Beyond dictionary definitions, knee-jerk reactions, and Facebook's LIKE button


Not long ago, I wrote a post in defense of the word weird. In comments, most people agreed with me that weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though there was a bit of a push back on the other words I championed: earnest, nice, and namaste).

Not long after that post, I got into a conversation with a friend about the word love. My friend felt that we were diluting the meaning of the word love by throwing it around so much, sometimes “to people we’ve never even met in person.” (As you might guess, he’s not into social media.) I understood what he was saying. Words can be overused to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t agree with him on  love. I can’t imagine ever hearing (or reading) the words, “I love you” and not feeling the sweet rush of gratitude and connection those words are meant to convey.

In thinking about the disparity of our reactions – my inner squee, and his eye-roll – I’m struck by how powerful and fraught language can be when our goal is to be understood.


Though we all like to throw them around whenever they prove our point, the truth is dictionary definitions only get at part of what a word means. There is nothing negative or even judgmental in the definition of weird, nothing insincere or petty in the definition of love. Our reactions to words are made of far more complicated stuff than their dictionary definitions.

We react to how the words are used, the tone of the sentence (or voice) that delivers them, and sometimes our very personal histories with the words themselves. I was once unfollowed on Twitter because I jokingly called someone a wuss. To me, wuss is a word that simply cannot be taken seriously, but it was obviously very serious to him. Even an apology didn’t get me back in his good graces. I’ve been on the other side of that equation too, where people have hurt my feelings with language they didn’t realize I would take seriously.


Recently, a friend posted on Facebook her extreme discomfort with the term motherfucker. She said, “We’re responsible for what we put out there. Words matter, people.”

She’s right. They do and on the one hand, I agree completely. We are responsible for what we put out there and, truly, motherfucker is a strange and, on the face of it, very ugly term. When I read the phrase in my friend’s post, it was like seeing the emperor naked; the word by itself, devoid of context, is patently offensive. There were lots of people jumping in to wholeheartedly agree with her. Lots of “likes.”

I hovered over the “like” button, but didn’t press it.


On my coffee cup right now, in letters written into the shape of a heart, it says, “Write Like A Motherfucker.” It is a reference to my favorite Dear Sugar letter of all time, in which Sugar tells a young, beautiful, talented, relentlessly insecure writer to, in essence: Just write. Of course she delivers that message much more artfully and over many paragraphs as only Sugar can, using examples from her own life, quotes from literary rock stars, a little bit of Latin and, yes, in the most memorable line of her response, the word motherfucker.

I blogged about how that letter affected me. It affected me the same way it affected every writer I knew who read it. It made us want to write. It made us want to give birth to our “second beating hearts,” no matter what happened after that, no matter who thought what we’d written was brilliant and who thought it was shit. Sugar’s letter – her passionate, poetic, profane phrasing – lit me up inside and pushed me to do things on the page I’d never done before.

And yet, when I wrote about it on my own blog, I hesitated to use her words. I thought, “Wait. My mom reads my blog.”


In the end, I trusted my mom to pay attention to my intent, to read what I wrote, feel my determination, and be proud of me… even if I was using language she would never use herself. And maybe that’s what we all need to do.

Whichever end of the exchange we’re on, the wielder of words or the receiver of them, we need to remember how powerful they are. As writers (and speakers and lovers and friends), we need to choose wisely, which doesn’t mean curbing our enthusiasm, dumbing ourselves down, or choosing political correctness over everything else. It means saying what we mean as precisely and as bravely as we can, knowing that not everyone will agree or understand.

And as readers (and listeners and lovers and friends), it means using powers beyond our knee-jerk reactions to get at meanings that are deeper (and far more worthwhile) than dictionary definitions.

And when we don’t like a word, it’s okay to say that too. I actually thought my friend was brave in her Facebook post. If Facebook had an “I admire your willingness to take a stand” button, I’d have pressed that.


