Vulgar Sense and the Common Tongue

There are ghosts from my past who’ve owned more of my soul than I thought I had given away. They linger in closets and under my bed and in pictures less proudly displayed.
— Jennifer Knapp, “Martyrs and Thieves” from her debut album Kansas.

I love profanity.  I love it.  No question, no apology: that we have words so intense, so profound and so profane we have to use letters like ‘F’ and ‘S’ and ‘B’ to represent them is an indication of the power of the English bleepin’ language.  Little literary landmines we plant between the benign and the boring: these things always make me smile.  I love profanity.

Which is why I don’t use it.

Thing about landmines is, they tend to blow things up.  And too many explosions can leave craters everywhere, and the ears will ring and the shrapnel will fall and the metaphor will crumble like a house of cards or a non sequitrous simile.  Words are fun.  Profanity is more fun, but only when it’s rarely used.  We keep vulgar words in our deck, saving them for the right moment, for that perfect time to slam them down and send cards flying off the felt.  The table overturns, the monocle falls from the aghast man’s face, and the old lady flies back dress over stocking needing vapors to recover while the monocle shatters on the floor next to her.

Yeah, profanity is fun.  It’s why I used ‘em a lot in my books.  I’ve written three novels in the Sandy Mantle Series, and I went a little profanity-happy in the first two.  I’ll admit it: I was like the kid who realizes the world won’t open up and swallow him whole if he uses big-boy words, the kid not yet having tasted soap.

Thirty years old and I was laughing my ‘A’ off dropping eff-bombs without a care in the world, or a thought to my thirty-six year-old self in church talking about my profanity-filled books, unsure how to describe them, or if I should even recommend them.  Christian books don’t have profanity, so do mine belong in church?

Nah, they don’t.  There’s a time and place for profanity and it ain’t church.  It’s the Interstate on a Friday afternoon, not Sunday morning.  And yet, how many Christians avoid movies with profanity?  Not many.  Perhaps we don’t quote our favorite lines verbatim, but we watch ‘em; perhaps, when singing along with explicit songs, we don’t actually sing the profanity; perhaps we just kinda gloss over the naughty words in the books we read: this is the world of the Christian who is surrounded by profanity but not penetrated by it.

This profanity I love so much represents the power of our words, an enigma of paradoxical proportion: something that’s powerful in its non-use and meaningless in its overuse.  As a grown man who has all the freedom to use them but has chosen not to use them I’m left with a question: what do I do with the books I’ve written already?

I’ll start with the warning: This is not a book for youngsters...because some of the characters use Adult Language. I did not necessarily want the characters to use this type of language; some of them just went ahead and did. That’s how some characters are.
— Dave Barry, “Acknowledgments and a Warning” from his debut novel Big Trouble.

I can sympathize with characters behaving in ways the author did not anticipate, authorize or condone; the very existence of my most vulgar, violent and beloved character is a testament to their autonomy in the writer’s psyche.  Somewhere between the head and the hands, these characters assert their will.

Creak was never meant to be a character.  He was a device.  He was a tool I planned on using to bring Sandy from the brink of death when the tension was high enough.  Creak had other plans.  He snuck out of obscurity in the pages and stole the show.  Creak, a character whose very name was based on a misspelling, became the most rooted-for character in the Sandy Mantle series despite being, quite literally, a killer and a whoremonger.  My question of late: what happens when Creak finds Jesus?

This is a question I will answer in Book Four.

But what to do with my previous three?  Only two of them include profanity and gratuitous violence (sorry about the bloody backstabbing in Book Two; won’t happen again) and the sexual content was practically nonexistent.  My then girlfriend’s only complaint about Book One was the sex scene was too short.  In fact, with some minor cleanup of the ka-ka words, these books could easily get a PG rating from the MPAA...if they rated books...and I could afford them.

So do I revise these books and clean them up for my newfound church friends?  Do I sanitize them for their pleasure?

This has been the question on my mind for the last few months.

I could sell the cleaned up copies in Christian bookstores.

I could find them a new audience and expand their scope if I only did the Hot-Lucas on this original trilogy.

In short: no, I won’t.

Here’s why:

We all have a past.  For some of us this past includes images of exposed body parts on the internet we wish we could remove, videos of us running naked at a party, drunkenly shouting clumsily phrased profanity at the top of our lungs, moments we wouldn’t remember but for that damnable camera we didn’t even know was running.  Some of us carry the scars of our youth as addictions or diseases or actual scars.  Who am I to worry about some modestly questionable content in books so tame teachers would let their middle-school students read?

Perhaps if those once-twenty now-forty-somethings, those sometime-nudist partygoers could rewrite their lives they would remove the naughty bits and bleep their history.  I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

But because they can’t I won’t.

Call it an act of solidarity or laziness: I don’t care.  These books of mine are a testament to my own growth as a writer for more reasons than the profanity I’m about to swear off; the truth is, they’re very sloppy narrative-wise and begging for an editor.  I like having a history etched in letters.  But going forward I vow here and now I will not use profanity in a book I write again.  I will rein in my characters and force them to use some common sense with their common speech.

After Book Four.

Gonna give ‘em one more to get it out of their system.