If You’re Going to Curse, Be Creative

Let’s talk about dirty words. I like them, you like them. We all know what they are. I’m going to try not to use them here. Much. I’m not talking about the “clean” dirty words like mud or dust or excrement, which the dictionary defines as “something that soils someone or something.” I’m talking about the real dirty words that start with A, B, F, P and S and the variations on religious words that shouldn’t be said the way some people say them. I’ve said them. I’ve said them all, but I’m trying to quit.

I’ve been a smut-mouth for years. Yes, I’ve mentioned it in Confession and gone out and cussed in the parking lot. But I’ve started paying attention to how it sounds. It’s ugly. Besides, I work at a church. So I’m trying to change my ways.

It’s difficult because the language is everywhere. In movies and on Internet TV shows like “The Ranch” or “Orange is the New Black,” it’s F this and A that and all the other words. The shows are good, but the words get in your head and come out your mouth. You start punctuating every sentence with the F word. Saying BS loud and proud or A-hole. OMG, did we say that out loud? The words slip out, and people stare, even when you say somewhat innocuous words like damn or hell or shit.

Some people think they get away with it by using cheater words, like darn, heck, jeez, sheesh, and dad gummit. Come on, we know what you really mean.

When I was growing up, my mother did not curse, but my dad’s dinner-table language was colorful. As he described his days on construction sites, he used the words. He also talked about dagos, wops, okies, etc. It was a different era.

My best friend’s mom didn’t curse either, but we’d hear her say, “Oh, suuuuuugar!” I grew up in an era when men cursed and nice ladies (except for my Aunt Gen) did not. At least not in public. As a young newspaper reporter, I covered meetings where the men would tell each other to watch their language because there was a lady present. But now everybody seems to use smutty language.

These days, I do my share of cussing, but I’m trying to be creative. I have a master’s degree in creative writing. Surely I can come up with something more original. One of my father’s favorites was “Son of a bitch!” It’s not that bad. A bitch is a mama dog. Nothing bad about a mama dog. It was more the tone, like violence was about to occur (not on people, thank God). “Son of a bitch” is a satisfying mouthful of words. But now I say things like “son of a burger,” “son of a bagel,” “son of a big foot (ew),” “son of a basketball”—sometimes I crack myself up and forget to be mad.

I found this great website that offers 101 substitutes for popular profanities. I’m gonna print these out and try some of them. I don’t think I can say “gee whiz” with a straight face, but “Oh, Foccacia?” That might work.

I grew up where blue language happened all the time. Around my father, I still feel free to say bullshit, hell, damn, asshole, etc. Not the F word or variations thereof; that seems to cross the line. But I’m used to at least the milder cusses.

I didn’t even realize what I was doing until I married a man with children, and he said, “Whoa, not in front of my kids.” What????

What is a dirty word anyway? What makes them dirty? We seem to like bathroom words related to urine, feces, or body parts in the lower regions. We use words about sex, not soft words like making love but hard words like F— or P—y. What makes these bad? Is it really the word or the intention behind it? What do you think?

I think we need to distinguish between vulgarities—the potty and sex words–and the religious words. The Second Commandment tells us not to take God’s name in vain, but our society is so full of it. People say, “God!” all the time. “Oh my God!” “Oh. My. God.” “OMG.” They’re not actually talking to the creator; it’s just words.

Seems like if we’re going to call the All-powerful’s name, we’d better be looking for Him to answer. In times when something major happens, I have said, “Oh my God,” but at that moment, I am looking to connect with Him. I need his help.

When people say, “Jesus Christ!” as an exclamation, it bothers me, especially when they’re not even Christians. Then there’s “Damn it” and its variations. What gives us the right to send people to hell? Only God can do that.

Maybe you don’t believe in God. Fine. Then why are you using His name?

At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in March, I attended a panel titled “How to Curse on the Page and Get Away with It.” Like most writers, I am wary of getting too blue in my writing for fear of offending people. Sometimes I put the word in, then get nervous and take it out. And yet I want to be authentic. Real people do curse.

