As you may have read before, I have a strange and evolving relationship with profanity. Having grown up in a home that outlawed even pseudo-swearing (we couldn’t say gosh or shut up, among other things) paired with growing up with a mental illness elicited in me a dreadful fear of curse words– more than was ever healthy, even for a child. For many years, my intrusive thoughts centered around illicit words, which developed in me a deep sense of guilt.
In my ERP therapy, I had to learn to think those words, even say them. In doing so, I was stealing back power from my OCD, putting it more and more under my heel. It was during ERP and in the year that followed that I realized a couple things:
1) Words are just words. That said, “just words” still pack as much power as a nuke.
2) You can harm with words that are not profanity– worse than with profanity, in some cases. A hard-hitting insult or an insincere comment can sting far worse than the word shit.
3) Shit does not equal poop. Ass does not equal butt. Damn does not equal darn. They just really, really don’t. They are completely different words. As a writer, it’s my job to choose the best word in every line I write. Just the same way that valor and courage both mean bravery, but those two words are not the same word. I have to select each word with extreme care.
4) The fearsome qualities one assigns to the dreaded f-bomb are terribly reduced when you’re forced to listen to it for 80 minutes a day (again, ERP).
5) In ERP, I learned to separate myself from my OCD. I learned to assign my intrusive thoughts to my disorder, instead of to myself. To say, “OCD wants me to think X.” This view, I see, has carried over into my view of my characters. Even though I am the author, if my character John or Paul or Suzie wants to say a curse word, I don’t feel guilty. Characters have their own histories, their own choice of words. (Maybe you think this is strange … passing off my responsibility to characters that I’ve created. If you do, then you’re probably not a writer. As a writer, I have far less control over my characters than you might ever imagine.)
6) I write realistic contemporaries. A teenager who has grown up lawlessly is going to swear. You know that’s true.
7) In my personal life, I refuse to let OCD enslave me again. One way it did so was by a huge and unwarranted fear of profanity. I damn well won’t let it take control of me in that way again.
8) Personally– again, this is just for me– profanity is a small way for me to ward off the legalism that used to bind me.
9) “Let nothing unwholesome come out your mouth”: I guess I have to admit that I don’t really find curse words terribly unwholesome anymore. I’m finding a lot of it to be based on social constructs that I don’t value enough to hold to. I find it far more unwholesome for me to open my mouth and speak lies or to tear my fellows down.
10) This quote from Maggie Stiefvater:
Occasionally a reader will tell me that I don’t need to use swearing. They will follow this up with this well-worn phrase “you have a good enough vocabulary that you don’t need to use THOSE words.” Yes, I do. I do indeed. Since I don’t need to use them, that means I’m choosing to use them. If you trust me to be using non-swear words in a skillful way, please assume that I’m wielding my fucks and damns with the same contemplation.
As should all of you other writers out there. They’re just words. Handle them with care.
So, those are my thoughts. I’m not terribly interested in getting into a debate, but do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
See more of my thoughts on profanity here:
Profanity in Literature
Image credit: found this all over the internet, couldn’t find original.