Tag Archives: language

No, I Won’t Stop Swearing

20 Mar

For those of you who somehow haven’t noticed, I occasionally use cuss words in my writing. I’m a grownup writing for grownups, and I just kind of figure that these are all words we’ve heard used at one time or another. Like, does anyone actually find the words fuck or shit all that shocking? Especially on a blog (as opposed to a For Real Credible News Source)? I mean, come on.

And yet every time I have a post go viral, the pearl-clutchers come out in full force.

Oh, they don’t tell me that they’re taken aback or upset by my language – after all, they don’t want to seem prudish or old-fashioned. No, they frame it as concern for me and my well-being. People won’t take me seriously if I swear, they say. No one will read my posts. I sound like I’m uneducated, “common,” with a limited vocabulary. Swear words devalue what would otherwise be quality writing. I would be so much more successful if I would just stick to politely outlining my points; swearing makes me seem hostile, and that turns people off. And, perhaps my favourite: cussing isn’t ladylike.

Friends, that is a lot of shit to unpack right there.

Let’s start out with the most easily refutable stuff. For one thing, it seems weird to tell me that no one is going to read my stuff when, whether I deserve it or not, I have a pretty wide readership. There are 8,639 people who currently subscribe to this blog and receive an email every time I publish something, I have 4,415 fans on my blog’s Facebook page, and 2.563 followers on twitter. And yeah some of those people are my mom, but the vast majority of them are people that I’ve never met who genuinely like my writing. I’m not throwing out those numbers to be like GUYS LOOK HOW GREAT I AM, because I am constantly humbled and baffled by how popular this blog is, but I do think it’s important to point out that a fuck of a lot of people read my stuff and take me seriously, even with all the swears.

Now, as for the rest of it, let’s take a look at what’s being said and why it’s problematic. First of all, there’s a lot there that’s true. For example, I am relatively uneducated, at least compared with many of my super-smart fellow bloggers. I graduated from high school, but didn’t complete any kind of postsecondary education unless you want to count yoga teacher training. Most people don’t. And you know what? I am common, whatever it is you want to mean by that; I certainly don’t consider myself to be upper class or elite in any way. Sometimes I’m hostile, especially when I’m writing about something that I’m angry or upset about. And I’m certainly anything but a lady. So I’m not offended or hurt by the actual content of any of these remarks.

What does offend me is the fact that we think it’s acceptable to use someone’s level of education and their perceived social class as insults.

These comments – comments making assumptions about socioeconomic status, comments telling me that choosing the wrong words, the “common” words, devalues my writing – are incredibly classist. They operate on the assumption that only writers of a certain social class have any kind of merit. They perpetuate the idea that only people who speak the right way, work the right jobs, and live in the right parts of town are worth listening to and taking seriously. These comments lay bare what every poor person already knows and what deeply entrenched social systems and cultural ideas tell us every day: the poor don’t matter.

I mean, sure, poor people matter when we need workers for dangerous or degrading jobs. The working class matters when we want someone to clean our house or serve us food or take care of our children. We like to objectify them, especially if they’re people of colour, and make dehumanizing comments about them. We talk down to them, condescend to them, even lose our shit at them if we feel like it because seriously no one is going to step up and tell us to stop. I had a friend who worked at an upscale grocery store, and during his time there he was subject to all kinds of abuse from the wealthy clientele. One older gentleman screamed at him that he was stupid and a child because the leeks that my friend was trying to ring through for him weren’t coming up at the right price. Another time a customer told him they were going to shove a cookie up his ass because the lineup to the cash register was moving too slowly. These people say these things because they know they can get away with it – they know that business owners will side with them, because the customer (especially the well-heeled customer) is always right and workers are disposable. This is the world we live in.

I’m not going to change the way that I write because it might make some people assume that I’m uneducated, or poor, or working class. You know why? There is nothing wrong with being any of these things. Being poor isn’t some kind of moral flaw; lack of education is not indicative of low intelligence. Using “common” words does not mean that what you have to say has no value. Fuck everyone who buys into this kind of thinking.

And as for the comments about hostility, I want you to sit back and ask yourself – seriously ask yourself – if you would say those things if the writer of this blog was a man. Would I still come off as hostile if I had a dick*? Or would you perceive me as being justifiably outraged? Because in my experience the word “hostile” is typically applied to women who aren’t being sweet and demure, and I am neither of those things. In a funny way, I almost take remarks about my hostility as a compliment, because it means that I’m subverting people’s expectations about what a woman should be. If I’m coming across as hostile, that makes me feel like I’m doing something right.

