“Like they don’t hear it at school,” you say. “Or say it themselves.”
Yeah, I realize teenagers are fluent in profanity—I was in junior high and high school once. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook from preserving for my daughter, 13, and son, 16, one pocket in their lives where an elevated level of gentility and decorum are modeled. Not that I’m genteel. But relatively speaking, I’m Emily Post.
In the car on the way home from school the boy will occasionally drop the f-bomb or other four letter words, and I can tell you his sister is genuinely offended. You see, the men in her life, well, for the most part, reserve their use of profanity for extreme situations, like severed limbs or totaled cars. Near tears she says, “Jack, why do you have to say that?” I call him out, remind him, “Gentlemen don’t speak that way,” and he says, “Mom, it’s just language.” And if this is as rebellious as it gets, I’m fine, but it’s just language?
I was raised to feel that cussing is the communication equivalent of open-mawed mastication, talking with your mouth full (AGGG!) or elbows on the table during a meal. In my home growing up, the following words were banned:
shut (with “up”)
It was natural to hear our mother respond from the kitchen to a smashed or sliced finger, in an amplified voice: “ESSS! AAAICH!” You knew it must really hurt if she got to “EEYYYE!” Never once heard her spell out the entire word, or say it. And my mother was, and is, no Stepford wife. She’s zany, well read, and filterless in her comments and opinions, but consistent in her relentless avoidance of profanity. (Though since Dad’s death she tends to overuse the “pissed.” I think it’s her way of coping. Widows gone wild.)
My dad, an articulate gentleman marketing exec who also happened to have served in the Navy during the Korean war, wasn’t quite as controlled in his profanity management. In fact, till we could read we thought our mother’s name was “GoddammitRuthann.” But he never tossed around the more vulgar sh^t or f*#k. He was no milquetoast, though. He was Don Draper, not Ward Cleaver. [<<<YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THAT ONE. You’re welcome. End of aside.] I’m betting the farm he let the saltiest words fly on the golf course or with his fishing buddies on the St. John’s River, contexts that strike me as completely appropriate for unrestrained language.
Another appropriate—prescribed, even—occasion for well-chosen profanity, IMHO, is written dialogue. If a character in a work of fiction (or non fiction for that matter), swears like a sailor, and art reflects life, that character must not be muzzled. To pretend that people don’t really speak that way is ridiculous (CBA, I’m mean you). I’m not talking gratuitous swearing, but it is far more believable to read unsupervised teens expressing horror or surprise with “Oh my God!” than “Oh my Gosh!”; or disgust with a villain with, “She’s a total bitch!” vs. “She’s a real meanie.” Even if it’s not my own personal standard for my own children—that’s how certain normal people are going to talk in certain situations. I mean, hell, it’s realistic.
If a character in my novel witnesses a family member being maimed or killed, or she’s attacked by a bully, she might say something stronger than, “Gee whiz! That’s really bad!” In fact, Allison Lynn, my MFA Long Form Workshop professor, recently called me out for putting unrealistically soft language in my young teen girl characters’ mouths. Her assertion was that they didn’t sound real, not true to life, that in the absence of adult supervision they’d be experimenting with the vernacular. Because that’s what kids really do. (Dammit.)
And so do many adults, writers in particular. And that’s fine; I don’t judge them. It sounds just right when they say it, and they’re usually strategic. I take no offense—except that they’re far more successful than I am, and I worry that my reluctance to cuss handicaps me, branding me irrelevant.
It’s not my responsibility to groom or correct anyone who didn’t emerge from my womb. It just doesn’t feel right for me. And, I think the trendy swear words sound stupid coming out of my mouth. Like miniskirts: they just don’t look good on me. But Alicia Silverstone sure could rock hers. And how gorgeous are Scarlett Johansson’s lips in crimson? I look like a clown in red lipstick.
