Four Letter Words and Vicodin Cocktails
I just finished my first book of 2012. Last Words by George Carlin is in the can.
It was an incredible sortabiography (his own word), telling his memoir through the story of his creative life as a comic. The second half of the book is a tough read. Carlin had a bad cocaine, alcohol, vicodin habit and only really got sober the last five or so years of his life. What especially fascinates me is his writing about his creative process. He wrote things down to capture them and hone them over and over again until they were perfect. He lived most of his life on the road performing and working, writing and capturing, honing and perfecting.
And he came up with some good shit. He was also highly political but only evolved into that over time. And he was one angry, angry man. His rage fueled many of his pieces and large parts of his performances. It provided focus for his fascinations. It provided incredible articulation. I think he had tremendous insight into the human condition and into how storytellers in particular, manipulate their audiences to follow them down into other realities.
Carlin also specialized in the use and etiology of curses. I learned about curses from Carlin. I knew about them before but he demystified them for me. He introduced them to me as full-bodied words and made me laugh at the ridiculous censorship we place on them. He increased my vocabulary ten-fold even if it was mostly in my mind.
I use the word fuck in my book, Open Wounds. I haven’t counted how many times.
When people ask me if the book is okay for their teen I always tell them it’s a 13 and up read or a 15 and up read because of the language and the violence. Most people don’t mind but some do. I think the word fuck is used sparingly in my book, not because I thought it would get me in trouble if I used it too much, but because it was only needed when it was needed by the characters who used it. I remember watching the movie Platoon the second time – with my grandfather – and squirming in my seat at the number of times the word fuck or some derivation of it (fucker, fucked-up, fucking, motherfucker, fuck-wad, etc…) was used. Almost every other word that came out of every character’s mouth included some version of fuck. The first time I saw the film I didn’t notice the language at all. The second time, with my grandfather beside me, I couldn’t hear anything but it.
I also remember reading a book last year by Cynthia Kadohata called Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam that, although I enjoyed, found it strange to read a whole novel about soldiers in Vietnam and not read one curse. I wonder if she consciously chose not to use the word fuck. I remember asking myself how not one soldier in her reality could get through a conversation without saying fuck at least once. It felt like a spice was missing from the narrative – some dark mole sauce.
I had one person, a friend, tell me his daughter, who was a teen, put my book down because she found the word fuck in it. Another, an adult, told me she finished it but was really shocked that the book contained such language.
What would George Carlin say to all this? Well, his now famous list of the seven words you can’t say on television no longer has any relevance. Because any and all of them can be and have been said on cable and HBO for over a decade. He stopped doing the bit after his own first HBO special.
One in which he used material that he had captured on paper, honed through practice and rewriting over and over again, and finally… perfected.
I enjoy reading your take on the book. I haven’t read it, but I find it interesting both that some people are so shocked to read the word “fuck” and that our tolerance or acceptance on TV for example has changed so much in such a relatively short time. I think you can’t get through a week of primetime shows without hearing someone refer to someone else as a “douchebag”. And what I find hilarious is, the majority of young adults have no real idea what one is.
January 6, 2012 at 12:00 am
Good to hear from you, Jane! Yes, it’s amazing what young adults use and don’t know. I bet it works for many adults too. What I liked about Carlin was that he explained it all – every possible meaning each word could have and every way you could use it. He should be on everyone’s curriculum so at least we’d all know what we were saying and could be more conscious of what we were using in the way or heavy artillery. I’m always on favor of being more literate.
Send my best to Helen and I hope you both had a good holiday! Happy new year to you both.
January 6, 2012 at 9:35 am
I haven’t read this, but I love Carlin. And I have something to say about cursing. Curse words are colorful language. They may no longer be as taboo as they used to be, but they still make you feel alive to say them.
I don’t swear around my kids, but I know they swear when I’m not around. Or at least I hope they do. I sure as hell did as a kid. That’s why there’s “foul” language in my novel. Because that’s what those kind of kids would talk like. I know, because I was one.
But there is also another side. I always think about Harry Potter when I think about this. Bitch is not really that bad of a word–it’s certainly not fuck–but it can stand out, especially to young readers. Anyway, Rowling really gave that word weight, when it was finally used, because it was the first swear word in the entire series. Stephen King wrote about how she handled it, and probably said it better than me.
January 6, 2012 at 10:33 am
I agree, though I don’t curse too much anymore and there are defintely some words that just aren’t “right” coming out of my mouth. A great reason for why some characters will use some words and not others. Harry Potter is an amazing example of a book that didn’t use much in the way of swear words, which I agree made its use all the more powerful when it was used. What’s the King piece? Can you point me in the direction of the article? It sounds good.
January 6, 2012 at 10:43 am