Profanity, the “Real” World, and the Author’s Responsibility

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Photo by mbgrigby, via Flickr

One of my online writing communities had an in-depth discussion a while back about profanity and its place (or lack thereof) in literature.

I got to thinking, as I read people’s perspectives, that there’s a pretty deep philosophical question contained in this conversation.

Whenever we talk about the line between too much sex/profanity/violence and an unrealistic picture of the world, the argument boils down to this: We’re writing the real world, and these things exist in the real world; therefore they belong in our stories.

I find that an overly simplistic argument, as I’ve written before. As story creators, we are constantly being counseled to push the envelope, because it’s the unusual and the sensational that sells books—first to agents and editors, and then to the public. But the more we push the envelope, the more desensitized the audience becomes, and the greater the shock value has to be.

The million dollar question is: Does any of this actually change people’s behaviors or thinking patterns?

Well, I know how much movies, TV, songs and books have influenced the way I interact with the world, and you cannot convince me that the same is not true for everyone else. At least to some extent, the real world goes in the direction it is pushed by its artists.

So really, as creators, we are simultaneously trying to do two things that are in conflict with each other:

1) reflect the real world; and

2) craft the unique angle that makes our story different from, more extreme (and thus heroic) than, the real world.

This, then, raises a question. Are we bound to reflect only reality, without imposing philosophical, ethical, or (dare I say) moral judgment upon what we see? The answer is no. Authors don’t write stories just for the sake of writing stories. If, through our storytelling, we explore themes–the plight of women in abusive relationships, or parents who refuse to accept their children for who they are, or mothers who need to learn to let go of absolute control, or the way we handle grief, or whatever it might be–we’re attempting to influence the world, because we see something in it that is broken. Dysfunctional. Not the way it should be.

I would argue then, that we as authors (or screenwriters, or songwriters) don’t have to portray the world the way so much of modern entertainment and literature does: potty-mouthed, hooking up as if sex is without consequences, and so on. First of all, not everybody is doing these things, and suggesting otherwise influences the next generation of humanity inaccurately. Secondly, as authors and other creators of art, we have the right–the duty, even–to hold a mirror up to the world and say, “Hey, this is really not okay. Think about it.”

The other thing that occurred to me in the middle of the conversation on profanity is this: if it’s not okay for children to hear, why is it okay for adults to hear?

There are things that kids can’t handle that adults can. Things they won’t understand at age six, that they’ll misunderstand at age eleven, and finally be ready to process appropriately when they’re sixteen. (I’m just pulling those numbers out of my head for the sake of illustration. Don’t read anything into them.) Some of those things, adults need in order to navigate the world.

Profanity is not one of those things.

Generally speaking, it seems to me that people use profanity either to express negative emotions, or to sound cooler than they do without it (at least in their own minds). I think there are also some who use profanity to shock or titillate, and others who use it to prove that they’re not stodgy and goody two shoes. (Hello, Kate, that finger is pointing at you.)

The last three of those are terrible reasons to use profanity, because they’re all related to making decisions and character traits based on what others think of us. Bad idea, on principle.

As for the first…There’s plenty of negativity in the world. The more we sputter and curse at it, the worse we feel. Anger feeds on itself, bitterness too, and frustration and irritation and everything else we are expressing when we use profanity. It makes no sense to encourage it. Life throws enough challenges at us without chasing after negative feelings.

I lay all this out there not to suggest that I’m a paragon of uprightness in this matter, because I’m not. I say some things out loud and more things in my head. And sure, the characters I create are going to be the same way, some of them more than others, based on their backgrounds and influences. The same is true of the way the characters I create treat others and interact with the world.

But as an author, my basic responsibility as a human being to try to make the world a better place takes on more importance. I have to write with that responsibility in mind.

What’s YOUR Problem?

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Photo by Duncan C, via Flickr

Life is unpredictable, but over the past several years I’ve learned there’s one thing I can count on with absolute certainty: somewhere between one week and two days before university graduation, I will lose my voice. It happens virtually every semester, just before I join the platform party at honors convocation as the official singer of the alma mater.

