Loads of writers have done this one. Yep, you guessed it, it’s because I want to write a blog post and I’m all out of ideas. That’s what writers do, innit? When we’re all out of vocab and ideas, we just use a four letter world. And we owe our readers better. And every time we reach for the potty-keyboard, God kills a kitten. Please think of the kittens.
Alternatively, you could remember that there are way too many cat pics on the internet as it is. I did like one recently from fellow author EJ Fisch on twitter – a dog wagging its tail while teasing a cat on a table. My caption would have been ‘Errr, bro, I love you and everything but if you don’t cut this shit out you’re fuckin’ getting some.’ The cat eventually did as promised, and the dog’s tail still wagged. Now that’s dedication.
Why do I jump to those sorts of expressions at a time like that? Because I just simply enjoy them. There’s really no other explanation. Yeah I wouldn’t use them at the family BBQ, but the blank page? That belongs to me. ME! Mwwaahahaha! Tell me off now, family!
I’m not another author about to go into the literary merits of words that can act like doorman’s punches when used with precision. Nor am I going to write an essay about how every Scorsese film is a social commentary that would be impossible without cluster f-bombs. I’m just out to enjoy writing and reading and this is part of my MO. Anyone don’t like it? Jane Austen’s always looking for more fans.
And don’t exit with that ‘He’s just showing off because he thinks its big and clever’ line. We aint in no English class at school no more, pal. It’s not about putting on your big-boy pants either; sometimes it takes a grown up not to swear, it’s true. But on the page, it’s got to be about the world as I enjoy it.
When I was at university I worked in a kitchen. Every time I was on the breakfast shift with the head chef, I actually looked forward to being greeted with his daily ‘First thing’s first Tommy, let’s get the fucking kettle on.’ We Brits do love our tea, didn’t you know? And the kitchen I knew and loved back then did have a good old helping of that culture you’ve seen on any show with Gordon Ramsay. It really is like that.
I once worked in a convenience store near a council estate, and one night refused some kid cigarettes because he didn’t have his ID. The conversation went like this:
Him: I come here all the time, why should I have to prove anything to you?’
Me: Because I’ve never met you before and it’s the law and if I break it I could lose my job.
Him: Mate, fuck you.
Me: Thanks, you can go now and don’t bother coming back.
He left at that point. He was the kind who might come back with his mates to all kick things off, so I prepared myself, but get this: instead of doing that, he goes and gets his mum. Yeah, you read that right. She shouted at me for a good five minutes. Yeah, so ‘your boy’ says he’s an adult so he’s old enough to buy cigarettes and then he has to go get his mum to fight his battles for him? To use a line I remember giving to my character Ebony: how pathetic do you have to fucking be? Just because you know the old lady’s a bomb that loves an excuse to go off, did you really have to light the fuse? Fucking seriously?
Strange thing though, she didn’t swear. Not once, in all her rant about how her son’s nineteen years old and her family have shopped here for twenty years and how dare I make sure I keep my job by, y’know, running a legal counter. Besides, shouldn’t you be telling ‘your boy’ that smoking’s a disgusting habit and terrible for your health? (he says having gone straight out the back of the shop to light one after that episode, just to help cool off.) You wanna give someone a lecture, maybe try that one instead.
For the record, the guy actually did regret his behaviour and came in an apologised a week later. I accepted. We shook hands. We’ve all had the red mist descend now and again. Besides, I’ve had worse said to me.
Situations like that are why I like the ‘If I’d never had curses flung at me I might never have put one on the page’ kind of argument, but the truth with me is it goes back further than that. I remember my father telling me I’d always been inclined to strong opinions. He was right, and I’ve always been inclined to strong means of expression to go with them, even if I did learn that there are times you really can’t use them, so it paid to have some eloquence and a few fancy polite words up my sleeve as well.
Ever typed ‘Kids swearing’ into Youtube? Do it. Those videos are so funny. Or at least they are if you were a kid like me who was prone to hearing his parents swear and then repeating it to see what would happen. Such moments really, genuinely often went like this:
My mum: Yes dear?
My mum: *face looks like she could create an indoor rainstorm* What did you just say?
Me: *puts on that annoying cherub-smile some kids can just do on cue* Nuuuuthiiiing!
My mum: I should think so!
