I cuss a lot. It’s a problem that I address every three years or so, because that’s about as much time as it takes for me to recognize that my problem has come back from the last attempt to eradicate it. I was thinking about cursing, and all the swears that I know, because I was writing a short story while listening to Crass (really good band, especially the song Bata Motel) and at the end of the first draft my dialogue was almost entirely comprised of the eff word.
That was intentional, sort of. The story is for my little brother; a special project of his. He’s a punk kid, and the world in which the story is set is quick and gritty and speaks in short bursts from the heart. “Fuck” is heart language. But, as I was editing down the speech into something legible, I started thinking about all of the numerous lists I’ve read on literary magazine websites that outline what they do not want. Almost all of them mention gratuitous cussing (or excessive cursing, or an exuberance of swears). And it’s not because their poor little milquetoast eyes can’t handle having their delicate sensibilities rattled.
That couldn’t be the reason… think of all the unedited manuscripts they stomach on a regular basis. These editors have seen things that’d make a grown man cry…
Okay, back from the trenches. They’ve read it all before. And I’m sure you’ve already arrived at the conclusion that swear words lose their power if used too often, so I’m going a different direction with this. Swears are cheap.
I mean, shit, man. It’s bottom shelf language that we grab in a pinch. (Literally , too, btw. You pinch your hand between a radiator and a fan belt and you will be screaming “fuck.”) And yes, it has its place in literature. There are many places in a story where a single obscenity will do more for you than the most intricately built sentence, but if you lean to heavily on the curses in lieu of something a little higher, the story is just going to sound stupid.
My boss has heard me cuss before. But for many years some of my coworkers thought I just didn’t. Because I keep that shit contained. I work around the words my heart is screaming, so I don’t sound like a dumbass in front of my boss. And I think that’s really what the “limit your cursing” comes down to. It isn’t so much a container on the power that the occasional Piss might have, but a challenge, to make sure that you are capable of writing without it.
*As well as cussing, I enjoy deliberately misspelled words that further enforce the tenuous construction of a sentence.