  1. cmw on December 7, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Your post refreshes in my mind the reality that face to face communication is hard enough. Take away the visual clues when talking on the phone, the verbal nuances when emailing, and brevity when txting, or worse yet, tweeting and it’s no wonder we get things out of context. I have another. Geographical differences can add to the. misunderstandings, as I have learned on both sides, while working here in South Arkansas.

    Great post.


    • j on December 7, 2012 at 8:24 am

      True, and colloquialisms can be challenging as well. That we don’t have more misunderstandings than we do is kind of a miracle!

      Texting is it’s own crazy thing – remember our conversation around what HA, versus HAH, versus HEE HEE versus HEHE meant?

      Thanks for popping in, stranger! xo

  2. Ann Marie Gamble (@amgamble) on December 7, 2012 at 7:48 am

    And the flip side of overuse: are we able to use the words in those (occasional?) moments when we do mean it. Sometimes “motherfucker” is exactly what I mean to say. (Or, in my current mood, sometimes “motherfucker” is exactly what I mean, damn it.)

    And hurrah for a wide vocabulary and conscientious deployment. I’m watching a murder mystery right now where the victim and a bunch of the suspects are artists. The most vindictive insult one painter has hurled at another is that he’s “suburban.” Mwahahaha.

  3. j on December 7, 2012 at 8:26 am

    That made me laugh. Twice! Both times I read it. “You’re suburban.” <-- Those are fightin' words! And Mwahahaha is about as precise as it comes, in my opinion.

  4. Pam on December 7, 2012 at 8:27 am

    I am strongly in favor of choosing one’s words carefully in order to say (as nearly as possible) just what one means.

    I am not in favor of being prissy about language. Certainly there are times and places when a word like motherfucker is uncalled for, but where would Samuel L. Jackson be without it, I ask you?

    I know some people who get crabby about foul language, but can watch gory police procedural shows all day. I don’t grasp how a guy saying “cocksucker” (yay, Deadwood) is so much harder to take than the sight of a guy with his guts all over the floor.

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 8:49 am

      Right? That reminds me of the people who objected to the supposed sex in The Titanic, saying that it was inappropriate for their kids to see, but didn’t care at all about the wrenching scene in which the people who weren’t rich enough to buy their way upward were locked below deck to drown.

      Our American sensibilities never fail to astound me.

      Your Samuel L. Jackson observation just made my day.

      • Pam on December 7, 2012 at 9:05 am

        My favorite example involves my mom. The year Little Miss Sunshine came out, I had an Oscar party. Mom was in attendance. She was very stern about the terrible language used by Alan Arkin’s character in that film, and told everyone she hoped the movie wouldn’t win a thing. When Alan Arkin’s name was announced as Best Supporting Actor, she hissed, “Shit!” My friend Jackie instantly exclaimed, “Potty mouth!”

        LOVE. (To Mom’s credit, she admitted that she was busted.)

  5. Casoly on December 7, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Great post J. This is something I think we all struggle over, I know I do constantly, hence my overuse of emoticons – I’m always nervous I will be misunderstood. :o) I have found myself lately joking about my grief, or laying it out there in the middle of a sentence, and moving on as quickly as possible. I don’t know why, well actually I do, but it’s complicated. I am not one to discuss my emotions at length or even at short. I have them, I feel them very (too) deeply I am sure. I generally don’t have problems with “safe” emotions like anger, or happiness, but with complicated, to my core emotions – grief and love – those are for me and they are too precious to discuss at length in the limited vocabulary I have because the words always fail me. So I joke about them or toss them around in 1 deadly serious sentence and then I move on. I guess just so people know where I am, that I’m still hurting and that maybe it’s too early to expect more from me. I don’t know, this comment doesn’t even make sense to me. I just know that I agree with you, we should say what we mean, we should think about the words and try to use them as parsimoniously as possible – say what we mean. And yet…sometimes things are complicated and I don’t know how to say what I mean, I mean life sucks, death sucks, I’m glad to be alive, I’m ok, I’m destroyed, I’m broken hearted and I’m happy – all at once. I struggle with expressing myself almost constantly. One reason I have stayed away from my happy place (Twitter), is that I am afraid of being there, of being happy (which would be a 1/4 truth) or of being depressing, when I know each of my friends is struggling with their own heart crushing events, terminal illness, or past grief, it seems selfish to dump on them. And to be honest, I don’t want to talk about things that are making me sad, I find no comfort in that. Am I weird? (yes). So I will probably stay away until the limited words I have match my feelings.
    Wow what a downer comment. See what I did here? I took your post about the strength and impact of words and I debbie downer-ed it. Sigh. This is a perfect case in point regarding me and my fight to get what I want to say to come out in the right way.

