Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “Boise”

The Post in Which I Answer the Question: “What’s With all the F-Bombs?”

I’ll start with the cliché about the leopard not being able to change its spots. That doesn’t have anything to do with my frequent use of profanity. It explains why, when I sat down to say “here’s why I like to occasionally say ‘fuck,’” I lost an hour of my day reading fascinating articles written by linguistic anthropologists about that and similar words.

None of which have a fucking thing to do with the topic at hand.

 

How_I_roll

The F-Bomb and Me, a personal history

I have two uncles on my dad’s side of the family. One was a contractor, the other was the bartender at the Irish Center in San Francisco. Both were Irish immigrants and, as far as I know, neither ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain at least one F-bomb. That doesn’t explain anything about my use of such language, it just shows how I was introduced to it – probably in conjunction with my initial language acquisition skills as a toddler. “Fuck,” “fucking,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker” were what my uncles said instead of “um.” If they otherwise would have said “um” a lot.

[They also got me drunk the first (several) times and I tend to slip into an Irish brogue if I’ve had too many, though that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.]

My parents, on the other hand, do not cuss. I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about my uncles’ version of “um,” although I’m certain I did. I would remember being sent home from kindergarten for asking some cocksucker to pass me a motherfucking crayon, and that did not happen.

Some years later, when I was around ten, my friends and I discovered those words anew, peppering our sentences with them as liberally as my uncles ever had. Of course, that was only when we were alone, unobserved, and certainly far, far away from our parents’ ears. I’m sure we did it to impress each other and younger kids, to feel “grownup,” and for a host of other reasons that tend to evaporate after dropping ten or twenty thousand F-bombs.

By the time I was in high school, in the right company and circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to use profanities for emphasis. For the next ten years or so, those lines were primarily generational. I seldom swore in front of someone my parents’ age, but had no problem doing it with someone my age or younger. Circumstances matter, too. I wouldn’t drop an F-bomb in front of anyone if I was, say, in a church, but I’d probably be willing to say “shit” on a racquetball court or by a campfire even if my companion were Mother Teresa.

This all seemed natural, and I never gave it any thought. Then I had kids.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming need to censor my language in front of not only members of my parents’ generation, but also my children’s. Which is ironic as hell, because I will never have as many conversations with anyone about the subjects of shit and piss as I’d had with each of my children by the time they were three. Granted, the vernacular was different (“potty,” “tinkle,” “poopie,” etc.), but shit is shit, whatever you call it, and we were literally talking shit to each other several times a day for years.

Cussing at the Office

Around the same time I was constantly talking shit, er, poopies, with my kids, I was also earning my chops in my professional life, where I was introduced to cussing at a different level. First, becoming a “grownup” meant that people ten, twenty, or forty years older than me were now my peers. I was practicing law, which meant I had to at least pretend I was the peer of every opposing lawyer I dealt with, even if he (and the ones that old were all “he”) was forty years my senior. Being the frustrated linguist I really am, that’s also when I started paying close attention to how people were using swear words. I noticed that people who cussed in this context fell into three groups:

  • Buster Blowhard. He’s one tough motherfucker. You know this, because he is constantly saying what a tough motherfucker he is. He might as well have “Super Insecure and Overcompensating” tattooed on his forehead. I say “he” because, while I am absolutely certain there are female versions of this, I have not done business with one yet.
  • The Casual Cusser. Talks to everyone (or at least most people) like they’re all in a high school gym together. Takes no offense to profanity also assumes you don’t give a shit. Doesn’t really put any thought into it.
  • The Strategic Swearer. Appears not to use any profane or inappropriate language whatsoever. When it’s time to call bullshit on something, the word “bullshit” silences a room.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any who reads this blog that, among my friends, I am a Casual Cusser. Professionally, though, I am squarely in the Strategic Swearer group. So much so, that most people who only know me professionally may be inclined to think I don’t swear at all.

While I’m a Casual Cusser much of the time, I have to admit, the Strategic Swearer is BY FAR more fun. Swearing is all about how much power we give words, and being the Strategic Swearer lets me manipulate them like a power-mad comic book villain.

My favorite example is a deal I’d worked on for six months, never venturing south of the word “darned.” A new lawyer came onboard with the other side and started trying to jerk things around. After three days of this, I stood up and told him he was “pissing all over everything we had worked on for six months.” Then I told his client to contact my client directly if he was more interested in doing the deal than playing “bullshit games.”

Before the meeting, I told my client “start getting ready to walk out if I say the word ‘piss.’ If I say the word ‘shit,’ stand up immediately. Don’t talk to anyone.” He did, we left, and before the elevator arrived to take us downstairs, the deal was back on track. If I’d been saying “shit” this and “fuck” that for the prior six months, those words would have had almost no power. Coming as they did, though, they were powerful enough to make the person representing the other company go – quite literally – pale.

As I watched the blood drain from his face, all I could think was, If I said he was tinkling on the deal and they were playing games with cow poopies, IT WOULD HAVE MEANT THE SAME FUCKING THING.

Where That Power Comes From

It would have meant the same thing — and it wouldn’t have at the same time. That’s the amazing thing about swear words.  Their context is their meaning. The meaning of any given swear word happens somewhere between: (1) the speaker’s use of the word and (2) the listener’s feelings (a) about the word generally and (b) how the word is being used at that moment. As writers, we can look at it as the ultimate exercise in usage and cognitive construction, because the true meaning to the listener does not have one fucking thing to do with the literal word we are using.

