People are weird. (I’m sorry. If you were expecting earth-shattering news, I don’t have that on offer today. Check back tomorrow.)
I belong to a few writing groups, some in person, some online, and inevitably I rub someone the wrong way with what I write. Usually it’s creepy ideas or characters of questionable moral values or alarming turns of event, but this time, it’s my profanity.
According to one early reader of a story I’m working on, the use of profanity is unprofessional and shows a lack of “writing skills.” Huh. Here and all this time I’d thought it was necessary in the service of making my character believable and realistic.
Normally, I value this reader’s opinion, but I was stunned that she held such deep-seated hatred for swear words, when I love them so much. As though she’d blurted out, “I hate puppies!”
“Nobody has to swear,” my reader said, after she finished the first chapter.
Perhaps she’s right, but I suspect she’s never accidentally stabbed herself in the hand with a screwdriver. That’s where I learned all my dirty words. Truth. When I was seven years old, my dad was changing the inner tubes on my bicycle, and he used a screwdriver to separate the tire from the rim. He slipped and stabbed himself in the webbing between thumb and forefinger. In the twenty seconds following that, with blood spurting onto my partially disassembled Huffy, Dad said every profanity in the English language. I have never heard a dirty word that I didn’t hear that way. It was a thorough education, both linguistically and in the business of blackmail.
After it was over and the bloodflow staunched, Dad said, “Don’t tell you mother what I said.”
“Can we have ice cream?” my sister said.
We got ice cream. We did not ride our bikes for ice cream. We drove.
As for the question of whether people have to swear…well, that’s a moot point. People do swear. Some of them rarely, some of them prodigiously and frequently. Perhaps it was my misfortune to stumble upon a character who does, although the reader in question implied it was carelessness on my part, like losing both of one’s parents. (Maybe my reader is a relative of Lady Bracknell.)
I looked at the chapter again, at the dialog in question, and I kept coming to the same conclusion. If I were on death row, I would probably not be satisfied with using the word “jerks” to describe a former friend who testified against me. That’s just me, and I don’t think it reveals a lack of education or a poor vocabulary–I do fine in those departments. I think there’s a reason we have the word “motherfucker” in the English language. It conveys a level of contempt and hatred that no other bon mot quite manages.