    Erase all that. Love you (person I’ve never met but feel I know)! xo

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 8:46 am

      Love you right back! I hold you up as proof of my friend’s total wrongness about the world love and how it works.

      I think your reply is a perfect response to a post about how we use language and how hard it is – even with all the words we have at out disposal – to feel truly understood. When the emotion is grief (which I think is absolutely the most complicated, wrenching emotion of all)… well, I kind of think everyone in the throes of it should get a pass. Seriously. NO EXPECTATIONS AT ALL.

      People cry, laugh, nurse, retreat, reach out, act out, mourn, ignore, stumble their way through their grief, doing whatever moves them from one day to the next. For the rest of us to imagine we know what’s best for someone who is grieving, is the height of arrogance, in my opinion. Or maybe it’s the height of misguided good intentions. Either way, I may not feel the depths of your hurt, but I do understand your confusion, and you hesitance to jump back into the social stream.

      You are missed, my friend. But more importantly, you are loved. xox

      • Casoly on December 7, 2012 at 10:36 am

        J, your beauty and badassery make me certain that whether I know you or not, my sincere Love for you and our friendship is right. xox

    • Valerie on December 7, 2012 at 8:57 am

      I can not say that I have been where you are because nobody has or ever will. I can say that I can totally relate with your post and bless you for posting it. You are not alone and If you are weird, dear, then so am I. Your comment is more valuable to this stranger than you will ever know, because like you I do not possess the words. (maybe if I spoke French or Italian)

      Sending Love and Peace you brave soul.

      • Casoly on December 7, 2012 at 10:37 am

        Thank you, and peace and love back to you! #beingweirdisawesome :o)

    • Pam on December 7, 2012 at 9:08 am

      I think everyone gets through grief in his or her own way. It’s never easy. Feel your way, and we’ll be delighted to see you whenever you pop up. Hugs to you.

      • Casoly on December 7, 2012 at 10:37 am

        xox Doodle Maven!

    • Whoa_Mary on December 7, 2012 at 9:51 am

      Dear Casoly, There really are no words to describe grief, but you have done well to convey the confusion. It really messes you up. When you lose a loved one it is like part of your heart and soul is ripped away. For me it was like I was in a really big hole and I didn’t want to come out. I didn’t want to deal with life or any kind of emotions. I wrapped myself in a cocoon and ventured out little by little when I was ready. I knew I had friends out there to support me emotionally, but there was only one that I could really talk with. A friend who I had never met. 😉

      Take your time, dear one There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is just the way that is right for you. xo

      • Casoly on December 7, 2012 at 10:38 am

        You’re the best! And you prove it every day by being you. xox

    • Michael on December 7, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      You get my vote today for “winner of the internet” for having the strength, courage, and self-possession to post this without redaction. It’s all beautiful, in no small part because of how honest it is. If that’s struggling with words to fit the sentiment, then I wish we all could have such problems.

      • j on December 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm

        That’s high praise coming from you, someone who I admire for the honest precision of your writing.. Thank you, Michael.

