I Swear!

I used to say ‘dang it’, ‘darn it’, and ‘shoot’. My husband asked me why I didn’t just say the swear words. He pointed out that I said the words with the same emphasis, for the same reason, and with the same meaning, as the actual swear word. But I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure why. A word is just a word, right? Well, that’a stupid question to ask a writer who knows the value of each and every word.

Years ago my mother decided she swore too much and switched to flower names. Not too long after, she was caught with a swear word passing her lips. My father said, ‘what happened to ‘petunia’? My mother responded, very firmly, that sometimes petunia just didn’t do the job.

I understand that a bit more now. During all the radiation fallout a few years ago, my emotions were erupting. My doctor told me if I wanted to cry, to cry. If I wanted to scream, to scream. So I did. Well, maybe not screaming. But I slammed doors and started cussing.

So a few years ago I pitched a story idea to an agent. During the pitch, he asked if there were swear words in the story. One character did cuss. He told me if accepted, I’d have to change that. His readers expected books with no profanity. I passed on the agent. Swearing was part of the character. Plus, that personality trait served to emphasize the protagonist’s opposite traits of tentativeness, dominated by a parent, and naive about life. (Rachel and Cody for those who have read The Memory Keeper). I decided Rachel was a cussing kind of girl and needed to stay that way.

There will always be arguments for and against swear words in books. There will always be readers who choose books based on those particular words rather than all the other words that make up a story. Which is fine. But writers must be true to their characters and their stories rather than writing to a particular audience.

Swear words also seem to be a cultural thing. Back in the early 20th century, it would have been hard to find books with swear words. Books reflected the times, and you didn’t hear cussing very often on radio shows or television. Whether you think it’s a good change or not, swearing is commonplace now, and art forms reflect that cultural change. Though some swear words are more socially acceptable than others.

It makes me wonder what people think of swearing, in the books they read.

Finally, I just have to say that this evening  I was outside in the dark and rain, with my head lamp as the only light, chasing two ducks named Larry and Curly, in circles around the coop, slipping in mud and duck-do. Shouting out ‘you f***ing birds!’ at the top of my lungs felt a lot better than if I’d said, ‘dang it, you stupid birds, why can’t you figure out the ramp like Mo does?’

I swear. Doubt that makes me a better person, but it lowers the blood pressure. And I’m keeping the character of Rachel and her cussing around for the sequel.

Larry, Mo, and Curly before they started leading me on the merry coop chase.

Larry, Mo, and Curly before they started leading me on the merry coop chase.

10 thoughts on “I Swear!

  1. Swearing doesnt make you a bad person either!!! I sure havent been around a person that swears as much as Art, but then, as you say it is very freeing to swear the way you feel and I am way more comfortable to swear in English now since I know you guys. Sure I still have to watch my language at work, since my young kids are the ones who should not pick up the F word for example. But my new bosses are really way more easy going about swearing in the house then I ever saw before. They try to not use it in front of the kids but when they arent around they dont care! I love it!
    Not buying a book because a character swears is stupid in my eyes, actually more than that. Its narrow minded and naive, because there are always people around you who swear, some more and some less. It is just the way people are. I personally dont like to hear somebody use the f word ALL the time, thats just a bit annoying after a while. But I do totally understand when there is a need to swear. As I said, I work with kids…
    We are all just human and cursing, and yelling etc is just natural and it makes us actually better, since we let the anger out and not coop it up inside us! There you go Lisa, it makes you a better person! 😉


  2. Well! I have cycled through the swearing thing. Swearing does not afend me unless I am being sworn at or called crude names. I used to swear alot I remember Mom being shocked that I knew and used “those” words. When I prayed to the God of my understanding to remove my defects of character, I stopped swearing for the most part. I do not think it was about the words, it was about the anger and frustration. As I became a more accepting person the swearing was not needed. My children and my granddaughter all learned to swear from me. My grandboys picked it up without me. Like Jenni says it is human nature.


    • This is funny, because I can’t remember ever hearing you swear, and the thought of you swearing doesn’t seem right somehow. Maybe it’s the older sister on a pedestal thing.


  3. It definitely doesn’t make you any LESS of a person either. Like you said, swearing is fitting with the times (no matter how unfortunate that may be). While I don’t swear openly in public, I do swear when I’m angry, or telling an intense story (depending on the crowd of course), or when writing, if it’s necessary to the telling of the character as it was for you. Nothin’ wrong with swearing, depending on time and place!


    • I agree. There are some characters who just need to cuss. And if that’s what they want to do and who they are, then I’m not going to try and force them into a different role in the story. I have friends who don’t swear and they seem to manage to enjoy my stories anyway. I think they are good at skimming over the nasty bits!


  4. It took me many years to let swear words pass my lips, too. I still don’t use the f-word, though I often think it. Your mother’s “petunia” remark is hilarious and true. Good for you for not going with that agent — I think anyone who’s going to censor the characters’ language in that way is not going to allow the kind of truth we want in our stories!


    • Well, I tell you what, I didn’t even bother with trying petunia. I went straight for the ‘real stuff’! And yes, I agree with you. Censorship in our creativity, no matter what the form, should never be tolerated.


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