And there’s this: when I swear my spirit zings a little, no doubt because of the Bible verse installed in my memory as a child that reverberates anytime profanity slips from my mouth or fingers. This one: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV); and, from another version, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.” Each word a gift. I like that. Another translation says it thusly:
“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”*
[Ask my husband: I am proficient in uttering “harmful things” with nary an f- or s- or b- or c-word in sight. But I’m working on it, constantly, and I strive to write in such a way that the words I choose will do some good. But that’s another matter. End of aside.]
I’m sure we’ve all heard, primarily from grandparents, librarians, and middle school English teachers, that “cussing shows a lack of intelligence” or is a sign of “verbal laziness.” There may be traces of truth in those statements, but I do believe there is power and exhilaration in the well placed f-bomb. Like, and we count on The Rumpus for such exhortations, on the mugs that sold out at the AWP conference in Boston quoting (the not at all lacking-in-intelligence or lazy) Cheryl “Dear Sugar” Strayed, seated next to Augusten Burroughs, concluded her presentation on the final night, with the charge to us eager writers to go forth and “write like a motherfucker.” Just freaking write was the point she was making, and her use of the electric MF word placed that advice in bold, punctuating it with a big loud exclamation point.
*Thanks, Cheryl Strayed, for the writerly kick in the bu#%. It was just the word I needed.
Roxane Gay is Katherine Hepburn pretty, easier and harder to talk to than you might expect, and has an adorable hint of a lisp that makes you want to pull her up into your lap, give her a peck on the cheek, and read to her the Eric Carle canon.
Obama quoted Scripture. Addressing the nation about the massacre of babies in an elementary school in a picturesque Connecticut town yesterday afternoon, he wiped a tear and invoked the Psalms. In a torrent of Where was God? Why did God allow this to happen? How can a loving God . . . ? ? ?, in the midst of such acute, searing heartbreak, are these words vinegar or salve?
In the absence of hope, the word of God. When there are no words, poetry.
Barnes’ Notes on the BibleHe healeth the broken in heart – Referrring primarily to the fact that he had healed those who were crushed and broken in their long captivity, and that he had given them comfort by returning them to their native land. At the same time, however, the language is made general, as describing a characteristic of God that he does this; that it is his character to do this. See the notes at Psalm 34:18. See also Psalm 51:17. Compare Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18.
And bindeth up their wounds – See the notes at Isaiah 1:6. Margin, griefs. The word refers to those who are afflicted with griefs and troubles. The reference is to mental sorrows; to a troubled spirit; to a heart made sad in any way. God has provided healing for such; on such he bestows peace.
Clarke’s Commentary on the BibleHe healeth the broken in heart – שבורי, the shivered in heart. From the root שבר shabar, to break in pieces, we have our word shiver, to break into splinters, into shivers. The heart broken in pieces by a sense of God’s displeasure.
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire BibleHe healeth the broken in heart,…. Christ is a physician; many are the diseases of his people; he heals them all by his blood, stripes, wounds; and among the rest their broken hearts, which none can cure but himself; hearts broken by the word, as a hammer, accompanied with a divine power; which have a true sense of sin, and godly sorrow for it; are truly contrite, such as the Lord has a respect unto, dwells with, and accepts of; and these he heals, and only he, by pouring in oil and wine, as the good Samaritan; or by applying pardoning grace and mercy to them, streaming through his blood;
and bindeth up their wounds; or “griefs” (n); and so gives them ease, health, and peace, for which they have abundant reason to call upon their souls to bless his name and sing his praise; see Psalm 103:1; compare with thisIsaiah 61:1.
If you’re new to the program, chances are you’re at least fifteen years younger than I was when I started my MFA and your automatic response to my advice will be to toss it into the bottom drawer where you keep your parents’ pearls of wisdom: change the oil every 3,000 miles, save 10% of every paycheck, all that old people stuff.
If, however, this memo happens to find you in a teachable moment, listen to what I say that it may go well with you. By tucking away even a portion of the contents, maybe you’ll dodge some of the early MFA tar pits that sucked my boots off. After two years of being in the program—at the rate of one elective or workshop per semester—I am now in possession of wisdom that would have helped me navigate the early MFA gauntlet with a little more agility and grace. If I knew then . . .