  6. Valerie on December 7, 2012 at 8:50 am

    This is a great conversation. In writing, we keep our audience in mind and we must be genuine. Sugar’s “Write Like a Motherfucker” response was so genuine that it had me laughing and crying at the same time. It was and remains an inspiration when I feel stuck and insecure.

    Yesterday, I fell in so in love with a sentence that I unintentionally took my New Yorker magazine with me to work and showed it to my colleagues. My literary friends appreciated it’s beauty and skilled, atmospheric construction, but my friend who is trained in journalism said it is pretentious and half of it should be cut. He then had me read it out loud to prove to me that it is too long. After I read it he agreed that the construction is perfect but maintained it’s pretentiousness. Isn’t this the fun part of writing? I enjoyed that exchange as much as the sentence itself.

    Thank you for your continuously thoughtful posts. Keep writing like a mf. 😉

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 1:42 pm

      Oh, Valerie, send me the sentence! I’m so curious now. I suspect much of what I love to read could be considered rambling and pretentious.

      And thank you for the encouragement. Just as I had to learn to do it on my yoga mat, I’m learning more and more how to meet myself on the page…. like a motherfucker, you might say. 🙂

      • Valerie on December 8, 2012 at 8:44 am

        I’m glad you invited us to share your yoga mat. 🙂

        Here is the sentence I fell in love with from Alan Lane’s “Tough Times” Current Cinema piece in the December 3 issue. Relax and enjoy.

        “That blend of exactitude and bleariness returns here, in Russell’s foggy heroin trips, in the stately passage of a bullet through a car window, in the ballet of crazed glass and blooming blood gouts that ensues, and in the fireworks through which Cogan paces, astronaut-slow, in the penultimate scene.”

        It even sounds neat backwards. If I were a painter I would paint this, not for the subject matter, but for the want of matching the illustration and atmosphere.

        Sending love

        • j on December 8, 2012 at 9:26 am

          I love your reaction to the sentence just as much as the sentence itself! What he’s describing reminds me of how I felt during almost all of Requiem for a Dream, which was a strange, poetic, violent movie that left me dazzled and unsettled.

          And I agree. Frontwards and backwards, that sentence is music.

  7. Nicci on December 7, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I HEART this post, J! I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again, “You always make my Fridays so thoughtful.”

    As I was working out this morning, a favorite song of mine came on. Some of the lyrics and words are sewn together so perfectly they just shoot straight to my heart, and I’m like “I am a word *hore!” I thought, I’m going to post that on Facebook. Then I thought, do I want to use that word? I mean, it makes sense to me & maybe my writer friends would get it, but I still felt self-conscious about using it. And here’s why…

    There is a saying in my culture (and I’m paraphrasing): Don’t give a child a name that he or she is not strong enough to carry. This essentially means that names have power, and I (like you) believe wholeheartedly that words also convey that same power. There are some words, especially evil, hateful, graphic words that I just dare not use, regardless of content. On the flip side, I know that there is a culture of people who believe in using such words as a means of either diminishing its hatefulness or in some odd sense reclaiming the word itself. I am on the fence about that. Sometimes I understand it, but sometimes hateful words are just hateful words. And, I fear that to desensitize ourselves to hateful words by overusing it will eventually only make us numb to all things that are committed in the name of hate.

    The same thing can be said of overusing positive words too, like how your friend refers to the overuse of the word “love.” I grew up in a family where we don’t say “I love you” very often. But now, I use “love” all the time. I like the positive connotation, but suddenly I’m starting to feel like I love everyone & everything. Do I really? Perhaps I’m just guilty of “using love.” But is that so wrong? I don’t know. It’s an odd space to be in, for sure.

    I’m hardly a prude and I often walk that thin line of “pushing the envelope,” but I also value classiness & believe that we definitely should be held accountable for what we write & say, if only to heed: Be careful what you say, it may come back to haunt you.