What I really want to get at is this: if you are someone who reads my writing and thinks, “well, I fundamentally agree with her but all those swear words make me wince,” you might need to take a moment and check your privilege. If, out of all the things that are printed here on this blog, it’s words like fuck and shit that get you hot and bothered, then you might need to rethink your priorities. If you think classist remarks about language somehow prove what a smart, enlightened person you are, I’d say that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. And finally if you think that I care about your opinion on my use of swears, well, you’re wrong. I care about your opinion on a whole lot of issues, but not this one.

Because fuck it I will fucking cuss if I want to, because swear words are funny and awesome and sometimes no other word will do.

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*Not all men have dicks and not all people with dicks are men but please allow me this one dick joke

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That Time I Wrote A Book And Couldn’t Get It Published (or, you’re all silently judging me right now, aren’t you?)

29 Sep

Did you know that I wrote a book? A novel, even?

Probably not. I haven’t told many people. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

I wrote it back in 2008. One night, Matt and I went to see a Toronto Consort performance of medieval labyrinth music (I guess this is a thing) at Trinity St. Paul’s. It was February, or maybe March, and there was still snow on the ground. Inside the church was warm, cozy even, and the lighting and music were both conducive to drowsy daydreams. By the end of the concert I had the whole plot mapped out in my head, and spent the walk home explaining it to Matt, expanding and solidifying my ideas as I said them out loud.

It took about six months to write, and when I finished, I thought, Phew, the hard part is over.

I’d met a literary agent the year before who had read one of my short stories and liked it so much that she asked me to contact her if I ever wrote a novel. I foolishly thought I was totally set. I finished my first draft in August of 2008, and I was supposed to be going back to school that September, so I gave my little book a quick once over (too quick, I realize now) and sent her off the day before my classes started.

Of course, I ended up having a cycling accident a few days into classes, which effectively ended my educational plans for the next several months.

I decided to devote my suddenly copious amounts of spare time to getting my book published. I started contacting agents and publishers, and actually heard back from a few. A woman at a major Canadian literary agency asked me to send in the first few pages, and then wrote back and asked me to send the rest. A small publisher asked me to send the full manuscript. A few other agents asked for the first chapter, or writing samples.

In early 2009, I heard back from the small publisher. Unbelievably, they were interested in my book. I was so happy. So ecstatically, incredibly, terrified-of-the-other-shoe-dropping happy. Matt and I went out for dinner. I started telling people about my book. Matt’s parents sent him money to buy me flowers. When I met new people, I started introducing myself as a writer.

The publisher asked me to do a second, and then a third draft. They didn’t provide much direction, beyond some vague show-instead-of-tell type of instructions. I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job at editing, but figured if I just pushed through, everything would be fine.

I sent the publisher my third draft, and then in May emailed to follow up with them. They wrote back to say that they weren’t sure if they wanted to publish my book, but that they would let me know for sure in two weeks’ time. In the meantime, they said, I should continue to do rewrites and focus on showing instead of telling.

Three months later, in mid-September, the day after I returned from my honeymoon, I received the following email:

Hi Annabelle,

Sorry for the long stretch between emails. Your manuscript is being sent back to you with a bunch of edits. We can not accept it at this time but we hope that you will read over what we have done and try a new draft. I will be sending you a list of comments made by our editors and hopefully you will be able to put them to use. Thank you for your patience and hopefully we will hear from you again in the future.

The week after that, I received an email back from the original agent I’d contacted, the one who’d liked my short story so much, saying,

[This manuscript] has many of the elements needed for a successful piece of commercial fiction: an authentic-feeling setting—due here, in part, to the author’s attention to period dress and historic cooking; an intriguing premise; and a likeable heroine. However, what [this manuscript] lacks is strong, forward momentum in its narrative.  

Another rejection.

I felt like I was at a total loss. I didn’t know what to do. The hardest part was realizing that this whole thing was my own damn fault – I’d rushed to get it out before it was properly edited, because I just couldn’t be bothered to do it properly. Surely, I told myself, if it shows so much promise, if the characters are likeable and the setting feels authentic, there must be some way to fix momentum of the narrative?