I hearken back to the unsolicited advice of one community fiction workshop teacher, an author you may know. On the final night of the 12-week course, one year before the launch of a new MFA program I was considering applying to, he cornered me at the top of the stairs in the old, ivy-covered limestone English department building where the class met, and issued a warning. Towering over me, six-foot-five to my five-foot-six, he looked down into my face and said with portent, “Don’t do it.” I’m pretty sure his voice echoed down the stairwell, DO IT, Do It, do it.***CORRECTION BELOW*** This I took personally as a slight on my writing ability, that no way was I MFA material, which maybe I wasn’t. But his admonition made me want it even more, so I ignored him and, two years later, launched into the program by taking my first class, an elective taught by—of all people—him.
Upon completion of that first elective I met with Prof. Tall and Enigmatic for a standard one on one conference. From across a wide, wooden desk, in his dim, book-lined office, he sliced the thick silence with a question. In a tone of voice all “Would you like fries with that?” he said, “So what do you want to talk about?” I can’t remember what subject I fumbled to raise—something related to story, I suppose. I waited for him to offer gems of writerly guidance, but what he said was this: “Maybe this says more about me and my own stuff—and I know I said something to you a year or two ago about not being in the program—but why don’t you just take a Robert McKee Story seminar? I mean, why do you want an MFA?”
My husband tells me that if you try to convert to Judaism, which he did in a previous life in deference to his ex-wife’s Semitic heritage, the rabbi will deny you three times. Or maybe that was Peter on the night of Jesus’s betrayal, but the point is, if you want to convert you have to be willing to have the temple door slammed in your face your first few attempts.
So, while my deeply rooted neuroses make me interpret any hint of discouragement by a professor, or any authority, as personal—a shout through a bullhorn directly into my ear, insider to outsider, to “Get. Out!”—I tried to deflect his suggestion that I wasn’t where I belonged. Rather, I plowed ahead in the program with a commitment tethered to nothing more than a passion-fueled will to improve my own writing.
But the seed of doubt Prof. Tall and Enigmatic had planted germinated and took root. Oh, it was in there deep. My writer’s imagination convinced me that he was in alliance with all the other professors in the program, warning them of my abysmal writing. “Bates is a hack.” I pictured them sitting around a Gothic, candlelit parlor in one of their professorial, English Tudor homes, smoking pipes and cigars over brandy and book-talk, a cabal of powerful academics applying harsh ratings to me and my peers. Turns out I was wrong.
When the next semester rolled around I was still too wussy to take a workshop—scared to death of the imagined judgment—and futzed around instead with an undergraduate visiting writers course taught by a poetry professor, with one other MFA and ten undergrads young enough to be my children. But Visiting Writers ended up being alright, not in spite of, but due to the unique perspective of that poetry professor.
In fact, I recommend taking a class with a professor not in your side of the program: if you’re prose, submit yourself to a poetry prof, and vice versa. If you’re CNF, try F. It’ll stretch your skills and expose you to another discipline. Even though fear drove me away from a prose workshop to yet another elective, it was an enriching experience. I learned about enjambment and caesura, met Katie Ford, and got to have beers with CJ Hribal and lunch with Nick Flynn, whom I also got to chauffeur to his hotel. Great guy. Value added.
What I wish I had done—what I urge you to do—is jump into the program by taking a workshop right away. I’m telling you: defer electives, start with workshop, and get to work writing. Write hard and daily, till your eyes burn and your fingers fall off, and when it’s your turn to be workshopped, out of respect for your classmates, submit only your most polished work. Be ruthless with your own writing, but when it comes to the work of others—even if you hate it, be kind. One professor, whom we’ll call Prof. Kind and Brilliant, in response to my whiny request to switch into a different workshop with other, stronger writers I insisted would challenge me more than the batch of new students would, told me in so many words not to be a s#!$head.