Several of my friends have had kids recently, and I wonder how they’ll deal with this one. The language that used to come out of our mouths when we were played video games instead of doing our university coursework? I don’t know if I could ever tell a kid off for swearing and keep a straight face. The kids on South Park had nothing on me.
It hasn’t made any of the published Talent Show material yet, but I did once write a scene in an early exploration draft in which Shadow’s mum’s trying to teach him to talk as a toddler, and then leaves the room to answer the phone. (Landlines, remember those? This poor farming family never saw a smartphone like ever.) His father ponders the idea for a moment, and then goes for it with a smile on his face: ‘Say fuck, Shadow.’ ‘Eeeurk, Saa-aaaow.’ ‘Say cocksucker, Shadow.’ ‘Ok-suuuuur, Saaa-aaaow.’ Jump forward a week or so and his mum hears him parrot this all over again, but without his father prompting this time, and has a ‘What’s he trying to say?’ moment that most parents get, and his father tries not to just burst out laughing. Then later on when lying in bed still thinking about it:
Sue: Mick, have you been teaching Shadow swearing?
Mick: Nope, why? What did he say?
Sue: *with a serious face* You taught him to say cocksucker, didn’t you?
Mick: Nah, he probably heard me say it to the radio the other day. Prime Minister’s Question time.
Sue: You don’t listen to that show. You already think the prime minister’s a cocksucker. And everything else. Try again.
Mick: Alright fine. I taught him to say cocksucker. I taught him to say fuck too. I wish he’d said cunt and then you could have really hit the roof. Happy now?
Sue: *laughs her head off* Well, you’re the one who can explain it when he says all that in front of our parents.
The scene has no bearing on any plot, and I wrote it after watching a mum and her daughter in the supermarket trying to get the baby in the trolley seat to repeat words, with all that ‘Can you say doggy?’ sort of kid-tone so many parents go for. Part of me just wanted to go over and do that subversive version of it. Again, not gonna keep me my job serving groceries, so I went home and plugged it into my main character at the time. When he gets sent to prison for killing someone later in the series, I think his mum might use it as a ‘happy memory’ or something.
And yes, I am going to do the decent human being thing and resist trying this sometime when visiting a friend with kids. Doing that this weekend actually. The zip’s gonna have to stay done up like a mountaineer’s waterproof. (Edit: one week later. My friend and I got Mariokart out. His wife was soon saying ‘I am so glad Henry’s asleep right now.’)
Books down for a moment, let’s go to work with this. Literally.
Ever seen those awful motivational boards with the black borders that say things like ‘Success is a journey and not a destination?’ (Yeah, get in the way of my boat and yours will soon be SINKING, bitch, coz I am reaching that destination just to shove that board up someone’s arse.) My workplace were actually asking for suggestions on how to make some of those that were appropriate for the kind of organisation we are (yeah like I’m gonna tell you who I work for nowadays in a post like this!)
I had a photo of an overflowing dog-poo bin that I’d taken so I could whinge at the person who was supposed to empty it (I’m not in the waste disposal business, but this is a great example of why we need those guys. Badly. So don’t make fun. And don’t complain when your garbage man curses, especially not if he’s literally getting rid of your pet’s shit.) I asked the boss if the person reading the suggestions would take it in good humour if I sent them that pic and made the caption ‘If it looks like shit, and it smells like shit, then it is shit.’ He told me probably not, so I didn’t try it. I was new back then, so good first impressions. Nowadays? I might just have gone for it. Or at least made that sign myself and stuck it above my own desk.
Cursing can’t be bad for the soul if you’re having a laugh with it. It just simply can’t. Every time I see the debate on discussion forums, I can’t help but agree with those who say they’ve never written ‘I wish this book had had more swearing’ in a review. I’ve never written that either. The ones who wish a book had had less? Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not, but in the end, it’s just an author choosing the words they want. Or just plain like.
Bottom line: I’ve never sought to be a people-pleaser on this one. I just do my thing, and it’s much the same whether a character’s laughing or dying. Part of my target readership are the folks who don’t mind. Once I’ve hooked you, you’ll expect a certain measure of it when you feel like coming back to my writing voice and it’s all part of the process. Swearing isn’t a magic bullet for creating authorial voice, but if you develop a healthy use of it that you enjoy, just go with it.
Did I also mention I was once the four year old kid who got a nun to swear at him? No joke. It really happened. But I’m close to 2000 words now, so perhaps that one’s for another day.