Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Curses!

“I spit out like a sewer hole.” – Pete Townshend, Who Are You
[WARNING: There are some actual, honest-to-goodness curse words in here.]
I am terrible when it comes to cursing. In the right setting I am capable of letting fly with all manner of expletives, words of vile origin and viler meaning. I’m not up there with Ralphie’s father from A Christmas Story, a man who “worked in profanity like other men worked in oils or clay.” Ralphie tells us, “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” I’m not quite as creative or imaginative as that, which, I suppose, is a good thing.
There are two ‘right circumstances’ that get me cursing. One is when I hang around with my old hockey buddies. We curse like, well, hockey players. It’s amazing how easily you slip into old habits around the right people.
The other ‘right circumstance’ is when I’m alone and something goes very, very wrong. Like, say, when I’m not able to get a chapter just exactly right. Then, I can sit at my desk, or pace about the office cursing away, while the dog gives me that worried look that dogs seem to have perfected.
Physical pain is a subset of the ‘something goes very, very wrong’ situation, and is an even better inspiration for a good curse-out session. About four years ago I broke my ankle while walking the dog (Okay, I was running, and it was midnight, but at least I wasn’t drunk). My ankle rolled on an uneven edge of pavement, I face-planted in the street, and out it came, at the top of my lungs:

I don’t know how I didn’t wake the neighbors.
In general, though, I’m very careful about cursing. I don’t curse in front of people I don’t know, and never in front of the kids. And I never, ever cursed in front of my parents. I slipped. Once. I said “suck” in front of my father. Now, most people today don’t consider that to be a bad word at all, but I operated on the assumption that it was, even though I really didn’t understand it. “This sucks!” someone says. Sucks? What do you mean? What does it suck? When we first started delving into profanity, kids at school would say things like “That sucks shit,” so I guess it was something like that. Anyway, I don’t remember my father saying anything in response, but I got The Look: the kind that made you want to curl up and die in a lonely corner somewhere. That was enough for me. Even as an adult, I steered clear of everything in front of them: Damn, Piss, Crap – even the mildest profanities were on my ‘do not utter’ list.
In public discourse of any kind, even internet forums and blogs, I follow the same approach in terms of profanity that I took when speaking with my parents, or anyone I didn’t know well: I avoid it. The way I figure it, I don’t know who you are, or how easily you’re offended, so I’ll just err on the side of extreme caution. Cursing like Jules Winnfield might work in a Quentin Tarantino film, but it doesn’t do you any favors in the Real World (of course, talking like Ned Flanders might not do you any favors, either).
Writing fiction presented a big challenge for me, because there’s just something about writing these words down, about committing them to paper, that makes me cringe even more. When you say something out loud, it’s there and gone. “I said what? Prove it!” But when you write it, it’s part of the permanent record. I don’t want to leave a blue trail that leads to my door. Even when the situation calls for it, I think about my kids reading my work, and I pause. Never mind that they’ve heard it (I’ve watched Pulp Fiction with my daughter – according to imdb, the eff-bomb is dropped 265 times) before, they don’t hear it from me.
It’s also more forgivable when you say something bad in the heat of the moment. Bash your thumb with a hammer and drop an F-bomb – it’s understandable. It slipped out. It happens. Write it down in dialogue, or as part of the narrative? Well, you can’t say “Oops, it slipped.” It’s written down, it’s considered and weighed, and is very deliberate.
But it’s in the name of story. And the first time I came upon a place in a work of fiction where ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ just seemed absolutely necessary – I clenched my teeth and typed it out.
And it felt good.
I guess the next hurdle is a steamy sex scene. This just keeps getting harder, doesn’t it?
Have a nice weekend, all.

3 Responses

  1. I know what you mean about commiting those words to print, so to speak. I use the F-bomb twice in my MS and there's just no way around it. The character and the situation call for it. It would seem less authentic without it.

    Still, I find myself wondering how others–people I know and respect–will perceive it. I guess it's one of those things that can't be helped. Great post!

    You too. Enjoy your weekend. 🙂

  2. This post made me smile. I have the same problem as your other commenter though, where it's not so much that it bothers me as how people I know might read it. When I first started writing at 13, my mom said she found out that I had a much broader vocabulary than she thought, and that was without ever dropping the F word. Then I knew that people did notice what bad words you put on paper. I still flinch at writing kissing–not sure when I'll get up the nerve to try a sex scene, but good luck with it.

  3. Commenting a bit late on the comments — first, thanks for reading and responding. Second, I guess one of the things we have to learn is to just not give a … about what people might think beyond 'is it good or not?' If we keep worrying about what someone is going to think of us for writing in dirty-sexy bits, or rough language, or anything, we might as well not write at all.

    That said, it is hard to let go of those feelings. Maybe it will get easier as we go along.

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