“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”
This blog post is not my trickle. I fuel my trickle in the margins, when no one is looking or paying attention or reading or critiquing or praising or liking or RTing or sharing. Keep feeding your trickle, sweets.
“Like they don’t hear it at school,” you say. “Or say it themselves.”
Yeah, I realize teenagers are fluent in profanity—I was in junior high and high school once. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook from preserving for my daughter, 13, and son, 16, one pocket in their lives where an elevated level of gentility and decorum are modeled. Not that I’m genteel. But relatively speaking, I’m Emily Post.
In the car on the way home from school the boy will occasionally drop the f-bomb or other four letter words, and I can tell you his sister is genuinely offended. You see, the men in her life, well, for the most part, reserve their use of profanity for extreme situations, like severed limbs or totaled cars. Near tears she says, “Jack, why do you have to say that?” I call him out, remind him, “Gentlemen don’t speak that way,” and he says, “Mom, it’s just language.” And if this is as rebellious as it gets, I’m fine, but it’s just language?
I was raised to feel that cussing is the communication equivalent of open-mawed mastication, talking with your mouth full (AGGG!) or elbows on the table during a meal. In my home growing up, the following words were banned:
shut (with “up”)
It was natural to hear our mother respond from the kitchen to a smashed or sliced finger, in an amplified voice: “ESSS! AAAICH!” You knew it must really hurt if she got to “EEYYYE!” Never once heard her spell out the entire word, or say it. And my mother was, and is, no Stepford wife. She’s zany, well read, and filterless in her comments and opinions, but consistent in her relentless avoidance of profanity. (Though since Dad’s death she tends to overuse the “pissed.” I think it’s her way of coping. Widows gone wild.)
My dad, an articulate gentleman marketing exec who also happened to have served in the Navy during the Korean war, wasn’t quite as controlled in his profanity management. In fact, till we could read we thought our mother’s name was “GoddammitRuthann.” But he never tossed around the more vulgar sh^t or f*#k. He was no milquetoast, though. He was Don Draper, not Ward Cleaver. [<<<YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THAT ONE. You’re welcome. End of aside.] I’m betting the farm he let the saltiest words fly on the golf course or with his fishing buddies on the St. John’s River, contexts that strike me as completely appropriate for unrestrained language.
Another appropriate—prescribed, even—occasion for well-chosen profanity, IMHO, is written dialogue. If a character in a work of fiction (or non fiction for that matter), swears like a sailor, and art reflects life, that character must not be muzzled. To pretend that people don’t really speak that way is ridiculous (CBA, I’m mean you). I’m not talking gratuitous swearing, but it is far more believable to read unsupervised teens expressing horror or surprise with “Oh my God!” than “Oh my Gosh!”; or disgust with a villain with, “She’s a total bitch!” vs. “She’s a real meanie.” Even if it’s not my own personal standard for my own children—that’s how certain normal people are going to talk in certain situations. I mean, hell, it’s realistic.
If a character in my novel witnesses a family member being maimed or killed, or she’s attacked by a bully, she might say something stronger than, “Gee whiz! That’s really bad!” In fact, Allison Lynn, my MFA Long Form Workshop professor, recently called me out for putting unrealistically soft language in my young teen girl characters’ mouths. Her assertion was that they didn’t sound real, not true to life, that in the absence of adult supervision they’d be experimenting with the vernacular. Because that’s what kids really do. (Dammit.)
And so do many adults, writers in particular. And that’s fine; I don’t judge them. It sounds just right when they say it, and they’re usually strategic. I take no offense—except that they’re far more successful than I am, and I worry that my reluctance to cuss handicaps me, branding me irrelevant.
It’s not my responsibility to groom or correct anyone who didn’t emerge from my womb. It just doesn’t feel right for me. And, I think the trendy swear words sound stupid coming out of my mouth. Like miniskirts: they just don’t look good on me. But Alicia Silverstone sure could rock hers. And how gorgeous are Scarlett Johansson’s lips in crimson? I look like a clown in red lipstick.