This same professor, who is the smartest person I’ve ever shared air with, is sharp enough to justifiably act superior to anyone in his presence (but doesn’t) and leads his workshops with humility. With Prof. Kind and Brilliant, the Golden Rule rules, and the results are magical. So listen: be as patient, gentle, and honest with the other workshopees and their work as you expect them to be with you and your work.
1) Don’t do it!
2) Ignore the bastard who told you not to do it.
3) If you do it, don’t be such a wuss.
4) Start with a workshop.
5) Take a course outside your concentration.
6) Write until you bleed.
7) Do unto others…
8) Don’t be a s#!$head.
A Reformed Wussy Shithead MFA Veteran
p.s. Let me know if you ever want to go in on a group rate for a Robert McKee Story seminar.
***CORRECTION: Professor Tall and Enigmatic claims to have said, “Why don’t you wait a year?” instead of “Don’t do it,” insisting he never would have dissuaded a student in that way.***
I had a writing professorwho recommended copying, literally, tangibly, work by authors whose style most lights your writing fuse. Pick an author, prop open a book, lay it next to the laptop, and type the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters until, I suppose, some sort of osmosis (and muscle memory?) occurs. The professor is more a hardboiled fiction guy, so Elmore Leonard is an author whose dialogue, voice, rhythm, pace, and word choice he might be likely to transcribe in this exercise. When I finally get around to trying it for literary purposes, you’ll find me with David Mitchell or Anne Lamott next to my computer.
But this morning, the following words from the book open on my lap begged for this transcription treatment. In an attempt to absorb the heart of the words into my cells, I will type them out here. I hope it works. Today, it’s my next right thing.
Lord, you have assigned me my portion, and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices [my tongue rejoices? what does that even look like? how does that sound? it’s on me to figure it out!]; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.*
Lodging at the St. Regis Princeville is rich for our wallet, but sunset at the Living Room is within our budget (barely). The Ginger Margarita I sipped over sunset was a vacation highlight this summer. No prose will be as snappy as this party-in-a-glass, so let’s cut straight to the recipe.
Ginger Margarita: St. Regis Princeville Resort
1 oz. tequila reposado
1-½ oz. ginger syrup
½ oz. Cointreau
1 lime wedge
Rim a rocks glass with the ginger salt and fill with fresh ice. Pour tequila, ginger syrup and Cointreau in a cocktail shaker. Add large ice chunks and shake vigorously. Strain into the prepared glass. Squeeze the lime wedge and drop it into the glass.
The Ginger Margarita is the signature cocktail perfected by Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and served at the St. Regis Princeville’s Kauai Grill restaurant. Considered a master of fusion cuisine, Vongerichten blends traditional preparations with ethnic influences such as Hawaiian, Vietnamese and Indian in his cuisine. He follows a similar direction in creating his signature cocktails. Here, the essence of ginger is a true standout, and St. Regis guests describe it as zesty and refreshing.
Maud Newton is a peach. In person she is lovely, gracious, soft-spoken, petite, bookish, and adorable in round glasses. Her skin is porcelain. She reminds me of a silent movie star—moon-faced, brunette, demure. And she’s so gosh darn nice.
As I drove to hear her address the MFA students in the Butler University Efroymson Center for Creative Writing the other evening, I formed a question to ask during Q&A. I can never think of an original question at these things or have burning curiosity about anything I haven’t already read about an author in an interview, but there was one thing I really wanted to know from this Rebecca “Maud” Newton, who has been a champion literary blogger since before blogging was even a word. What I wanted to ask her was,
“You have reached a level of writerly acclaim I can’t even imagine aspiring to. You’re prolifically published, religiously followed and emulated. The Paris Review even calls you ‘Necessary Reading.’ My question is this: How are you not a d-bag?”
But as Maud spoke, and from the moment she greeted me in the entryway with a warm smile, firm handshake and sincere “Thank you for coming!” the answer became apparent, negating my need to ask. She’s just naturally, well, nice.