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 1:49 pm

      At the risk of offending anyone reading through the comments (that’s a warning, skip this comment if you’re nervous), one of my favorite of The Vagina Monologues is the one that militantly “takes back” the word cunt. It’s my favorite because of how intensely uncomfortable it made me, even as I felt a rush of empowerment, the realization that maybe what Eve Ensler was saying was possible.

      I gotta say that I haven’t tested out the theory with that word, but the idea of it – that words have only the power we give them and that we are in control – dazzled me then, and still does today.

      As for the word “love,” I don’t know. I just don’t think we can use it too much. Or feel it too much. Or give it too freely. It’s like worrying about there being too much air.

      • Nicci on December 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm

        Oh no, can there be too much air? No, but there definitely is a difference in the type of air. 🙂 As an avid hiker & air breather, there definitely is. OK, so that just went off in some strange tangent but you made me think of all the different types of air I’ve had the luck to breathe in, and that just makes me smile. Anyway…

        Perhaps my struggle is internal, or perhaps I AM a prude. 🙂 Some words just make me cringe, especially in light of how often it is used by young tongues. BTW, I use the asterisk quite sparingly b/c, you know, it makes for a nice bedfellow during these strange days. Am I a wuss?

        • j on December 7, 2012 at 2:21 pm

          You are NOT a wuss. (I’ve never seriously called someone that, have you? Has anyone in the history of wusshood?)

          I love your tangents!

  8. Terri on December 7, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Fabulous post! i’ll be sharing it on my writing FB page.

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Yay! Thank you so much, Terri! xo

  9. Michael on December 7, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    You always write great stuff, J, and this one is particularly lovely, but i am still most awed by your gift for fostering discussion and providing a setting in which people can be so beautifully honest. Please, give yourself a hug for me.

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      When I set up this site, I thought a lot about what I wanted it to do. The Shop has its purpose, and the Writing, Playing, Doodling pages each have theirs. But here, the blog, is all about conversation. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of this community – people who are, as you point out, so beautifully honest and real when they come here.

      My self was not quite as into the hug-by-proxy as she would have been into one from the real, live M, but she’s still pretty giddy. Thank you!

  10. Elson on December 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Just remember people, what you have in you, gets out. Squeeze the language too tight, for fear of letting something sexy or offensive slip, and your words are brittle, flat, dull and uninteresting to people with porn bookmarks and pumping hearts, people who read and breathe, people who try and fail and try again.

    Don’t squeeze it hard enough? Ever get a weak handshake? Enjoy overdone pasta?

    Make eye contact with your reader. Be honest. One of the big risks is that you will say something you feel you might have to explain. Don’t. How else are your readers supposed to know what you are talking about, if you spoon feed the fleshy parts?

    I over shot my mark, save for that this post raises some important questions writers and readers and people have to answer to, within the confines of a body attached by a head and feet.

    Good on ya, j.

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      I love “make eye contact with your reader.” I wish I’d written that. I also like thinking about the “fleshy parts” of what I write.

      Ever the poet, you are.

      Thank you for the encouragement.

  11. Whoa_Mary on December 7, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I love the conversation here so much, I just had to come back. This particular post struck a chord with me. I too believe strongly in the power of words and the necessity to use them carefully and responsibly. I try to keep that in mind whenever I am online. I love the way that you presented this here. I used to write on a site that was more geared towards news and there would often be flame wars lasting several days. Many times it would start over the careless use of words. My column on that site states this:

    “When words are all we have to make an impression, greater care must be exercised in using them.”

    My Twitter page has something similar:

    “Words can maim & destroy or can be used to heal, your choice.”

    I also agree with you on our responsibilities as readers. We must look a little deeper at the intent of the writer before we take offense. I can’t see any instance where I would use the word “motherfucker.” It is at a quick glance an ugly word. But, I had also read the Sugar article and knew the intent was anything but ugly. I remember how excited you were with your writing and could tell how much that column inspired you. It all does come down to reading the intent of the author so that you can discern what the actual meaning is in that context.