And there’s this: when I swear my spirit zings a little, no doubt because of the Bible verse installed in my memory as a child that reverberates anytime profanity slips from my mouth or fingers. This one: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV); and, from another version, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.” Each word a gift. I like that. Another translation says it thusly:
“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”*
[Ask my husband: I am proficient in uttering “harmful things” with nary an f- or s- or b- or c-word in sight. But I’m working on it, constantly, and I strive to write in such a way that the words I choose will do some good. But that’s another matter. End of aside.]
I’m sure we’ve all heard, primarily from grandparents, librarians, and middle school English teachers, that “cussing shows a lack of intelligence” or is a sign of “verbal laziness.” There may be traces of truth in those statements, but I do believe there is power and exhilaration in the well placed f-bomb. Like, and we count on The Rumpus for such exhortations, on the mugs that sold out at the AWP conference in Boston quoting (the not at all lacking-in-intelligence or lazy) Cheryl “Dear Sugar” Strayed, seated next to Augusten Burroughs, concluded her presentation on the final night, with the charge to us eager writers to go forth and “write like a motherfucker.” Just freaking write was the point she was making, and her use of the electric MF word placed that advice in bold, punctuating it with a big loud exclamation point.
*Thanks, Cheryl Strayed, for the writerly kick in the bu#%. It was just the word I needed.
Roxane Gay is Katherine Hepburn pretty, easier and harder to talk to than you might expect, and has an adorable hint of a lisp that makes you want to pull her up into your lap, give her a peck on the cheek, and read to her the Eric Carle canon.
Maud Newton is a peach. In person she is lovely, gracious, soft-spoken, petite, bookish, and adorable in round glasses. Her skin is porcelain. She reminds me of a silent movie star—moon-faced, brunette, demure. And she’s so gosh darn nice.
As I drove to hear her address the MFA students in the Butler University Efroymson Center for Creative Writing the other evening, I formed a question to ask during Q&A. I can never think of an original question at these things or have burning curiosity about anything I haven’t already read about an author in an interview, but there was one thing I really wanted to know from this Rebecca “Maud” Newton, who has been a champion literary blogger since before blogging was even a word. What I wanted to ask her was,
“You have reached a level of writerly acclaim I can’t even imagine aspiring to. You’re prolifically published, religiously followed and emulated. The Paris Review even calls you ‘Necessary Reading.’ My question is this: How are you not a d-bag?”
But as Maud spoke, and from the moment she greeted me in the entryway with a warm smile, firm handshake and sincere “Thank you for coming!” the answer became apparent, negating my need to ask. She’s just naturally, well, nice.
Maud Newton is one of the good guys, and why is this trait so surprising? It may be the prevailing tone of snark sweeping the lit-mag-osphere, or the soaring popularity of wittily written, if profane, blogs that are equal parts hilarious and mean-spirited that make a writer think, “Well, I’d better get busy cussing and jabbing others with clever jokes at their expense if I want to find success in the literary realm.”
Another reason “nice” strikes me as such an anomaly may be that I’ve experienced enough visiting writers to be jaded by the colossal egos. Oh excuse me, Lorrie Moore, but you could take a lesson from Ms. Newton in the art of graceful celebrity. And, b-t-dub, you’re not as widely read or admired as you think you are. And, Walter Mosley, you are a tres debonair, wildly articulate, killer crime novelist, but take some notes from Maud Newton on humility. And did Paris Review ever recommend either of you people as necessary reading? I think not.
[Which reminds me of an important piece of advice Ms. Newton offered bloggers, namely to be really sure of what you want to say before you say it; consider your message and be careful what you put out into cyberspace, because once your words are out there, you can’t get them back.] Well, Maud, I have looked within, and I am sure. I don’t need those words back. Even if they do border on snarky.
Highlights and Quotes from an Evening with Maud Newton
Maud Newton doesn’t have a staff. Stacks of some 300 books clog the limited space in her Brooklyn apartment, so if you’re an author or publisher and want a book reviewed toute de suite, get in line. She’s just one person with one pair of eyes.