This year was no exception. For three days I took cough syrup, slathered myself with Vicks, and drank tea in an attempt to get the slow-moving virus to clear my body before graduation. It happened just in time. Praise the Lord, I had a voice on Saturday morning.

But the thing that stands out to me about this weekend is that the commencement speeches were the best I’ve ever heard. Jim McKelvey, who co-founded Square, had everyone laughing at intervals, but the message was serious. He wanted to point out to the graduates that no longer can they count on praise or immediate feedback like grades to keep them motivated. From here on out, they have to motivate themselves.

It could have been a real downer of a message, except for the humor and the takeaway: Find a problem. Find a problem that bugs you down so deep, you’re on fire about it. A problem so troublesome, it gets you out of bed in the morning. Find that problem, he said, and then go fix it. And if you succeed, find another one to solve.

After McKelvey came Jim Held, the owner of Stone Hill Winery in Herman, Missouri, who was being awarded an honorary doctorate. He came to the microphone and said, “I could talk about the wine industry in Missouri, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the last 2 1/2 years of my life.” It was a simple but powerful story of a stroke he was told he wouldn’t recover from–and did. He changed his bad habits, and he changed his future. The takeaway: the choices you make have consequences. So make good ones.

I come out of this weekend feeling pretty blessed, for many reasons I can’t go into in public. But this blessing I can share: I feel tremendously blessed to be staring down age 40 with a clear sense of what my life-motivating problems are–the ones that motivate me to get out of bed in the morning. There are two. One of them I outlined on Friday. The other is the need for a healthier view of sexuality, one that recognizes and embraces the message Jim Held underscored: personal responsibility and self control, the fact that choices and consequences go together and you must take the responsibility to exercise self-control to achieve the outcome you value.

I feel even more blessed that these two passions of mine dovetail so seamlessly: that living out a sexuality that respects the way we are put together (as opposed to slapping a pharmaceutical on something that isn’t broken in a misguided attempt to “free” sexual expression from its natural consequences) also respects the earth.

My question for you today is this: what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? What global problem do you want to solve? You don’t have to answer that publicly, but think about it. And if you’re willing to share, so much the better.

We Are Not Rugged Individualists

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Photo by Melvin_Es, via Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece of fiction called “Makeover.” It’s about a woman whose life is a mess–grown son dead, marriage in shambles. When she sees her reflection in a storefront, she realizes she doesn’t recognize herself anymore–and she goes to do something about it.

The most thought-provoking comment I received on that story raised the question of whether her desire to change was for her own sake or for her husband’s. In the post-feminist era, we women are always being urged to prioritize self. We should take time for our own interests instead of impaling ourselves on the Mommy Martyr stake;  weight loss and beauty regimens should be for our sake, not so we look good for catching (or keeping) a man. If we consider others’ preferences or opinions, it’s almost as if we’re betraying ourselves.

There’s a certain truth to this. It’s all too easy for us to define ourselves the way others see us, and a healthy sense of self-respect depends upon independence of mind, the strength to hold our convictions and not be blown about on the vagaries of other people’s opinions. Yet that’s not the whole picture. In any healthy relationship, both parties have to give way to each other. If I kept my opinions to myself and took my husband’s as Ye Ultimate Truth, it would be bad news; my husband is a flawed human being in need of growth that sometimes can only be pointed out by someone else.

But so am I. If I consider any decision that accounts for his preferences and observations as tainted…well, that’s just as unhealthy as the opposite extreme–not only for the marriage, but for me as a human being.

It seems paradoxical that to find ourselves we have to empty ourselves. But as human beings, we have a huge blind spot where self is concerned. We’re too close to measure objectively, and if we try to go it alone we’ll find ourselves perpetually dissatisfied with the world, seeing everyone else’s splinters through the moat in our own eyes.

Quite apart from companionship, human beings need each other. We are made, hard-wired if you will, to connect, but those connections are only possible when we allow someone else to become part of us. We are not autonomous.

