Ben Franklin’s Potty Mouth

The post that I wrote the other day, about Morning Pages? That was not the post I set out to write.

The post I set out to write was this one, but to talk about what I want to talk about here, I first had to talk about my morning pages. What they are, how I use them, my process in writing them. All that is here, but that post turned into a 1500 word gallivant, and my unofficial limit for these things is 1200 words so … yeah. I’ll credit the fact that I was able to rattle off 1500 words on a thing I didn’t even intend to talk about to the fact that my creative wellspring has sprung anew (again, see the previous post).

Anyway. The thing I wanted to explore is this: in my writing, I swear at myself. Like, a lot.Tirelessly. And with great gusto.

The situation doesn’t much matter. It’s equally likely to happen when I’m talking about something I love as with something I hate. I use it to express positive and negative emotion. Basically, I just use it. I love swearing.

Part of it is because I’m of two minds about words that carry a taboo. On the one hand, my critical thinking brain reminds me that words mean only what we agree they mean, and therefore have only the power we give them. (For a lesson on this, I heartily recommend the short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”, by Percival Everett.) Being an atheist helps, here; there’s no higher power dictating that this word is bad and this word is good and this word if spoken earns you a one-way ticket to eternal torture. Words are just collections of letters and sounds that we as a culture agree mean certain things. On the other hand, our culture has certainly agreed that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. And since my job in large part entails cultivating future humans into actual productive humans, that’s a standard I’m more-or-less obliged to uphold.

That’s why I take pains not to swear (too much) in my online interactions; even though my online persona isn’t necessarily identical to my walking-around persona, they’re close enough that it behooves me to be cognizant of the things I say around here. I keep a lid on the things that would otherwise come out of my mouth.

But in my not-for-public-consumption writing? In my morning pages, my first drafts, my notes to myself in the margins of my writing projects? The lid comes off. If the use of certain words could condemn you to eternal torture, I would probably owe several infinities’ worth of torture to whatever loving deity were meting out the torture. I call myself rude names. I lambast the things I’ve written. I call myself out for the things I need to write in future drafts. It’s self-abuse of the most vile kind, except I don’t view it that way. It doesn’t make me feel bad when I read over it again — it makes me laugh. It’s just how I talk to myself. It’s the opposite of a Big Deal; my own private joke with myself on the public-facing me who can’t speak or write that way.

And it made me wonder how other people do the same thing. Not if — because I feel it’s a pretty safe assumption that anybody who does any sort of extended self-talk, via journal, notes to self, or otherwise, has their own style of idiosyncratic talking to themselves — but how.

Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1737-1797). Oil on canvas, 1767. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1737-1797). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

I remember that I had to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in a college course, which contained several excerpts from his journals, his lists of personal maxims, stories of his early writing jobs. And I remember thinking: personal journals? Bull Sharknado. Maybe some polished versions, sure. But it’s not like he went into whatever random entry he wrote to himself on Bleptember the blargteenth, schleppenteen schlippity bleven, said “yep, that’s the one” and dropped it into the book. You just know that the margins of his journal were full of comments like “Ben, you self-important, pompous, wig-wearing f***. How can you take yourself seriously writing this s***?”



Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I wrote this entire entry to tell you about that one weird little thought that crossed my mind: Ben Franklin scribbling insults at himself with a quill pen in between drafting the backbone of our nation.

It made me laugh, anyway.

A Problem with Profanity

So there’s another problem with the draft.

Maaaybe less of a problem and more of a quandary, if the difference is anything more than semantic.

It’s a problem with language.  A quandary of character.

See, I created this antagonist to be a real bastard.  And to be fair, I think I’ve been successful.  He’s a total jerkface.  A real knee-biter.  Virtually unlikable to everybody in the book except for one, and that one only tolerates him out of some twisted past business relationship… the details don’t matter.  He’s a doodie head.

And I absolutely, 100% believe that each character an author creates is, in some small way or another, an aspect of the author himself (or herself).  I just don’t think there’s any getting around that — pour your heart and soul into the work and, well, you end up with a work that’s full of your heart and your soul, perhaps more literally than you planned.  And this guy is probably me on a morning when the alarm failed to go off and the car door handle broke and the traffic is outrageous and I forgot my badge for work and then I get to work and it turns out to be Saturday.  He’s a grouch and a grump and he snaps at the word go and a big part of what makes him so nasty is that he’s as foul-mouthed as a dog that’s been flossing with roadkill.

