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Friday, April 26, 2013

That F-king Hemingway

After another marathon editing session, I wandered into a conversation about curses in writing. One guy said he did it all the time for effect. Another guy said he did it, but only during gratuitous sex scenes. Another still said that he had never cursed in his life and therefore would never use it in his writing. I told them that they were all f-king stupid bastards and left to write this blog about it.

I spent the first twenty years of my adult life in the construction industry. There are few places where you'll hear the 'F' word used more frequently (outside of prison or old time sailing vessels, I'd presume). It was a noun, adjective, verb and every other part of a proper sentence structure whose name I have long since forgotten from my third grade English class. In time, it becomes second nature and seems like the other men won't 'hear' you unless your sentence sounds like this:

You f-king guys need to get that f-king sh-t picked up over there. That whole side of the job is f-ked. It looks like f-k.

Everything might have been perfect that day were it not for the horrible wireless connection in the bush.
You become not only immune to the usage of the word, but immune to the fact that it might not be appropriate in every situation. Or, as Hemingway said in Death in the Afternoon...

"...all our words from loose using have lost their edge."

Castro getting a contact rum buzz.
I was cognizant of the fact that peppering my written language with curses probably wasn't ideal, but for effect (and/or affect), I used them frequently in the pages of my first manuscript. When my better (and smarter, and more beautiful) half, Lorri, read it, she said, "um, no. You're not leaving those words in there. Take them out."

"But I use them all the time," I insisted.

"That doesn't mean that I want to hear it, and I certainly don't care to read them. Take them out," she replied.

Unmoved, I referred to a quote from Hemingway himself, knowing that the words of the master would cause her to relent.  Here is the quote that I used...

"I've tried to reduce profanity in The Sun Also Rises, but I reduced so much profanity... that I'm afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply a profane book and hope the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred."

Maybe, I argued...mine is a profane book as well, and the Gods have preordained it as such.

"Hmmmm," she seemed to consider my arguments. "No. Take them out."

So, while admittedly not being the writer that Hemingway was, I also had to admit to not being the fighter that he was either. I took them out. In most places, I found that it didn't cause any injury whatsoever to the story or the flow or the mood. In other instances, I was forced to be more creative to form the same intensity and really show the feelings that were being portrayed.

Hemingway had to make similar concessions in his work...like when he was publishing The Green Hills of Africa in England...

"I took out 7 bloodies, one son of a bitch and 4 or five shits voluntarily to see what difference it would make, to please them..."

Hemingway asking the locals for pocket change to feed the parking meter. Sadly, the little guy only has pennies.
Several months later, I overheard some people talking in the local coffee shop (their intention, I imagine) that a certain scene in one of my books had struck their senses as being profane, and why did every author have to write profane things these days? Mind you, there were no sex scenes, no curse words, nothing that most Americans would hesitate to let their children read, and less suggestive even than most things that children do read. I had quite accidentally stumbled upon the weekly meeting of the  super-religious old judgmental biddy club, and while unharmed by their words (because they were ludicrous), I was flattered that they had all taken the time to buy and read my books, and talk about them in the coffee shop...because ANY publicity is ALWAYS good publicity.

When some people suggested that my first book might be anti-Irish Catholic (hello, my name is Malone) because of how it portrayed the church in a 1900 community, the entire local congregation ran out to buy a copy, so they could read it and better condemn me. I'm still a little confused about it. I try at every turn to write books that everyone can read and enjoy. But, in the words of Henry Herbert Knibbs, "this lovely world is a hard old ball," and it's hard to write a compelling dramatic fiction without someone getting mad about something.

But that doesn't mean that you'd ought to say to hell with it and write for shock value either. Shock value is cheap. It doesn't last more than a second, whether in an idea or a storyline or a word. In fiction, the feeling is not from the sudden jolt of a thing, but the crescendo building up to the moment, or a malingering mood.

Hemingway said...

"My use of words which have been eliminated from writing but which persist in speech has nothing to do with the small boy chalking newly discovered words on fences...I always use them sparingly and never to give gratuitous shock."

Writing without abundant curses and gratuitous shock has improved my abilities. Anytime that you can focus on a scene and find multiple ways to create the same effect of feeling, you have advanced as a writer. Not to say that I am at all offended by curses. I'm not. And not to say that there aren't times to use them in books (or in blog titles to entice people to say WTF? and read the thing).     

Papa Hemingway wrote:

"Try and write straight English; never using slang (or expletives) except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time. I only use swear words, for example, that have lasted at least a thousand years for fear of getting stuff that will simply be timely and then go sour."