Maud Newton is one of the good guys, and why is this trait so surprising? It may be the prevailing tone of snark sweeping the lit-mag-osphere, or the soaring popularity of wittily written, if profane, blogs that are equal parts hilarious and mean-spirited that make a writer think, “Well, I’d better get busy cussing and jabbing others with clever jokes at their expense if I want to find success in the literary realm.”
Another reason “nice” strikes me as such an anomaly may be that I’ve experienced enough visiting writers to be jaded by the colossal egos. Oh excuse me, Lorrie Moore, but you could take a lesson from Ms. Newton in the art of graceful celebrity. And, b-t-dub, you’re not as widely read or admired as you think you are. And, Walter Mosley, you are a tres debonair, wildly articulate, killer crime novelist, but take some notes from Maud Newton on humility. And did Paris Review ever recommend either of you people as necessary reading? I think not.
[Which reminds me of an important piece of advice Ms. Newton offered bloggers, namely to be really sure of what you want to say before you say it; consider your message and be careful what you put out into cyberspace, because once your words are out there, you can’t get them back.] Well, Maud, I have looked within, and I am sure. I don’t need those words back. Even if they do border on snarky.
Highlights and Quotes from an Evening with Maud Newton
Maud Newton doesn’t have a staff. Stacks of some 300 books clog the limited space in her Brooklyn apartment, so if you’re an author or publisher and want a book reviewed toute de suite, get in line. She’s just one person with one pair of eyes.
Blogging did not kill long-form literary criticism, which she points out “is flourishing on the internet.”
Have faith in your voice, your own perspective. It’s what distinguishes you from all the other writers.
“It’s okay if crazy people hate you.”
“Express yourself sincerely.”
Beware: blogging can reinforce an insidious desire for instant gratification.
On reviewing books:
A reviewer has the duty to be honest and “not bore the reader of the review.”
A reviewer should look into herself and be honest about her reactions to the book. “I won’t review books I don’t have strong feelings about,” she said. And she tends to avoid the negative review these days. (Oh how I wish I’d asked a follow-up about why that is. Maybe it’s a function of her inner goodness.).
As a reviewer, Maud Newton asks herself, “Does this book feel like it will be for me; will it be edifying to me in some way?” If the answer is “no,” she puts it down, never to pick it up again. “I’m really a selfish reader.”
Maud Newton has a full time job, some legal publishing gig where coworkers—”fellow refugees from the law”—call her “Rebecca” and don’t necessarily know from Maud Newton.* It is no wonder she’s no longer a lawyer. Lawyers make lousy nice people.**
Maud Newton doesn’t think your blog has to be focused on one, specific thing to be widely read or followed. “(A personal blog) can be a great repository for the things you like to write about and things that interest you,” she said. “People like complex people.”
Maud Newton the novelist keeps a book she calls “horrible,” a book “a lot of people really like,” on her desk to keep her working on her own novel. She says, “If someone can publish that book with a straight face, there is hope for mine.” (She was too gracious to name said horrible book publicly.)
Maud is blogging less these days, primarily because of the time-drain. “Blogging won’t help you finish your novel or memoir,” she said, which was, to me, the best advice of the night for a roomful of writers who are limping along toward their first novels.
Stop blogging, Maud, because I can’t wait to read your novel. I’m a selfish reader too. If only I were as nice as you.
ASIDE: The sunny spring evening of Ms. Newton’s visit marked the death of two other literary giants: Adrienne Rich and Newton’s mentor, Harry Crews—a blow that rattled me with the realization that my writing mentors might one day perish. Sincere condolences to you, Maud.
*(My friend Jamie says, “Of COURSE she has a job… Publishing doesn’t pay much these days. And she’s competing for book dollars with The Greek Seaman.”) I have no idea what she’s talking about, do you?