And there’s the problem.

No, that’s not the problem.  The language works for the character.  It fits him like a tailored suit.  The problem is, I don’t know if the language fits the book.  And that brings me back to audience.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not sure I know who my audience is for this damn thing.  I mean, I do.  It’s people more or less like me, maybe a bit younger.  And as a reader, language doesn’t bother me.  A good profanity-laden rant is good for the soul, and let’s be honest, as much as it amuses me to toss around the sharknados and fargos on the blarg here, they’re no substitute for the real thing when real emotion is on the line.  But I’m probably not most readers.  Maybe it’s a bit cart-before-the-horse, but I’m really worried that the profanity, appropriate as it is for the character, and fun as it is for me to write (and read), is going to alienate potential readers.

So there’s the quandary.  There’s nothing wrong with the character as far as the narrative is concerned (at least, as far as I can tell at this point in the edit), and yet I feel like his harshness might be wrong for the story.  Which, then, is more important — an authentic character or a more widely-appealing story?  Do I scale back his jerk-facery in favor of making him a little bit less off-putting?  Do I think up alternate ways to make the character unlikable? Plant some puppies in his path for him to stomp on, send him to bars to abuse the waitstaff, have him drive really slow in the fast lane?  Or do I leave him just the way he is , potential offended readers be damned?

Nothing to do for the moment, I suppose, but throw it on the pile for Further Future Me to sort through and decide on later.


A Word About the Words


If you read this blog in the past two weeks, you might have noticed that I am a fan of colorful language.  And by colorful I mean rude.  And by rude I mean naughty.  And by naughty I mean werty dirds.  (Fargo, there’s no good way to spell that phonetically.)

As I mentioned in a previous post, my dear wife has pointed out to me that due to the visibility of this little dumping ground of mine (and I mean that as an entendre), i.e. that anybody could see it, not least of which my students (fear for the future), I should perhaps be a bit more conscientious of what I post here.

In my head, I argued that conscientiously, I choose virtually every word I recreate here with love and care, and every word which I write here is exactly the word which I meant to write, unless I happen to be posting from the tablet, in which case all bets and all syntax are out the Goldfinger window.

I also feel that a good epithet is the spice of not just language but maybe also life itself, and by that rationale, saying, for example, that a particular sandwich was “a great sandwich” just doesn’t mean the same thing as “a great Fargoing sandwich,” no matter how much we want it to.  Maybe you like some smoked gouda on your burger, and maybe I don’t – but that doesn’t mean that the gouda has to come off the menu.  Gouda, after all, has only the power we give to it and no more.

However, I also know that my dear wife is smarter than I am, so the rational side of me got my foamy-mouthed writer half in a headlock and eased him gently into sleep for a little while.  And by eased him gently into sleep, I mean clubbed him with a DonDraper two by four to lay him out, and hit him once more for good measure once he was down.  Seriously, that guy hasn’t had his shots.  Keep your distance.

So while the unchecked-stream-of-consciousness-happy id-writer Me was napping, world-conscious, livelihood-conscious Me (Goldfingerit, there are so many DonDraper mes crashing around this joint) did a bit of reprogramming and spruced up the place.  To be specific, I stole a page from John Green and crew at CrashCourse and made some substitutions.  John cleverly uses the names of well known authors to stand in for his favorite unsavories; I like movies.  And characters.  And nonsense.  So I’ll use my own code.

So when you’re browsing through these halls of egotism, and you come across a word that sticks out, that just isn’t like the others, fear not, it’s simply the word fairy hard at work keeping this place semi-presentable.  She’s got a lot of Fargoing work to do, though, because I keep a pretty high level of Sharknado flying around this place at all times.  But we can keep it between ourselves, dear reader, you and I.  YOU know what I’m talking about.

Goldfinger it, THE WORD FAIRY, that’s brilliant.  I need to write that down.  Nobody touch that, I’m totally going to use it later.

Anyway, the words may have changed around here, but the feeling won’t.  I write at my best when I let it all hang out, even if it is thinly coded.  I have to say, though, that there is a certain liberation to cutting loose and letting all the gouda bounce off the walls.   Without actually calling it gouda, I mean.  Sharknado, I think my metaphor’s gotten convoluted.

Aaand now I’m hungry.