Blogging did not kill long-form literary criticism, which she points out “is flourishing on the internet.”
Have faith in your voice, your own perspective. It’s what distinguishes you from all the other writers.
“It’s okay if crazy people hate you.”
“Express yourself sincerely.”
Beware: blogging can reinforce an insidious desire for instant gratification.
On reviewing books:
A reviewer has the duty to be honest and “not bore the reader of the review.”
A reviewer should look into herself and be honest about her reactions to the book. “I won’t review books I don’t have strong feelings about,” she said. And she tends to avoid the negative review these days. (Oh how I wish I’d asked a follow-up about why that is. Maybe it’s a function of her inner goodness.).
As a reviewer, Maud Newton asks herself, “Does this book feel like it will be for me; will it be edifying to me in some way?” If the answer is “no,” she puts it down, never to pick it up again. “I’m really a selfish reader.”
Maud Newton has a full time job, some legal publishing gig where coworkers—”fellow refugees from the law”—call her “Rebecca” and don’t necessarily know from Maud Newton.* It is no wonder she’s no longer a lawyer. Lawyers make lousy nice people.**
Maud Newton doesn’t think your blog has to be focused on one, specific thing to be widely read or followed. “(A personal blog) can be a great repository for the things you like to write about and things that interest you,” she said. “People like complex people.”
Maud Newton the novelist keeps a book she calls “horrible,” a book “a lot of people really like,” on her desk to keep her working on her own novel. She says, “If someone can publish that book with a straight face, there is hope for mine.” (She was too gracious to name said horrible book publicly.)
Maud is blogging less these days, primarily because of the time-drain. “Blogging won’t help you finish your novel or memoir,” she said, which was, to me, the best advice of the night for a roomful of writers who are limping along toward their first novels.
Stop blogging, Maud, because I can’t wait to read your novel. I’m a selfish reader too. If only I were as nice as you.
ASIDE: The sunny spring evening of Ms. Newton’s visit marked the death of two other literary giants: Adrienne Rich and Newton’s mentor, Harry Crews—a blow that rattled me with the realization that my writing mentors might one day perish. Sincere condolences to you, Maud.
*(My friend Jamie says, “Of COURSE she has a job… Publishing doesn’t pay much these days. And she’s competing for book dollars with The Greek Seaman.”) I have no idea what she’s talking about, do you?
**I know. I was married to one. Nice people make miserable lawyers, and vice versa.
ser·en·dip·i·ty |ˌserənˈdipitē| noun the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities. ORIGIN 1754: coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
co·in·ci·dence |kōˈinsədəns, -ˌdens|noun1 a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection
In the submission-wait-rejection-submission-wait-rejection-submission-wait-rejection cycle, an acceptance is a rare triumph, or as a more accomplished friend once said, it’s a “tiny starpoint of success” to be celebrated. Seven months after I wrote a list in the tradition of 10th century Japanese writer and courtesan Sei Shanagon, for a nonfiction workshop, I submitted it.
The list was deeply personal to me, so I didn’t jet it out to every journal. I carefully selected two or three journals I trusted to handle it with care. Two months later I heard from the editor of Emprise Review, and two weeks after that, it was published. (2013 update: Emprise Review has gone dark, but the piece can be read here.)
Wacky: within a two-week period last summer, I find out the list is accepted for publication, it is published almost immediately, and it coincides with the work-related publication of this.
What started as a creative nonfiction workshop assignment to write a list á la Shonagon’s “Hateful Things” I read in The Art of the Personal Essay resulted in a cathartic ode to my dad’s final days. Coincidence? Serendpity? I don’t know, but it would appear that some energy is working to connect my father, God rest his soul, and my mother (Happy Birthday, Mom) in cyberspace.