Is it just me, or does he look like he's thinking about knocking that cat off the table?
Invariably, when I write a blog post that mentions Hemingway I get messages saying that he makes for a poor subject for study because he was insane or selfish or a bad person or a bad writer or something. I believe that his imperfections are precisely the things that make him the perfect subject for study. His range of behavior and moods and writing styles intersect with all of us at some point. Not to mention, he hated cats and who can't relate to that? Am I right? (okay, not really...Hemingway loved cats...calm down people)

And not to say there isn't a time and a place for everything either. A few minutes after this photo was taken, I accidentally knocked this beer over reaching for the ashtray. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times...and the curses could be heard for miles around, the residual remnants of which still fill the atmosphere somewhere above San Antonio. Keep writing.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Yep, what you said. And I see that E.H. was always out fishing, which could explain all my unreturned emails.

    As to the children and cursing. A while back I noted that we send our kids to expensive schools and they come out knowing only one noun, verb, adjective and adverb and they all start with F. Sh*t, I could've taught them that.

    1. I get the whole art imitates life concepts and people curse regularly in daily language so why not? I was only implying that leaving it out (for the most part) has improved my abilities as a writer (I think) and has improved an aspect of my writing. It would be difficult for me to argue that most parts of any work I have written would be better if only my characters had used more expletives. It merely struck me as funny to hear writers debating it and, for lack of a better blog topic, I thought I would throw my own hat into the ring in a way that would be bound to win the debate (since it's my damned blog and they have no meaningful way to retort (especially since I can moderate the comments))...and use as many of these things '))' as I want to.

    2. I agree about profanity and writing. Too many short stories IMHO (you have to throw that in so the commnt will make it past the moderator). We hopefully are coming out of the era when it seemed necessary to throw in what I call the Lenny Bruce words (mostly male and female body parts and all the expletives I got my teeth knocked out if I got brave enough to say them at home) into every short story regardless of story. Sometimes, thankfully not often, one of my characters insists on using the f word and I cringe. Sometimes I tell them to stop it, sometimes I let it pass. Depends on the story. Cussing as a substitute for humor turns me off. Again, depends, but mostly I don't go for it.

  2. Hi Buzz,
    I enjoyed the post. I guess it's trying to find that balance in fiction where writers recreate real life, but with adjustments.

    Re: There are few places where you'll hear the 'F' word used more frequently (outside of prison or old time sailing vessels, I'd presume). Add to that list, a classroom full of teenagers when a teacher's not there - and sometimes even when they are...

    1. That's true Teagan, and I can verify that because I know a few teachers personally, and you're correct...they tend to have very foul mouths.

      Thanks for reading,


  3. This is such a great topic. Much to the chagrin of my straitlaced parents, I swear all the time. I talk like the Devil's valley girl ("like," "dude," and "f*&&" appear in my vocabulary in equal measure). But when I write, I leave the swearing out of the "literary" stuff because I know I can do better. Like you said, I have other tools in my toolbox that convey the point more subtly and more artistically than a four-letter word.

    But the thriller/mystery/popular stuff is full of it. That's the way I talk, so many of my characters do, too.

    One time, I wrote a flash fiction piece for grad school that consisted almost entirely of the "f" word. It had character, plot, theme, and meaning. And, like, thirty f-bombs. My professor loved it and recommended I send it out to journals immediately. It has never been accepted.

    1. Thanks for posting, Jenni! It's funny because, like I said, I don't mind reading it at all and I think there is a time and a place for it. For instance, I can't stand to watch a movie like Goodfellas that's been edited for T.V.

      I think it definitely has a lot to do with what you're writing, as you alluded to. I have a tendency to want to leave my stories wearing their knickers through and through, and dance round the edges of certain things using suggestion.

      Thanks for reading Jenni! Always great to hear from you.


    2. Ooooo, Jenni, you just reminded me that what I dislike more than cussing is the word "like" used as an adverb to modify every verb in speech. I also dislike "I feel like" when what is meant is "I think". But I also dislike prunes, eggplant, okra, and oysters. And they're not illegal, either, but ought to be. :)

  4. Hello

    I thought that was fucking brilliant! I did laugh too, thank you. Actually when I write I tend not to write too many expletives if I can avoid it. I make up for this by having swearing competitions with my friends...it is so satisfying!

    1. Thank you for reading, Nettie. And thank you for reaffirming my brilliance. I'm all the time telling Lorri how brilliant I am. Maybe your post will help serve as proof next time we have that debate!

      Thanks for reading and for posting.


  5. I'm reading "Death in the Afternoon" and it is just as bad as his other novels. You are right, people (me) seem unable to refrain from pointing out how terrible a writer he was, but you are also correct that he is a perfect subject for this post.

    I've read a couple of your blog posts, you are a vastly better writer than E.H., but again, that is not much of a compliment.

    Great post! Hemingway would have revised it 100 times and still not been as good.

    1. Well, thank you (I think) for the compliments (sort of). And thank you for proving my theory correct that even when having called it in advance, a certain percentage of the literary populace are unable to control their urge to comment negatively about Hemingway! Ha!

      And I agree that Death in the Afternoon might not be representative of his finest hour. In all Ernest(ness), thanks for the kind words, and for reading. I always appreciate folks taking the time leave a comment while they're here.

