After I set the date for my book launch party (July 24), I told Mom.
“Great!” she said. “Now I finally get to read your book.”
Mom is ninety years old. I can’t remember the last time she read a book. Although she has told me many times over the years how much she loved to read when she was young, I really never anticipated she would actually read my book.
A few months back, she asked what its title was. We were sitting at a table in the dining room of her retirement home with one of her friends, a Lutheran and an avid book reader. I took a very deep breath and then told them.
“The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife,” I said. I felt small and sheepish and for a brief moment thought that perhaps I should change the title, for Mom. At a minimum, I needed to explain the title, because I knew, in Mom’s eyes, the words damnable and minister should not be used in the same sentence, let alone emblazoned across the cover of a book. Especially one written by her daughter. Mom is a good Christian woman who never, ever swears. And making friends in a retirement home is more difficult than making friends in the middle school cafeteria. I didn’t want my book title to ruin her chances.
“Catchy, huh?” I said. “By the way, it’s damnable, not damn. There’s a difference. It just means the legacy she left behind might be worthy of condemnation. But she had really good intentions.” Mom and her friend looked at me with vacant eyes and nodded almost imperceptibly, then dug into their peas and carrots. That was the end of it, I thought.
But now Mom said she wants to read the book, and a million accusatory thoughts flooded my mind like zombies in an apocalypse, reminding me about the profanity I’d used throughout the pages. Suddenly, all I could remember were the swear words, as though all 99,000+ words were washed through a sieve and all that remained was the detritus of our language: shit, fuck, and bitch.
I told Mom that perhaps it would be better if someone read the book to her, someone like my brother or sister or me, who could censor it as we went along. Then I made up some excuse to change the subject and, ever since then, I’ve had horrible insomnia, worrying about what Mom will think. And worrying about what all sorts of other readers will think too.
I do believe that’s the worry of many writers. We are told over and over to dismiss all those concerns and to write what we want or need to write. And we take that advice to heart. But then, when we’re perched on the edge of publication, we have no choice but to worry again.
Jennifer Paros wrote a blog this week for Author Magazine called “Trusting.” It was a timely piece, from my perspective. She had some nice quotes about trusting yourself by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke (both of whom sound like they know what they’re talking about if for no other reason than their fabulous names). At the end of the blog, Jennifer suggested that “when we leave the questions and doubts to die on the vine, there’s nothing left but trust and knowing–and the joy of creating.” So I guess, to use my sieve analogy, if I were to rinse all the non-profanity down the drain, I’d have nothing left but detritus, but if I were to strain the story through the sieve into a large bowl, then perhaps I’d be left with the pure, clear broth that was the basis of my creation and that had been flavored, ever so subtly, with the profanity
Whatever. I was still tormented by the idea of the language I used in my novel. I tried to rationalize by asking myself this: what sort of language do you expect climbers, hookers, and troubled teens to use under stress? I mean, come on. Still, no sleep would come. So at last I did what any self-respecting, analytically neurotic, exhausted writer would do. I used Word Count to figure out just how bad the language was. Here’s what I came up with.
17 shits or bullshits
8 god damns
20 hells, when not referring to that place in the afterlife
10 asses or assholes
All told, profanity represented approximately .07% of the words in my novel. Not bad, I decided, given the population of characters and the settings in which I’d placed them. Perhaps I could rest now.
(Side note: the counting effort was enlightening in another way. I had never given much thought to how many words include ass: glass, pass, crevasse, assume, assign, assess, assist, embarass, sass, massage, Cassin, Massif, classic, and carcass.)
Unfortunately, even after all that, my linguistic zombies kept coming after me. And it wasn’t just because of the profanity or my worries about Mom. There are other readers out there, I decided, who might take offense or exception to other aspects of the book. Next up: Climbers, Christians, and Cancer Survivors.