Writers, as you know from the first four installments of theEliza Tudor Survival Guide to Bridge the Worlds of MFA-Candidate and MFA-Wielding God/Goddess so graciously offered by Butler MFA-wielding goddess Eliza Tudor [this is the summary part with links to the brilliant Tudor tips you missed the first time]:
I trust you’ve benefited from the series and leave you now with Ms. Tudor’s final nuggets of wisdom from beyond the MFA . . .
I think writers should try and fit in a little exercise every day. It’s a sanity thing. If only Virginia Woolf had done yoga. It’s hard—especially for writers. You think, “I could be spending this time working” (especially if you only have a few minutes to fit everything in). After I finishedthe program, I dusted off the yoga mat, I started running more, and it helped. It’s time to think or not think. And, if Murakami does it, it has to be good.
7. FORGET ABOUT IT
Stop thinking about others as competition. It’s hard sometimes to ignore what others are doing, but nobody’s path is the same.
Do your work.
Try as hard as you can not to look over your shoulder.
This is the perfect time to take some new risks in your writing.
As you may have caught in the first, second, and third installments of the Eliza Tudor Survival Guide to bridge the worlds of MFA-candidate and MFA-wielding god/goddess, Lit Mags fuel a writer, writers submit, and writers keep (anyone?) writing. Step 4 is brief, so it shares a post with step 5 (out of 7—you’ll love 6 and 7).
Join Facebook even if it scares the living hell out of you. Keep in touch with your lit gang. Make some new lit and non-lit friends. Let people into your writing life. It makes it less lonely.
5. CREATE (outside of writing)
Rediscover, in this post-MFA world what else you like to do besides writing. I got a little stale during my MFA years—there just wasn’t time for everything. This is the PERFECT time to say hello again to hobbies.
There’s a great Louis Armstrong quote about making a life. I’m paraphrasing here in a big way, but make your life your work and it will make your writing better. And this is exactly the time to do it. You’ve finished your MFA, you have a project to work on, you’re figuring out how to be a self-employed writer (even if it isn’t your only job or your only other-other job). Figure out some new obsessions. Revisit some old ones. Goof off a little bit. It will bring freshness to your work.
As you may have read in the first installment of the Eliza Tudor Survival Guide to bridge the worlds of MFA-candidate and MFA-wielding god/goddess, Lit Mags are the Wheaties that can power a writer. In Survival Guide 2, writers submit. Step 3…
3. HAVE A PROJECT READY TO WORK ON WHEN YOU GRADUATE
I did my thesis reading and a few hours later I was on a flight with my family to move across the country. No joke. The next morning, I looked at all the boxes in this new house, in this new state, with no friends, no childcare, no stinking coffee and I knew only one thing: I had writing waiting for me. I bought a new calendar and made some deadlines and I got back to work. I didn’t do this because I loved it (exactly). I did it because I didn’t just want to be someone with an MFA, I wanted to be someone with a shelf of books and short stories and screenplays with my name on them.
The fact is you will be much grumpier if you don’t write than if you do. You’ll feel better after you’ve written. We all do. And writing begets writing.
As you may have read in the first installment of the Eliza Tudor Survival Guide to bridge the worlds of MFA-candidate and MFA-wielding god/goddess, Lit Mags are the Wheaties that can power a writer. Next on the list . . .
Start submitting work before you finish the program. Not only will you prove to your partner/spouse/children/parents that you actually do something, you’ll also prove it to yourself. Sure, you’re going to submit work before you’re ready, but that is okay. Keep submitting work. New work. Re-revised work. Whatever. Work on it, make it the best you can, have more than one piece going out, and GO. Keep a running guide of where you are submitting and the answer (much easier now with online submissions and your favorite spreadsheet program). Thumbs up or ding, whatever. Be professional about it: keep track, write thank you notes, be nice. This is your job. Also set yourself a set amount of submissions per week or month and hit it. You’ll look back sometimes and think, “Okay, I NEVER should have sent that out.” But really, who cares. Do it! Do it again! Writers write. They revise. They submit. They get rejections. They move on. They keep working.
Eliza Tudor is a writer in Silicon Valley. She received her MFA from Butler University. Her work has most recently been published in PANK and Hobart.