      Thanks again,


    2. Reading excellent literary biography of E.H, Hemingway by Lynn. Talks about Death in the Afternoon, among others. Delves into E.H.'s early life and its impact on his writing. For me, I like his style, and as a kid I wanted nothing more than to be Hemingway. My first sort story written at age 15 was crap, so maybe, Extremely Average, you would say I succeeded. Some of his content is dated, ironic in that he said don't use slang that won't stand the test of time. Having never read A Moveable Feast, I did recently. I forced myself to finish, liked it mostly for the gossip about other writers. I don't care for his machoism and some of what appears misogynist (although Lynn would have us believe EH's misogyny relates to a disturbed and complex relationship with his mother, whom he hated). Still, I hear he could catch fish, and that ya gotta admire, no matter who you are.

  6. I grew up in a strict religious home in the Midwest and even saying "gosh darn it" got washed away with a bar of Ivory soap. Of course, one grows up and the world around them expands, but even so I never liked the F-word spoken in my presence or in books I read. So, you can imagine how my ears caught on fire and my lungs cried out "just breathe, already" at my gasps of shock when I came to Belize---where F* is officially a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and any other part of speech in the Kriol dialect. Like the now familiar "I see dead people," it's everywhere. And, guess what? I haven't noticed anyone struck down by lightening. Bad people use it. Good people use it. People you'd least expect it use it. I'd venture to guess that those dogs barking at one another defending their street-corner territories even use it. I hardly notice any longer. Personally, my lips can't quite form the sound and I'm not sure that I would ever use it in my writing....although I have to admit that I express a big "you tell 'em" when people make lots of noise at night and I hear the man down the street yell a few times in a row,"shut the F*K UP!!"

    1. Carmen,
      I grew up in that dilapidated house three blocks down from yours where you weren't allowed to play (also in the Midwest). We didn't fully trust religious folk, since their usage of words like "gosh darn it" or "oh poo," and their obnoxious Christmas sweaters, marked them as being from a different part of society that was practically foreign to us (my dad greeted Christmas carolers with the garden hose and a barrage of empty beer cans). We learned to curse and drink and smoke and spit properly (only occasionally dribbling down the front of our shirts). And more importantly, we learned to use the language to ward off neighbors who wandered too close to our lawn (why I still insist upon living in the country even now), and we (or I, at least...rest in peace Uncle Cleo) have never been struck down by lightning. Of course, as societal outcasts, we never quite became successful enough to go to foreign places like Belize either (although I did go to Alabama once), and curse alongside the locals. It's too bad. It sound like I'd have fit right in there. And if you think there is going to be a point to this as I wrap things up, you're wrong because I'm only on my first cup of coffee. Thanks for reading, Carmen, and I can't wait to see what all is coming from you next on your website!

      P.S. The Other Half is still a good book. Isn't it wonderful that you can delete them and curse them and try to rid the world of them, but people still manage to find copies when they want to? I have one that makes me cringe each time I see it, too. I'm rewriting it now, so at least when someone hunts it down, it'll be as good as it might be.

      As always, thanks for reading and great to hear from you!


  7. Hey Buzz, as always, great post. You know my background when it comes to the F word. However a lot has changed in 35 years and even back then that word was itching to get out. I think swearing does have a place in writing. I don't use it excessively but to make some characters believable I think some dialogue requires it. I used it in my novel in an attempted rape scene. The guy was a beast and in this case, in my opinion, cursing was warranted. One of my readers did not agree and posted this on Goodreads - The story started out good but then the author felt the need to swear. Maybe I was wrong :-)

    1. You were right to use your naughty words. That's why they call you the "author" and the other person is known as the "reader" and has to either experience whatever we want them to, or put the book down and never read us again.

      And let me tell you a secret. Lean in close, Megan, and I'll whisper it into your ear. Anything that you write that is read by more than ten people is going to upset someone for some reason. I guarantee it. I've written several local fiction novellas and some of my followers seemingly read them just to bitch about something. I will say that I was thoughtful when it comes to cursing and sex and other taboos because I always recognized that most of my readers were somewhere between the age of 65 and pushing daisies. I didn't want to offend anyone unnecessarily. It didn't work. Even without anything blatant, there are some very uptight people in the world, and there are several of them praying to their God right now that I be smote by lightning for having written something that managed to offend them, or their (insert word of choice here).

      You could write a children's book about a puppy and somebody is going to complain about the sex of the puppy or the color of the spots or why there weren't any kittens in the damned story. It's YOUR story. Tell it however you think it needs to be told, and let the chips fall where they may. In the end, it'll be a better book when you go with your gut, I think. My main point wasn't even about cursing at all really. It was about taking the reader on a journey of emotions and developing different techniques to get them there.

      Now, back to the hockey game, eh?

      Thanks for stopping by Megan. As always, thanks for reading!