In childhood, my sense of self was tied to family, then friends. In adulthood, it is tied to my husband and my children, my Church and to the larger community within which I work–you, my readers, my friends, the larger readership I reach through magazines and other projects. I make my decisions on what to write based on a give-and-take between my wishes and what I know about you.

Perhaps, then, it’s time we laid to rest the idea of rugged individualism. We need each other; we always have, we always will. Trying to pretend otherwise undermines the very connectedness that we need to grow and be healthy and whole.

The Trouble With Absolutes

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I used to think I was an “attachment parent.” I have kept my babies, all four of them, close by me, never put them on a schedule, never fed them a bottle, responded to their needs and always proceeded on the belief that we have to learn to be parent and child together.

I don’t believe in letting them cry.

But.

When Alex was about four months old, it became impossible to put him down. He could not transition from breastfeeding to the crib without waking. Couldn’t do it. For a while I laid down with him to nurse, and that way when he finally conked out (45 minutes later), I could cautiously slide away, leave him on the bed, and go on with life.

It worked. I listened to my baby and met his needs.

But 45 minutes takes a real chunk out of married couple time. After a few weeks I realized I wasn’t leaving the house, because if he needed to nap and we weren’t somewhere I could lie down with him and leave him there, we were in trouble. Before long, I was falling apart.

Finally I gave in. We let him cry. Of course, we went in and soothed him every five minutes, then ten, but oh my goodness, it felt wrong. I was a mess. But then–Hallelujah! In less than a week, he learned to put himself to sleep.

Fast forward three children. At 4 1/2 months, Michael is in a totally different environment than Alex was. With big siblings grabbing him by the head and yelling in his face, picking him up, playing with him, he’s perpetually stimulated. All last week, he refused to nap. He would nurse to sleep on the breast and wake up the instant I put him down. If I got lucky, he’d sleep twenty minutes. At night, sometimes he would go down at 8, but often he’d get a six-minute snooze at 7:30, only to be zinged awake again by the chaos of three other kids getting ready for bed, and then he’d be up until 9:30 or 9:45 with us–wiggly, hyper, and wearing us out.

I’m no baby whisperer, but after four kids, I can intuit a lot more of what’s wrong with a child than I could seven years ago. Michael was tired, and he couldn’t get to sleep. He was too dependent on me. That much I knew. What I didn’t know was what to do about it. I was trying to avoid the “let him cry” solution. But when I started to fall apart, it was clear what had to be done.

I believe in attachment parenting. But these days it seems there’s never enough of me to go around, and everything’s getting broken (the baby swing, the CD player, etc.). I raise my voice far more often than I would like–another thing attachment parents DO NOT DO. You never, ever yell at your children. You find ways to discipline positively, without shaming them. So between losing my temper and letting my baby cry, I feel I’m betraying my convictions.

But that’s the trouble with absolutes. They become codified and inflexible, and life involves too many variables. I totally believe in teaching children good behavior by reason and by empathy. And with Alex, that’s primarily what I do. But you can’t reason with a two year old–or a three year old, for that matter–and you can’t have your eyes on your kid at every moment, especially if you have several children. Sure, it’s a worthy goal to distract them before they get in trouble, but when they go around hitting their sisters, or taking toys from their brothers, a calm, reasoned approach is like taking a Rembrandt and throwing it in a blender. Sometimes, they need to see Mommy and Daddy angry, because it’s the only thing that sinks in. I wish that wasn’t the case, but in my experience, it is.

And when a baby’s showing you he needs to sleep, and every other possible solution has been tried without success, is it reasonable to take crying himself to sleep off the table? Is it better to let him teach himself to go to sleep by crying for a few days, or is it better to let him drive himself to utter exhaustion because he can’t sleep at all?

(That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.)