    Nicely done J!

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      I’m glad you did come back. I do think sometimes our offense at someone’s word choice takes over our common sense. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m very nice. How could anyone unfollow me for “wuss”? But I know I’ve been blinded by word choice too, reacted harshly only to learn that the person I was hurt by didn’t mean it the way I took it at all.

      The problem online, as you point out, is that the “flame” of a flame war gets so big so fast. We need to reinstate The Pause. Things move way too fast on the interwebs. We need some rules for engagement. Like you must wait at least the length of a long, slow breath before replying. 🙂

  12. Michael on December 7, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Just found this. It seemed, in a small way, germane to the discussion.

    • j on December 7, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      Great piece and good points. I especially agree with this: “In our society, the main taboo is no longer sex, but race.”

      When I was writing this post, I thought of the words that make me squirm, and almost all of them were racial.

  13. Rita Chand (@LolaSpeaking) on December 8, 2012 at 12:36 am

    How on earth is it that I’m only just reading this post now? And seeing your site for the first time? How did that happen? Whoa. I think the thing that stands out for me..the 2 things actually…the word “love” can NEVER be overused. Ever. Like…EVER! And, that swearing, although feels good every now and again, really does put something out into the world. I love when something happens, and dropping an F-bomb every now and again, because it feels so good. You also know me to be someone who edits her swear words (example – f(ck) because it makes me more comfortable about what I put out into the world. Words, are one of our greatest gifts. That we have for ourselves and that we give to the people we come into contact with. They really do matter.

    love love love love

    • j on December 8, 2012 at 9:29 am

      It’s your first time here because you’re busy being in love, woman! Which means you’re right where you should be.

      Swearing puts something out in the world, just like all our words do. In my opinion, what it puts out into the world isn’t always bad and, in fact, sometimes it’s powerful and life-altering (as in Sugar’s letter).

      It’s not the words, it’s how we string them together, right?


  14. coachekwePatricia MacDonald on December 9, 2012 at 7:44 am

    OK, so I’ve been busy and am coming in the conversation late. sorry… Obviously what we say can be powerful when it comes from a deeply felt emotion. That’s the real difference is it not? I can say fuck right now because it doesn’t come from a deeply held belief, it’s just a word. However get me on the subject of our latest PM, Stephen Harper and my saying that word takes on a whole different meaning. Am I right Michael? I find many young people swear a great deal because they don’t know how to express themselves in language everyone can understand, combined with social norms and other superficial stuff. If someone is in the kitchen, a dropped jar splattered all over the floor, for them to say god damn it motherfucker shit cunt, is understandable. However for someone to just pop up and say I donno why that motherfucker is such an asshole y’no? doesn’t say anything until they follow it up with the who, what, why, where and when of the thing. I’m with Nicci, when I *am* po’d I too will use asterisks and otherwise not use the word. It also has to do with a decision I made years ago that I needed to figure how to say what I mean. Still working on that…

    You are so right Judy, our words put something out in the world; it’s important they say and do what we want them to.

    By the way, I love that you now have a site that won’t put our photo by our words. It puts more emphasis on what we write. Kinda like your post does. =)

    • j on December 9, 2012 at 8:52 am

      Well, it still puts your photo by your words if it can find one – if you use a WordPress account, for example. But I do like the little doodly sort of gravatars it assigns in the absence of a photo.

      I had to laugh at your example. I can’t imagine letting go of a string of epithets like that over a dropped jar, but I feel strongly that when I write I want to write asterisk-free. If a swear word is the one that best conveys my meaning, then I want to use it, unsoftened. If I’m not willing to do that, I should pick another word. It’s like never writing anything I’m afraid to attach my name to.

      But you know, even that rule, which I set for myself, isn’t hard and fast. If I were writing for a publication with standards that prohibited it, I’d change my ways. And I do consider my audience when I write.

