, I was exposed to parents who were much more lax about policing their kids’ language than I had known previously. They did not give them carte blanche to use the words anywhere, but were usually pretty easygoing about hearing four-letter words from their own children.
On the surface, I saw some inconsistency, although upon further reflection, there was a logic to this inconsistency. I was visiting a friend whom I had met at one of the summer conferences, and he was going through a stack of mail on the kitchen counter. He was reading one of the letters, and said, angrily, “Oh, God damn it!”
His mother was in the room, and she turned to him, totally calm. “What’s the matter?”
He pointed to the letter. “Tufts fucked up the paperwork I sent them last month!” he said.
That was when she glared at him. “Tufts did what?”
This cowed him a little. “Uh… messed up the paperwork I sent.” Only then did she let her eyes off of him.
I think this was when I learned the difference between “cussing,” and what is known as profanity or swearing. She didn’t bat an eye when he “took the Lord’s name in vain,” which is swearing (in vain), or profaning the name of the Deity, but she was angry that he used words defaming biological functions.
Moviegoers collectively gasped when Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, spoke the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” at the end of Gone With the Wind (1939). The first movie that I saw that freely used profanity was American Graffiti (1973), and I was 13 at the time, and going to Catholic school, where the strongest interjection permissible was “Oh, my gosh!” (I now wonder why there was never any Bible study that focused on Ezekiel 23:20.)
Soon after, through my own reading, I learned about Lenny Bruce, the comedian who had been arrested onstage for obscenity, and who had become an icon to defenders of the First Amendment.
I took two very good creative writing classes from the late Jack Matthews when I was a student at Ohio University. After reading the stories that many of us had submitted to him, he said, “I do want your dialogue to be realistic. That does not mean that every other word in your story has to be ‘fucking’ or ‘asshole.’ I was in the Coast Guard, and every other word there was ‘fucking,’ so I’ve heard quite enough of it.” I realized, though, that if my character smashes his thumb with a hammer, he is not going to say, “Golly gee whiz, that hurts.”
And I was hesitant about speaking these words aloud, even when I was away from writing class. I was in the Rare Book Center at Alden Library at O.U. during one afternoon, and I needed to look at Ed Sanders’ self-published poem Fuck God in the Ass. I was so timid about it that I wrote out the request with the small pew pencil on a slip of paper, and slid it across the librarian’s desk. At another time, I would have been amused by the widening of his eyes, but I felt a little embarrassed. He probably would have doubted that such a title existed, although I had provided him with a call number.
So, when writing, I have always treated obscene words like gold coins, spending them frugally and not allowing them into circulation unless there is reason for it. I took this a little too far in my still-unpublished (but completed) novella The Textbook Diaries, written in a stream-of-consciousness, my vain attempt to combine Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying with Charles Bukowski’s Post Office.
Lenny Bruce did get revenge for being arrested during his stand-up routine. He performed his “dirtiest” show in a nightclub that was wall-to-wall police, and they could not lay a hand on him. The scene is dramatized here by Dustin Hoffman in Lenny (1974):