As much as I hate the process, I don’t believe I’m damaging my children. As I have said before, some of the most important lessons of my life were learned, not in joy, but in suffering; not in affirmation, but in shame. Sometimes a good parent has to allow her child to suffer; that truth isn’t going anywhere. As kids grow, they’ll have to suffer through broken friendships, heartbreaks, failures of all kinds, academic and personal. If I try to shield them from all pain, I’ll deprive them of the richness of life.

I don’t ignore my children’s needs for my own convenience, but there are lessons they need in order to become healthy adults. Yes, I fail sometimes, and when I do, I apologize. And I hope from that, they learn another important lesson.

The Importance of Saying “No” (a practices of mothering post)

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Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

There’s a Gospel passage in which Jesus says no man gives his child a snake when they ask for a fish. It’s built in to our love for our children, this desire to fulfill their needs…and their wants. Whatever they ask for–the newest toy or a special treat–we want to tell them yes.

But even God, to whom Jesus is comparing us, doesn’t give us everything we want–because what we want isn’t necessarily what we need.

Growing up, my sisters and I got told “no” a lot. We didn’t go out to eat, we almost never bought treats at the store. (Like Oreo’s. Oreo’s were a huge treat.) We were a farm family in the ’80s, and my parents had to be very frugal. They were also very busy–Dad almost always worked ten hour days, and during planting or harvest, it might be twelve or more. Mom had to be available to help move equipment, haul grain, or run to the dealership for a part. And she grew and preserved most of our vegetables. So the “no”‘s were unavoidable. We didn’t go to the pool very often, and when we did we very rarely bought snacks, and then only the cheapest ones–no candy bars. I can count our amusement park and baseball game trips on one hand. Vacations, for that reason, were a Very.Big.Deal.

It was a very different childhood from that of many of my classmates, whose parents took them to St. Louis to buy school clothes every August. I don’t ever remember shopping for school clothes. We just went downstairs and pulled out the next box from the storage room.

Frankly, I don’t think I got told “no” all that often, because I learned pretty quickly not to ask for a lot. I think at some instinctive level, I could sense how much it would hurt my parents to have to say no. (Although if my memory is skewed, I’m sure my mom will hop in and correct me. It’s wonderful, but sometimes dangerous, to write when you know your parents are reading. 🙂 )

Like all childhood lessons that sting, this is one I have come to value greatly. Self-denial is not a sexy concept–our entire economy is based on self-gratification. But look what it’s led to: an epidemic of debt and obesity. Self-gratification is really dangerous. It’s not intrinsically bad, but it becomes bad at a very low level. And let’s face it: in adulthood, we often have to go without what we need, or think we need.

I want to teach my children the difference between needs and wants. But we don’t face the same necessities that my parents did, and it makes it harder to say no. Their deprivation hurts my heart; their pain hurts me. Yet I know they need to learn to handle not getting what they want. That is a lesson that takes a long time to learn—to handle the word “no” with grace.

So we try to practice moderation, stewardship, and frugality, because those three things all require “no.”

Moderation: food, toys, TV viewing–we try to keep reasonable limits on these things. We have made a rule that there will always be only one television in our house, in order to moderate the temptation.

Stewardship: We steward the environment by recycling, using cloth diapers, and not buying a lot. We practice financial stewardship by saving (and saving and saving) to make any major purchase–for instance, we’ve been saving for almost two years toward an SLR camera, because the darned hospital bills and repairs keep cutting into the project. We keep on a budget, and Alex knows very well that he must practice the piano, not just because he should, but because we’re paying good money for his lessons.

Frugality: When we buy, we do it right, but we don’t buy much. We bought a new TV when I was 8 months pregnant with Alex–a great monster with a picture tube–at the time it was still the best picture quality. That’s no longer the case, and it would be awesome to have an HD TV, but how can we justify the expense? Ours works fine.

I hope these lessons help my children learn that life is measured not by Stuff, but by the quality of their relationships, both with the people in their lives and with the world at large.

What do you do to help your kids learn the importance of “no”?