      Which really just proves my point. Communication is fluid. The right words one time might not be right the next time, and sometimes if we’re writing stuff that really matters, we’re going to be clumsy (or passionate, or raw, or earnest, or searching). And those are the times when I, as a reader, don’t want to miss the important thing you’re saying because I got hung up on a single word.

  15. coachekwePatricia on December 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    That example was from memory: I dropped a jar of spaghetti sauce on the floor, it shattered into a million pieces and me barefoot, covered from the knees down in red goo and a small shard of glass in my leg. I don’t know exactly what words I used but I’m fairly certain they weren’t nice ones. But hey, where’s the ‘Like’ button on this thing? LOVE what you said… definitely yes, do consider your audience.

    I once picked up a highly acclaimed book by a young woman that came with much critical praise. I got through the first 5 or 6 pages trying to find rhyme or reason with no punctuation, paragraph breaks or capital letters and probably thereby only picking up fragments of what she was trying to say… it was like a random stream of consciousness only it was a story. Well it was purported to be a story. Picked it up again maybe a week or two later and jumped to various places where it continued the same. Thumbed the whole book and that was how all 100+ pages had been written. I took it to work for anyone who wanted it.

    I do remember thinking some of her prose was beautiful, as if I was sitting on a river bank watching the water go by, detached and terribly alone. Mostly it was like being in a big life suit floating in the universe, isolated and terribly alone. Possibly it was a very high form of word artsmith but it was too unstructured for me to grasp or enjoy.

    Obviously, I was not her audience. =)

    • j on December 9, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      Well, damn woman! You left out the part about shards of glass being embedded in my leg! Of course there would be serious swearing!

      And not to get too off topic, but don’t you find you have to be in the right place for certain books? I’ve had books that I just couldn’t get into at all. So I’ve set them aside and then revisited them later – months or years later – and I was completely captivated.

      Which is not your point, so I’ll move on. I think a book without punctuation might be more of a challenge than I’m willing to take on, and you’re right. Clearly. We are not the right audience. But there was an audience for that book. The best thing we creatives can do is create, wildly, passionately, with everything we’ve got, and trust that our right audience will find us.

      Which, coming full circle to the subject of this post, fits right in. Some people have told me that they find Sugar hard to read. She certainly swears. She talks openly about uncomfortable things. She is achingly, piercingly honest. Not everyone wants to read that, but for those of us she speaks to, her words can cause tectonic shifts in our souls.

      And what artist doesn’t want that?

  16. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on December 10, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Your posts are always so thoughtful. Language as communication really is a fascinating thing, on so many levels. Sometimes I think about the simple awesomeness of the fact that I can say phonemes and someone else can gain meaning from that. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’m seriously amazed by it. And writing, too, of course. How can I use words to convey a message that someone else genuinely understands as concepts? When you add to that rather incredible phenomenon the complexity of connotations, tone of voice, backgrounds, and points of reference… it’s amazing that we can understand each other at all. In that light, a few misunderstandings seems a small price to pay for the power of words.

    • j on December 10, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      I don’t know if it sounds cheesy, but I think about that all the time too – not only that you can say a phoneme and I can gain meaning, but that all of us agree (or try to) on what the meaning generally is. I think that’s remarkable.

      YAY words! <-- Okay, that's probably cheesy.

  17. Clare Flourish on December 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    I like to have alternatives to hand, for conversation at least.

    In the office I was using “pissed off” a lot. (well-) and so now use irked or peeved. I don’t get write like a motherfucker, I thought a motherfucker was someone you hated or despised so imagined literally doing that cos he could not get it somewhere else- a flyghting word. Flyghting’s great, playing with words and insults, but-

    Can you make an impact without a bad word? Write like a- hero, Orwell, Casanova, shaman, magician, poet, craftsman, eagle, lion, write like a cool drink on a hot day, like a kiss from a new lover, like a Twain.