Not only did I have to live with the fact that I’d sabotaged my own success, but I also had to deal with everyone that I’d told about my book. How’s the novel? they asked. When will it be published? Who’s the publisher? 

Embarrassed, I would stutter out that there was a delay, that I wouldn’t be going with the original publisher, that I was still shopping around.

Oh, they said, in a way that was totally loaded with meaning.

Even my mother, who knew the whole story, kept asking and asking about my book. Finally, I had to make her promise to never mention the damn book again until I was the one who brought it up.

It wasn’t just about the book itself; this novel was supposed to Show People. It was supposed to be a giant fuck you to all of the people who had looked down on me, or made fun of me, or just plain wouldn’t give me the time of day. I’d convinced myself that once my book was published, all of the people who didn’t invite me to their high school parties would be kicking themselves for not realizing earlier how awesome I was.

Now, it seemed I’d proven them right. I wasn’t awesome enough to come to their parties, and I definitely wasn’t awesome enough to publish a book. Double whammy!

I stopped writing after that. I felt weirdly guilty devoting my energy to new writing, when here was my poor old book, still waiting to be published. Starting something new seemed tantamount to cheating on her, even though I knew I should put her aside for a while and focus on something else.

I sent out a few more query letters, and a small publisher in Brooklyn asked me to send in my manuscript. So I sent her off again, and waited and waited and waited to hear back. I wasn’t worried, because waiting a billion years is basically standard in the publishing industry. Then, sometime last year, my book, in the same wrapping I’d sent her out in, came back to me.

They hadn’t even bothered to pick her up from the post office.

I often think of the writing process as being like pregnancy, except that you’re gestating a book instead of a baby. But what happens when you’re unable to give birth? What happens to all the time, thought and energy you’ve devoted to making your novel live? What is it that you’ve created, exactly? I mean, other than a stack of paper in a battered brown package that sits on your bookshelf and serves as a reminder of what a failure you are.

I don’t know what to do now. I’m not even sure if my book is any good. I avoid those files on my computer like the plague, and every time I accidentally catch site of one of them, I feel sad and ashamed.

I miss her, though. I think about her a lot. On good days, I tell myself that with a bit of effort, a bit of good old-fashioned elbow grease and some stick-to-itiveness on my part, I could get her out there. On bad days, seeing the name of one of my characters in a newspaper or hearing it in a movie makes me want to cry.

I’m sorry, little book. It’s my fault you’re languishing in my apartment instead of sitting pretty on a shelf at Indigo.

Starting this blog has been an attempt to get myself writing again. By and large it’s been a really positive experience. One of the things that I hated about writing my novel was that it was such a solitary activity – I sat in my dark bedroom and wrote, and the only one who ever read it was Matt. I was dying for feedback, but I felt bad about asking my friends to proofread for me. On top of that, I was terrified that they would hate it.

With blogging, on the other hand, I get instant feedback, most of it insanely great. People read what I write, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. But sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here; I wonder what good it does to write these posts.

And then I wonder if everything I do has to do something or be worth something, and then I wonder why I write at all, and then I kind of get caught up in this endless cycle of self-deprecating wondering.

I guess what I really want to say is:

I failed at something, and I’m not ashamed (much).

I wrote a novel, I poured my heart and soul into it, and it wasn’t good enough (but maybe it could be, someday).

I don’t know what to do now, but maybe someday I will figure it out (I hope).

And maybe someday my little book will find her spot on the shelf at a bookstore, or, even better, the shelf of someone I don’t even know.

Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering, this is what a manuscript looks like after it’s spent a year gathering dust in a Brooklyn post office:

Just (or, an insidious little word that I use too often)

27 Sep

I teach a regular yoga class on Sunday evenings. My friend Charlene, who is an amazing teacher that I respect like whoa, teaches the class right before mine. For a few weeks now she’s been threatening promising to take my class, the thought of which was basically vomit-inducing.

I mean, imagine this: you, a neophyte in your field, suddenly have someone with years of experience and training under their belt, someone who has been inspiring you with their amazingness for quite some time now, who wants to be your student. Pretty nerve-wracking, right?

Anyway, I was nervous, my voice quavered a little when giving instructions, and every time I looked at her I forgot everything I’d ever learned, but other than that it went pretty well. Afterwards she thanked me for the class and said she’d enjoyed it, so I asked if she would email me with some feedback and constructive criticism.