**I know. I was married to one. Nice people make miserable lawyers, and vice versa.
(My 9th grader’s “A Tale of Two Cities” creative interpretation assignment found around the printer…)
Mme. Therese Defarge
Defarges’ Wine Shop
Saint Antoine, France
M. The Editor, London Times
Monsieur the Editor of the London Times,
I was knitting in my dear husband’s and my wine shop when my Ernest handed me the article “recounting” the attack on that accursed capitol of oppression and toilet seat of Louis XVI. My first instinct was to swim across the Channel and stab you and your staff with my knitting needles. My second instinct was to lead a charge on the House of Parliament. Finally, my husband commented on my demonic stare, which seemed to be burning a hole in the page. Finally, after a swig of our most bitter Merlot, I decided to write you regarding the article. I have many quarrels with you.
First off, we French are the direct descendants of those glorious Franks who conquered the Goths and Vandals after they sacked the Roman Empire, so the voracity with which my people fought should come as no shock to anyone. Second, let it be known that our attack was by no definition unprovoked. Those damned aristocrats have starved us peasants, raped our sisters, murdered our fathers, beat our brothers, and trampled our children. They deserved every blow we struck, every skirt we tore, every stab we dealt. Third, for the country that spawned the man whose ideas were the cornerstone of Enlightened thinking, you English seem none too keen on the idea that natural law is universal and applies to all humans.
We of the Republic believe that all people should be bound by the same laws and subject to the same liberty. No single person should have dominion over another. If we had sat still a minute longer, the élite would have continued scraping us pauvres under their polished shoes, having already reduced us to mud.
I understand the animosity between our nations, but you must understand that we are not the France that claimed to own us, but a new Republic One and Indivisible, with Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death.
ser·en·dip·i·ty |ˌserənˈdipitē| noun the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities. ORIGIN 1754: coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
co·in·ci·dence |kōˈinsədəns, -ˌdens|noun1 a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection
In the submission-wait-rejection-submission-wait-rejection-submission-wait-rejection cycle, an acceptance is a rare triumph, or as a more accomplished friend once said, it’s a “tiny starpoint of success” to be celebrated. Seven months after I wrote a list in the tradition of 10th century Japanese writer and courtesan Sei Shanagon, for a nonfiction workshop, I submitted it.
The list was deeply personal to me, so I didn’t jet it out to every journal. I carefully selected two or three journals I trusted to handle it with care. Two months later I heard from the editor of Emprise Review, and two weeks after that, it was published. (2013 update: Emprise Review has gone dark, but the piece can be read here.)
Wacky: within a two-week period last summer, I find out the list is accepted for publication, it is published almost immediately, and it coincides with the work-related publication of this.
What started as a creative nonfiction workshop assignment to write a list á la Shonagon’s “Hateful Things” I read in The Art of the Personal Essay resulted in a cathartic ode to my dad’s final days. Coincidence? Serendpity? I don’t know, but it would appear that some energy is working to connect my father, God rest his soul, and my mother (Happy Birthday, Mom) in cyberspace.
Writers, as you know from the first four installments of theEliza Tudor Survival Guide to Bridge the Worlds of MFA-Candidate and MFA-Wielding God/Goddess so graciously offered by Butler MFA-wielding goddess Eliza Tudor [this is the summary part with links to the brilliant Tudor tips you missed the first time]:
I trust you’ve benefited from the series and leave you now with Ms. Tudor’s final nuggets of wisdom from beyond the MFA . . .
I think writers should try and fit in a little exercise every day. It’s a sanity thing. If only Virginia Woolf had done yoga. It’s hard—especially for writers. You think, “I could be spending this time working” (especially if you only have a few minutes to fit everything in). After I finishedthe program, I dusted off the yoga mat, I started running more, and it helped. It’s time to think or not think. And, if Murakami does it, it has to be good.
7. FORGET ABOUT IT
Stop thinking about others as competition. It’s hard sometimes to ignore what others are doing, but nobody’s path is the same.
Do your work.
Try as hard as you can not to look over your shoulder.
This is the perfect time to take some new risks in your writing.