On Writing (and speaking) Profanities, Part I

The very first time I tried to publish a book was in the early 1990s. This doesn’t count my feeble attempts to write a book on philosophy when I was sixteen, “self-publishing” it, literally by typing up each page and binding it with cardboard and duct tape. That book had one reader, our high school history and philosophy teacher, Dr. Murphy. He said he liked it. He was very kind.

The book I wanted to write in the early 1990s was a children’s story. My kids were still young and I had habitually made up bedtime stories for them. I had enjoyed some success in writing thirty-some articles for magazines and journals and thought the transition into books would be easy. It wasn’t.

My children’s book had a strong Christian theme, and therefore I approached a Christian publisher. It was at a time when I was just leaving the subculture of American evangelicalism and was still trying to make sense of the world. To my surprise my storyboard caught the eye of such a publisher. They had not seen my manuscript and considering how much I have learned about writing since, I’m sure it was atrocious and would have been rejected. However, they did send me their author guidelines and rules, which I had to conform to before submitting it. Those guidelines applied to both their children’s and adult books. They included the following:

  1. There can be no profanities, the obvious ones, but also no euphemisms such as “darn,” “shoot,” or Geez (some consider short for “Jesus”).
  2. There can be no mention of smoking, drinking alcohol, or illicit drug use.
  3. All the characters must display “godly attitudes” at all times.
  4. The Christian characters should display Christian language (what I call “God talk”) such as, “Isn’t today such a blessing?”
  5. If there is a non-Christian character, that character must not succeed in the areas where they sin. Then all non-Christian characters must have a moment of repentance and acceptance of Jesus by the end of the book, then have success.

I should have known better, but I was perplexed. According to their guidelines, they would have rejected C. S. Lewis’ children fantasies as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s works.

When my book Ristretto Rain was first published, a friend asked me, “This is a Christian book isn’t it, I mean, it would be okay for my children to read?” I was taken aback a bit because I don’t see the world as black and white, Christian themed or secular. I consider a “Christian book” as a book about Christianity, but novels as either consistent with reality or not. The idea of creating Christian fiction as something different from normal fiction, is about the way groups view reality. I will state my mantra once more, if God exist, he exist in reality. The better we know reality, the better we can see God. The more we live in a delusion, the foggier the face of God.

While my Ristretto Rain did not have a lot of profanities, it was PG-13 if not R, based on some adult themes. There was one, brain-injured character who had no filter and spoke often of sex and masturbation. He was modeled after a real-life character I know who is exactly like that. So, my answer to her was “No, don’t get the book for your children.” My biggest concern was that she would be angry at me for exposing her children to things she didn’t want them exposed to.

In my new book (coming soon) The Stones of Yemen there is a significant amount of profanities. I don’t write profanities for some type of shock effect, but because I write with a consistency with reality. Before I start writing, I build a character from reality. Then I put the characters together in certain situations and let them react in the ways that they should. If I were to write a book where all the characters were in the American evangelical subculture or some other non-profanity group, then they would not use profanities, at least not in public. I do have one character in The Stones of Yemen who is the daughter of a Baptist minister and uses a lot of euphemisms such as “friggin,” “Buster,” and “darn.” But the rest of the characters do not have such a disposition. I put them all in very intense situations, so much so that not using profanities would be a great disservice and unrealistic. Things get so intense that even the Baptist-raised woman resorts to profanities, like they do in real life.

But I just can’t leave things alone, can I? This topic raises a whole can of philosophical worms about profanities and so-called decency. I would really like to deconstruct our ideas about those things. I ask that whatever your view is on profanities, that you come back for part II and listen to what I have to say. I will not encourage people who don’t use profanities to start using them, and I certainly will not discourage those who use them.

As a teaser, brain research has shown that while language is very complex with words being stored in a variety of places, such as the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe, Wernicke’s area (comprising mainly the top rear portion of the temporal lobe), insular cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum. However, words associated with profanities are stored more in the limbic (emotional) areas of the brain. This is one reason why people with brain diseases, stroke or dementia, might retain their ability to use profanities effectively while normal language use is more difficult. It is also why profanities may have a helpful, psychological or spiritual role for some people, while other people are angered by the use of such words.



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2 responses to “On Writing (and speaking) Profanities, Part I”

  1. However, words associated with profanities are stored more in the limbic (emotional) areas of the brain.

    Because these words are associated with Strong Emotions.

    It is often the Strong and Dark emotions that empower creative works. I do know that the times a story has come full-honk into my brain demanding to be written, it is often Dark.


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