My child learned how to swear a week or two ago.
He’s one and a half.
About a month ago, he dropped something accidentally and exclaimed, “Oh, SHIT!”Â
Of course, he’s still mostly baby and not so clear on enunciation just yet, so those particular syllables sound exactly like various other phrases he uses daily, namely “See it,”Â “Wassup”Â, and “Sit”Â. We chalked it up to that, figuring maybe he was asking to see (i/e/, be given) the thing he’d just dropped.
Well, yeah, not so much. The Saturday before last, all illusions were shattered.
My husband was doing some laundry down the hall from our living room, where the kiddo rediscovered a zippered bag of blocks he’d loved before but lost to the couch cushion abyss. He can’t open said zippered bag, and therefore has to get help.
He said, “Daddy, blocks.”Â
The daddy in question said, “Hold on a minute, buddy, Daddy’s gotta do some clothes first.”Â
Kiddo: “Daddy, blocks now.”Â
Daddy: “I heard you, I said hold on. Just a second, “Ëœkay?”Â
Kiddo, slamming bag to his feet: “Daddy! Blocks, DAMN IT!”Â
Any pretense of moral integrity, gone. Whoosh. Watched it fly by past my hair…
But you know what you might have thought when you read that?
Not, “Oh, that kid should know better.”Â Probably not, “Wow, what a disobedient child that boy seems to be.”Â
You probably thought, “Huh. They must curse in front of him. They should really try to watch that.”Â Possibly even, “Aww, that poor thing.”Â
I’ve thought it of others. In my less-parental days, I’ve judged them. I’ll admit it. At toddler age, nothing the son or daughter does is his or her own fault. The blame belongs to the parents, probably for a few more years, even. Everything is all my fault until he’s at least four or five. I see that coming. There will be school calls, I’m sure. (And given the other stories I’m not even going to tell you, it should be a hell of an adventure. But that’s not the point right now.)
You know what? Our characters are like that, too.
Anything we have our fictional folks say or perform is immediately ascribed to something that is in the author’s own realm of possibility. Anything we write is something we could do. Any opinion they express must be ours. We are exactly as evil as the people we manufacture out of thin air.
I think those of us who read enough fiction get it and can make the distinction, but the public at large? Nope. They see things as either autobiographical or flights of fancy which we wish we could live. (By the way, if you’re here and you know what a literary magazine is in the first place, you’re not among that category of readers. You’re safe.)
But say, for example, I write a hacksaw serial killer in as my protagonist, and even make you like and root for him. (Or her—wouldn’t that be cool? Jotting notes.) If I lend that story to a colleague at the office, she’s going to look at me differently for the rest of our professional relationship. She’s going to wonder—just wonder—whether she should be a little more careful around me and maybe not eat that last donut on the break room table.
If I show an abusive mom-and-daughter scene to my grandmother? She’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t know you felt that way about your mother. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”Â
If I write erotica, people will assume I’m a slut. Yet in reality, I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 22. Obviously, I spent that time reading—but that’s not what anyone would assume.
The first impression, unless you are submerged in the literary world yourself, is that the writer writes life. That some shred of the story is based in fact. That the mind of the difficult protagonist lurks hungrily in some dark corner of the author’s psyche, waiting for the chance to spring forth into real existence.
It’s the same with my literary babies as it is with the person whose diapers I change.
Yes, I’ve tinged them both (the person, not the diapers. Ew.) Yes, they came directly from me. Okay, so I swear in/around them, and that seeps into the color of those worlds.
For the record, he picked up “shit”Â because that—my stubbed-toe word of choice. My favorite word is actually George Carlin’s, but I can prevent it from slipping, and usually do. However, “shit”Â is what comes out when something”‘ sudden on TV, or a plastic elephant salutes into my ass on a kitchen chair, or I drop a glass and it shatters. “Shit”Â is for an accident, and I’m an insanely clumsy person. Believe me, he’s heard it. A lot.
And see? Â I felt the need to say that. To add a disclaimer explaining my choice, my words, my actions. To tell you that, “No, I’m really a good person. I mean, yes, that happened, but here’s all the backstory so you will still respect me…”Â
And I didn’t even say “shit”—I’m telling you this stuff because he did.
Too often we are forced to apologize for our characters’ choices, story themes, topics, or dialogue.
Shouldn’t it just be that if people don’t realize it’s fake, screw them?
Or is there an uncomfortable truth to that whole alter-ego corner-lurker theory after all?
What do you think?
When you write, are you always in the story?
I’ve written some dark shit. I’d hope I’m not as fundamentally deranged as every character I can imagine. But obviously I’m still the person who thought that stuff in the first place then, aren’t I? And I could have (theoretically) chosen not to write those more troubling thoughts down for preservation. Right?
Who’s at fault?
The twisted author? Â The ignorant masses? The collective unconsciousness, the hive mind, the overextended self-help book section, the all day CNN reports of raped children and looted buildings? What makes dark things happen in a story, and are they real if they do?
Does fiction have a moral obligation to be responsible?
Or does it save us from everyday obligation and free our minds?
What say you?