I received her (extremely lovely and thoughtful) email the other night, and one paragraph really jumped out at me:

I noticed that you say “just _________”  a lot, as in, “just reach your arm up, just step forward”.  I catch myself doing this as well sometimes and realise that it detracts from the impact of the practice and my presence. There are no “justs” in yoga, since every movement and breath should be linked with some degree of awareness and attention- everything we do matters. Saying “just” a lot also makes the class seem more casual than perhaps we want it to be, since after all, people come to class to learn….they need to trust that we are confident in our capabilities to guide them.

Having read this, I’ve been carefully monitoring my speech for the last few days, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: I say just a lot.

I don’t just say it in a yoga context, either. I use it quite often when I’m talking about myself, and about my accomplishments. This morning I was sitting in the cafe across the street from the studio, and a woman asked me what I did for a living. Oh, I just manage a yoga studio, I replied without thinking. The real kicker is, it’s NOT EVEN TRUE. I don’t just manage a yoga studio – for one thing, phrasing it that way makes it sound lesser or inferior to other jobs, and for another thing, I also teach yoga and write, but for some reason I never think to mention those.

I mean, I say some reason, but I totally know the reason. It’s because I am a woman and, as such, it makes my life easier to constantly diminish my own accomplishments and make myself appear less threatening.

Every time I say just, what I’m really saying is, This isn’t important. I’m not important. Please don’t question me on this.

Every time I say I think when I really mean I know, what I’m actually saying is, Please don’t think that I’m trying to show you how smart I am or how accomplished, I’m sure you’re very smart and accomplished too.

The dangerous thing is that I keep telling myself that if I just teach more often, or get more stuff published, or accumulate more successes, then I will stop feeling this way. I tell myself that I use this kind of demeaning language against myself because I’m just not good enough yet, but someday I’ll get there. Really, though, the truth is that if I don’t think I’m there yet, then I will never get there and I will never be good enough, because my desire to self-deprecate will continue to push my goals just out of reach.

Let’s go back to the basics here:

Men feel threatened by women, especially powerful, successful women. This is ground that’s been covered over and over, but it bears revisiting.

Women also feel threatened by the success of other women, because we’ve been set up by society to compete against each other. There’s some jealousy in there, of course, but I also get the feeling that women often feel like success is something finite, and if one woman uses up a big chunk of success, then there will be less for everyone else. And maybe that’s a even a bit true, because while society seems to tolerate plenty of successful men, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for women at the top.

So how do you react when you’re challenged by someone on your success? Do you get defensive, grow angry and maybe start to lose your temper as you try to prove your point? Some people do, and that’s not necessarily a bad or wrong reaction – but it is one that’s certainly far more accepted from men than it is from women. If a man becomes righteously angry, he’s often lauded for it. If a woman does the same thing, it’s frequently blamed on her menstrual cycle, or her lack of sex, or because, you know, ladies.

So what’s one way around this problem? To be nice and reasonable, because you catch more flies with honey? To be nice enough that you can convince men that sure, you’re smart and well-educated, but you’re not one of those women. To be reasonable enough to prove that not all feminists are hysterical and crazy, some are totally kind and thoughtful and soft-spoken.

To be so fucking nice and reasonable that you start to undermine yourself, to diminish yourself because you don’t want to cause conflict. To be so respectful of other people’s opinions, so concerned about not offending them, that it starts to become hard to stand up for what you yourself believe in.

I’m not saying don’t be nice and respectful, but what I am saying is that these are qualities that men have come to expect from what they think of as “reasonable” women. And every time you describe yourself as just being whatever, every time you back away from an argument by conceding that everyone’s allowed an opinion even though what the other person is saying is totally wrong and offensive to you, you are playing right into that expectation.

I’ve written here about being careful about the words we use when talking about other women, but we also need to watch the words we use when talking about ourselves. In order to be successful, we need to learn to talk ourselves up, to speak positively about our accomplishments, and not be afraid of a little conflict. We need to learn to be assertive, because society isn’t going to begin tolerating assertive until more women are comfortable in that role.

So I challenge you to spend a few days watching what you say, and taking stock of how often you use words like just or think or only when you’re talking about yourself or your opinions. Ask yourself what your speech would sound like without those words. Finally, try to make a few statements about yourself every day that celebrate your work, your life, or your accomplishments instead of demeaning them.

Because if you don’t take yourself seriously, probably no one else will.