  18. j on December 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Of course you can make an impact without a bad word. (I sort of like “write like a shaman.”) In Sugar’s letter, though, I find it hard to believe she could have come up with better, more powerful phrasing. It’s not simply that sentence; it’s that sentence exactly where it comes in the communication, with everything that has come before it laying foundation for the point she’s trying to make.

    Writing is a craft. There are many ways to craft a message. “Write like a shaman” might garner a different audience than “Write like a motherfucker.” And that is as it should be.

    Flyghting. I like it!

  19. Lucy Pollard-Gott on December 11, 2012 at 10:53 am

    I just wished to add that “earnest,” “nice,” and “namaste” are words I still like and use. Even if they can be overused, sometimes they hit the bullseye of what I mean to say, so why wander off into the outer circles to avoid them? As for the M–f– word, I can’t use it (clearly, I can’t even type it!) but I have never ever been offended by your use of it because you lend it your own sweet power and it means something personally uplifting, not hurtful in your hands.

    thanks for your pausing over words and their sometimes unpredictable effects. Sometimes all we can do when we speak or write on fragile subjects is pray that the meaning we intend will come through and transcend our own finite basket of words.

    • j on December 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      I love “sweet power.” Thank you for that. I do pick my words carefully, so at least when I swear, you’ll know I have some (absolutely non-nefarious) purpose in mind. 🙂

      And yes, truly it’s a wonder we’re understood as often as we are. There are a lot of ways for a message to go wrong!


      • Lucy Pollard-Gott on December 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm

        Thanks, Judy, for your kind reply. If it’s possible to be a “good listener” in blog exchanges, you definitely are one of the best! 🙂

        • j on December 24, 2012 at 10:05 am

          This is definitely one of my favorite blog comments EVER.

  20. Inion N. Mathair on December 28, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    This was by far, mine & Inion’s favorite post. Excellent for writers seeings how we are word-crafters. Our second book, (The Perfect Seven) A story that takes the reader on a journey of five teenage boys, who are in a band, is filled with crude humor & crazy antics that are normal where teenage boys are concerned. When my daughter and I finished the book we smiled at each other and then came the worries. The book, was by far, more vulgar than our other two and not “mommy friendly”. Now mind you, I wrote this with my daughter. We’ve never been more proud of a book than we are that one. And it feels real! My son loves it as well. Do I encourage my kids to use profanity constantly? No! But, I do remember what it was like to be young and I’ve raised my kids to be open with me. And like any book, if you don’t like it, put it down. I will also tell you that my kids don’t use profanity like most do. Sometimes, it’s necessary to use certain words. Yes, even curse words. And besides, can you put limits on art? Walls? I can’t imagine watching “Goodfellas” and hearing Joe Pesci & Robert DeNiro bicker back & forth while using words such as: “Gosh Darn It!” ~~~ “Heaven’s to Bitsy~!” lol

    As for the word weird, I watched a Life-time story on my all time favorite singer and found out he was bullied in highschool and referred to as weird by the jocks. Once he got big….still weird…but it would seem that weird was okay. And maybe, weird wasn’t bad but original. His musical lyrics spoke volumes on just how great weird could be. “Nirvana’s – Kurt Cobain”.

    This was a wonderful post for writers to read Judy. Not only to remind them to take care as to what they use in the way of words. But to read words with an open mind, in trying to decide as to what the writer was trying to convey.

    • j on December 29, 2012 at 8:13 am

      Authenticity in art, I think, whether you’re a writer (or two!) writing about teenage boys, or a teenage boy trying to figure out the world (and then singing your angst, grunge style) is absolutely essential. The authenticity of your voice draws your right audience in, and we all have to embrace that not everyone is our audience, right? That’s been hard for me, but the better I get at it, the more liberated and creative I feel.

      I like the title The Perfect Seven

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