On Swearing

My class is writing creative nonfiction essays that involve querying ideas. I’ve told them they are allowed to swear and some of them take me seriously. I guest-workshopped a writing workshop a few years ago at my institution and I learned that creative writing kids, these days, swear a lot.

“Not earned?” one kid asked as he read my comments. I have a pretty good memory for writing, unlike my memory for more practical things like where I put my keys or what I did yesterday. So I knew what he was talking about. He had thrown in what seemed to me as a gratuitous “fuck” in the middle of a paragraph.

“Unearned.” I confirmed.


And so I told him that his first use of the word bullshit in the first paragraph made sense, but the “fuck” on page two came out of nowhere.

“But I was trying to portray my own irritation with the subject. I used a lot of exclamation points, I never do that.”

“You need to build up to it more, then. I didn’t get it.” And this lead to a wider class conversation about swearing. I told them that I could say, “I was so fucking bored” and the modifier “fuck” becomes generic. But if I said, “I was so bored that I wanted to grade papers and do my taxes at the same time” that tells you a lot more about me and/or the depths of my boredom.

[Management: The difference between Indy Clause and her real-life persona become quite clear here. Indy doesn’t fucking care how generic the word “fuck” is, she’s gonna use it anyway.]

I swear in class (a little) because I have had a potty mouth since a shockingly young age. But I also swear in class to build rapport with the students. I swear to seem less daunting. I want them to be able to say what they want to. Or at least that is the spin I’m putting on it today.

Fess up: Are you sweary? What’s up with writers and swearing?


10 responses to “On Swearing

  1. My problems are more about vernacular than about cussing. My beta reader just helped me out with my overuse of the words “impact” and “power” (yeah, i’m a sociologist). I said “…have a great impact.” She replaced it with “…delivered a punch.”

    Fuck, year! It’s gratuitious vernacular. And, in the first paragraph! But, I am going to keep it. And up yours,you peer reviewers!

    (told you I am sweary)

  2. I’ve found that not swearing, ever (as I am not sweary) seems to freak people out more than swearing ever could. It’s not that I have to grasp my pearls if people swear around me–I notice but I don’t get bent out of shape about it–just that it was never in my vocabulary. And then people who have been around me a while start getting squirmy and ask why I never use the f-word, etc. (Especially the f-word, for some reason.)

    I’m not from around here, and although I lost my drawl long ago, the absence of swearing still marks me an expat; likely always will.

    • I told my students (who are from the northern part of the US) that back in my southern days, I was careful not to say “Jesus Christ” in front of people I didn’t know because people found it really offensive, and I did not want to offend random people. But up here in the northern neck of the woods, all aspects of my sweariness fit in just fine.

  3. This comes up for me again and again. I tend to write “fuck” in early drafts as a way to scream my frustration, pain, and irritation in shorthand. Like I would scream “fuck” if I stubbed my toe. In the re-writes I decide to cut the “fuck” or not. They almost ALWAYS get cut because it’s just early lazy writing for me.

    When I get to a curse word while reading, it’s distracting if it has not be been earned. And if there are too many fucks, I lose interest.

    This also gets interesting in writing nonfiction. I wrote an essay awhile back, and in one scene the characters used a lot of “fucks.” They really did, in real life! But it didn’t work in the essay and I removed all but maybe 2 of them.

  4. Everyone in my family recently read “The Martian.” It’s pretty sweary, but even my fifth grader read it. The earned or humorous swearing doesn’t bother me or them, and I really don’t mind them reading it. But my son played a “Everything Wrong with Captain America” youtube video (one in a series), and it was all very angry, unearned swearing. I didn’t like that vibe.

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