Yesterday I picked up a Steven Pinker book called The Stuff of Thought which happened to be in the library where I was working. Always keen to kill ten minutes or so by reading something interesting, I was hooked by the chapter entitled “The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television.” Obviously it’s about swearing, something I do a great deal, with much imagination (I grew up in a household where fuck-a-duck was quite popular) and with little effect.
I also swear a great deal in my writing.
When I first started swearing in my novels, it was with a feeling of letting the Real Me out the cage: I couldn’t let out too much as the Real Me might run amok like a wild animal and eat up the rest of the population. But in recent years – right up to the point where I decided to stop writing for a while and start marketing – my writing had become so full of rage and violence that it was littered with every form of fuck imaginable. The Real Me had not only escaped the cage but was running wild in the streets of shame.
I’m in two minds about this: I have no desire to suppress the Real Me, particularly in my work, because the sole purpose of my writing is to tap the very darkest of spaces inside myself and confront them and hurl them at the world to show how scarily brave I am. And if it means swearing rather a lot (although probably not even a quarter as much certain movies I can think of in which virtually every word uttered is an expletive, but then, perhaps it’s all just relative) then surely I’m just expressing myself without restraint?
On the other hand, I get very, very tired of hearing F-words when I walk down the street. It seems it’s all I hear coming from people’s mouths and it’s really boring and dull and monotonous and unimaginative. When are people going to come up with new swear words? Is it going to be every form of fuck till the dawn of time? Oh, and that tired old argument that “fuck” means “sex” and “sex” means “making love” which is a nice thing so “fuck” must actually be a nice word…..fuck has actually got more than one meaning. And sex enforced means rape which isn’t such a nice thing. But I’m not trying to moralistic or prudish: this is about imagination.
Obviously, there’s a time and place for swearing when it’s rude and when it isn’t, but this is not what concerns me. I’m concerned about the way in which I convey or express the rage and anger and violence I – or my characters – feel. I wonder if I’m taking the easy way out because swearing is telling, it’s not showing, and whenever a piece of work is going badly, it’s almost always because I’m telling the story, not showing it.
I recently started work on a short story and despite several starts, can’t get anywhere with it. It has no voice. There’s no atmosphere or tension. It’s not terrible, probably more than adequate, but it’s not what I’m looking for. I’ve developed it from a flashback scene that occurred in the last novel I wrote – the one that forced me to stop writing. The character comes from that dark space inside me but isn’t evil – this is really hard to do. I’ve written with great relish of characters who ooze evil and isn’t it interesting – they never once had to swear to show how bad they were. You knew they were bad by the things they did. My most successful evil character in fact appeared to be a victim and never did anything that was obviously “bad” – yet all the other characters, particularly the heroine, were compelled to torture him in horrific ways, leading to scenes that positively dripped blood (this is “Commences” in case anyone cares). And yet a dark character who is in fact good I have to express with every fuck word available.
After reading excerpts from Mr Pinker’s book, it occurred to me what an interesting exercise in restraint it would be if I could write a furiously angry story about a woman who was clearly mad and who would – on a day she forgot to take her meds – be found shaking her metaphorical fist at a building and shouting F words at it……but without using a single swear word. How much rage would I be able to express without uttering a single fuck?
When my daughter was learning to talk, I was hunting through a box of stuffed toys one day, looking for some or other animal she had lost. “Fuck,” she said, at the tender age of two and a half or whatever it was. I was HORRIFIED. Being a smart mummy, I didn’t admonish her. I just stopped swearing in front of her. Please note, I didn’t stop swearing – that wasn’t the point. But I believe that you teach by example and it worked. (It works for other things too, like eating vegetables!)
I wonder if restraint will somehow produce better work, better writing, not by suppressing the Real Me, but by forcing myself to be more imaginative. In the end, isn’t imagination what it’s all about?