Click here for part 4

Practicing Motherhood

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One of my blog friends has been doing a series of posts on her “practices of mothering” the last few months. Last week she invited her readers to join in. At first I thought, I don’t have any practices–at least, none that she hasn’t already talked about.

Then I came up with one. And another. And another. And the more I thought, the more I realized I do have them, they’re just more practical in nature, and less easily summed up in a pithy title. But they’re all aimed toward one ultimate goal: independence. I guess I’d have to call myself a middle of the road kind of free range parent.

I think I will probably address some of these in individual posts, so today I’m just going to share what I came up with. And then…then, I’d like to know what your philosophies are.

  • Telling kids no.
  • Letting them fight their own battles and ask their own questions.
  • Being willing to admit I’m wrong.
  • Moderation: in food, in toys, in TV, and related to that…
  • Giving the gift of family instead of Stuff.
  • Loving touch.
  • Tolerance: Not stopping them from doing things that aren’t wrong, even when it’s annoying.
  • Allowing them to suffer. (I have a lot to say on that subject, so as horrible as it sounds, bear with me. I’m not talking about making them suffer, just allowing it when it happens.)

What all these have in common is this: letting go. As parents, we are often urged  not to “rush” children to grow up. But at the same time, we feel anxious if we don’t have our kids in one sport every season, music lessons and speaking three languages. Most of my music students have more than one extracurricular activity every day. If that’s not pushing kids to carry an adult’s load, I don’t know what is. And I think we feel that instinctively, which is why we end up doing things for them that they should be doing for themselves–to try to offset it. And that’s how we get helicopter parenting.

I want to be the anti-helicopter parent…but still nurture and love them. My goal is for my children to leave–even Julianna, my little girl with the magic chromosome–to fly the nest, to leave me free to do all the things I’ve put off in the service of my children–but to love them so thoroughly and completely that they’re happy to return.

Most days, I think I fall far short. But every once in a while, when I’m loving them so hard my body almost can’t stand the force of it–every once in a while, I’m sure I’ll succeed.

Resolved, Unresolved

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English: New Year's Day postcard. Reads: "...

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There are certain times of the year when the whole blogsophere latches on to the same subject. Every September there’s a rash of sentiment about kids growing up and the back-to-school transition. Every November 1st, we’re treated to photos of Halloween costumes. And for a week in January, the topic is New Year’s resolutions.

New Year’s resolutions get a really bad rap sometimes. A surprising number of bloggers this year are talking about how bad they are. Some refuse to set goals because they’re going fail, and they think it’s pointless. One person even suggested that resolutions are a bad idea because they place our focus on our weaknesses instead of our strengths.

But I think we as a culture look at a new year’s resolution in the wrong way. Sometimes they’re not made to be fulfilled. Some goals will never, ever be fully attained…but if you refuse to aspire, you’ll stagnate instead.

I’ve made resolutions for a couple of decades, and generally I’ve kept them…but not always. Sometimes I go into it knowing I won’t live up to them.

The first goal I set, knowing it was unreachable, was this: If I’m going to bother getting my flute out of the case on any given day, I’m going to practice a full four hours. “That one’s made to be broken,” I wrote, “but the pursuit of it will make me a better musician.”

Actually, I didn’t do half bad on that goal–I hit 4 hours of practicing 80-85% of the time that year. (Before you get stuck on that number, bear in mind I was a flute performance major preparing for grad school auditions. For a music major, practice = study.)

The thing is, self-improvement is a process, not an end point. You can lose the weight, after all, but you still have to maintain it. It’s not like you can check it off the list and go back to the way you did things before.

And that’s also why I disagree with the blogger who thinks we shouldn’t focus on or weaknesses. It’s a laudable thing to try to make oneself a better person, even if we stumble and fall along the way. Something resolved left unresolved, after all, still makes me a better person.

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I need to apologize to the Write On Edge people…when I set out to write the prompt today, it went a different direction than the prompt was meant to…I debated whether I had any business linking up at all. Hope you’ll excuse me. Usually I try to be very careful to follow exactly. 🙂

Write on Edge: RemembeRED