You can see the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. We have a huge Mormon population where I live. They never (ever, which is to say, at least not when another Mormon is around) say the word “fuck.” Which makes sense, because Mormons are notoriously proper, well-mannered people (particularly so if another Mormon is around). Go watch a Mormon basketball game – don’t ask me, basketball seems to be a significant aspect of their religion. You’ll hear the word “screw” and “screwed” thrown around with abandon. And it’s being used exactly when and how the F-bomb would be dropped by someone comfortable with dropping F-bombs.

They say a word that means the same thing. They say it in the same context. They say it with the same intent. The only fucking difference is the significance they have subjectively given that word as far as it’s “badness.” Fuck is bad because – and only because – they have decided it’s bad. Screw, which fucking means “Fuck,” for fuck’s sake, is fine, because — well, it’s not “Fuck.”

And I don’t mean to pick on Mormons, here. They’re just a convenient example. The same is true for all of us. Or, should I say, Every Fucking One Of Us. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have the friends we tell “I’ve gotta take a piss” and the friends we tell we “need to go to the bathroom.” There are people we ask for the “restroom,” and we may tell a three year old we “need to go potty.” Almost all of which we do without thinking twice – it’s a natural part of our language.

So, why do I cuss on this blog?

Because you’re the friends I tell “I’ve gotta take a piss.” 🙂

Properly used (if that isn’t an oxymoron in this context), I think swear words are a more effective way of placing emphasis than the main alternative, an exclamation point. For me, they are also the more honest – this blog is about the most unfiltered (and unrefined) version of my “voice” imaginable. This is what I sound like in my internal monologue and when I am speaking to my closest friends. In other contexts, there is some form of filter – usually so ingrained it’s subconscious – making decisions about the propriety or utility of those words.

Which is one of the reasons I think I love blogging so much. In here, I don’t have to give a fuck.

Word-Choice Rant No. 1: “When I’m Published, I’ll be an Author”

People keep drawing a false distinction between the terms “Author” and “Writer,” and it is driving me nuts. I am tired of witnessing arguments about whether you can call yourself an “Author” if you self-publish (the answer is: Who gives a fuck?) I’m ranting right now because of some spam I just got for a webinar that promised to help me “Go from being a writer to being an author.”

Gee, should I drop $99 on a webinar so you can coach me? Maybe not, since you don’t even know what those fucking words mean.

A huge chunk of people have gotten it into their heads that, until you’re published, you are merely a writer. Once published, you magically become an “Author,” and can therefore brag about your awesome Authorliness at cocktail parties – most of which are probably going to be thrown in your honor, since you are an Author. That’s what people do – they throw cocktail parties for Authors, because Authors are awesome.

Except that’s all bullshit. Most authors are unpublished. I am currently an author (as the “about” description on this blog truthfully states). I have never had a word of fiction published anywhere, but that has nothing to do with whether I am an author.

Here’s what the word “author” means:

author (n.) 

c.1300, autor ”father,” from Old French auctoracteor ”author, originator, creator, instigator (12c., Modern French auteur), from Latinauctorem (nominative auctor) “enlarger, founder, master, leader,” literally “one who causes to grow,” agent noun from auctus, past participle ofaugere ”to increase” (see augment). Meaning “one who sets forth written statements” is from late 14c. The -t- changed to -th- 16c. on mistaken assumption of Greek origin.

That’s right, author means “father” or “creator.” An author is a person who creates characters and stories. In other words, the phrase “fiction author” is as redundant as “fiction novel” since authors, by definition, are people who write fiction (and novels are, by definition, works of fiction).

What is a writer? Simple, it’s someone who writes things. Like me, right now, as I type this.

writer (n.) 

Old English writere ”one who can write, clerk; one who produces books or literary compositions,” agent noun from writan (see write (v.)). 

In other words, all authors are writers but not all writers are authors.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. There is no secret ceremony in the basement of a church, where hooded Authors paddle you  by candlelight upon publication of your first novel, turning you from a writer into an Author. You became an author the minute you put down your first character’s first thought, movement, or word.

And plenty of well-known, established, rich and successful people have to make do with being writers (without seeming to care). Every great, best-selling historian, self-help guru, memoirist, or theologian you’ve ever heard of is a writer, not an authorBand of Brothers made Steven Ambrose millions and was turned into an HBO miniseries (that made him a boatload more money), but it’s history, not fiction. Steven, you are not the father. Steven Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time and his other works, including children’s books, but they are about science, not made up people from his imagination, so he has to settle for being a rich, successful writer. I seriously doubt he gives a shit. People who write memoirs are writers. Julia Child is a writer. There is nothing wrong with being a writer. Similarly, whether or not you are an “Author” doesn’t mean jack shit. It means you have typed out a mind-movie on your computer keyboard (or written it on a note pad or something). That’s it.

Is there a gray area? Maybe. Bill O’Reilly leaps to mind. He made $24 Million last year selling books that are mostly filled with unrealistic shit he made up. But he called most of them nonfiction. Being a lying sack of shit does not make you an “Author.” It makes you a douchebag. Therefore, with respect to those works, Bill O’Reilly is a writer. He is also a lying sack of shit and a douchebag, but he is not an author (or an “Author”). On the other hand, he has also written piles of drivel that he admits are fiction. With respect to those particular piles of crap, he is an author. But it had nothing to do with any of it being published.

So, if you are waiting for the magical day that your book is published and you can start calling yourself an “Author” that day is here. Not because your book is being published. There’s a 99% chance it won’t be (nothing personal, that’s statistically true of me, too). That day is here because you created a character or a circumstance and put it down in some tangible form.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty awesome thing for you to have done. 

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