The panelists focused on the book On Cussing: Bad Words and Creative Cursing by the late Katherine Dunn (who also wrote Geek Love). While On Cussing includes a history of cursing, it also looks at how writers create characters. What those characters (and people in real life) say tells us a lot about them, about their backgrounds, their attitudes, and their personalities. Language can be used to heighten the tension in a story, saving the profanity until it just has to come out. If the character who never says a dirty word suddenly blurts, “Shit!” you know he’s really upset.

Just like when my very religious mom would shout, “Damn it to hell!” We knew to get out of the way because she was really pissed. Is pissed a dirty word? Oh suuuugar. I’m trying.

Check out this “Cursing Without Cursing” youtube video.

And here is a story about times when cursing is good for you. 

Where do you stand on language? Do you enjoy a good vulgarity or get offended when people use language that used to get our mouths washed out with soap? I welcome your comments.

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Thank you all for your kind words and prayers for me and my father. (See last week’s post). As of this moment, Dad is back at the skilled nursing facility in Los Gatos, California, doing quite well. He’s 97, so nothing is guaranteed, but we do have a moment to breathe and enjoy each other.

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AWP–where everybody is a writer

Every year, AWP–Association of Writers & Writing programs–holds the biggest writing conference in the country. For the first time since 1998, it was in Oregon, at the Portland Convention Center, so I had to go. Could I afford it? No. Could I afford the time off from work? No. Was my touchy stomach up to the different diet? No. Do my feet have blisters on their blisters? Yes they do. But I don’t care. It was worth every blister, every $20 bill that went flying out, every frou-frou sandwich with ingredients I couldn’t identify, even worth that mouth-burning hot pepper I thought was a crabapple.

AWP was like a massive party where everyone I’ve ever known in my writing life-from Antioch, Fishtrap, the Tucson Festival of Books, Portuguese writers, Nye Beach Writers, Willamette Writers, my Facebook friends, editors who have rejected my work, editors who have accepted my work, and famous writers on whom I have massive writer-girl crushes—were all in one place. I’m not normally comfortable at parties, but I had found my tribe, and I was high on the love—and way too much iced tea.

I was able to walk up to booths and say “I have a story in that issue,” and have the editors say, “Yes! It’s so great to meet you.” To have young writers call me an inspiration. Me? To get a big hug from a grad school classmate I hadn’t seen in 16 years.

I heard there were 12,000 people there. There were more than 700 exhibits with publishers, editors, writers, and college writing programs selling thousands and thousands of books and giving away pens, candy, postcards, poems, and more. There were approximately 500 panel discussions spread over three days, plus all kinds of “offsite” gatherings. It was not possible to do everything, but I’m so pleased about what I did do. I saw my heroes from Creative Nonfiction. I attended a session led by poet Kwame Dawes. I heard readings by Ilya Kaminsky and Tess Gallagher. I saw Oregon poet laureate Kim Stafford in the parking garage and Luis Alberto Urrea wandering around the bookfair. We were all citizens of Writer World, a place where I finally felt at home.

Many of the attendees were so very young, but we older folks were well represented, too. All races and nationalities attended, including men in dresses and girls who dressed like boys. I saw some wild outfits I can’t believe anyone would wear in public. It amused me that everyone put on what they thought looked good. But never mind. We were all obsessed with words.

Unfortunately, one can’t wander around Writer Land forever, living on fast food out of paper containers. After the conference ended Saturday afternoon, I wandered through the exhibit hall. The tables were empty, and workers were busy rolling up the carpet. Where did my people go? It was time to go forth and tell our stories.

I think I did well coming home with only seven new books, a mug and a hat I bought at the Saturday market from a funky old lady named Anita who makes them by hand from scraps of vintage fabric. I spent Saturday morning walking around the Willamette River, which I could see from my room at the Marriott. I had to keep taking pictures because the view kept changing. Sunrise, sunset, boats, birds, bridges, Mt. Hood. Glorious. Exactly the vacation I needed. WordPress is not letting me post photos right now, but I will.

Unfortunately, my buzz was disrupted by worrisome news about my dad, so now I’m on my way to San Jose when I just want to be that writer girl. It sounds like it’s going to be a tough time. Say a prayer, okay?

And buy some books! With so many writers producing so many books, somebody needs to read them.