To Curse or Not to Curse: Lesson Unlearned on a Wyoming Sheep Ranch

Deciding exactly how far you should go when writing dialogue is a dilemma, particularly if you are writing for a yet undetermined audience. You want to keep it authentic, but refrain from offending potential readers. What’s the answer?

Having spent my formative years (until about age 8) on a sheep ranch in Wyoming that my father was managing for his three bachelor uncles, I was totally familiar with a well-aimed curse–usually not at a person other than something mild like, “When in the hell are you going to get that fence fixed?” Generally it was a piece of farm machinery, a recalcitrant ram, or the gumbo that mired the truck. That is, until it was time for me to start school.

My great-uncle Bill, who did the milking and tended the garden, allowed me to tag along and help. When my entry into the first grade became imminent, he decided to take my education in hand and prepare me for the classroom. After extracting my promise that I wouldn’t tell my parents of his tutelage, he instructed me in the art of swearing. Having never married, he apparently hoped his niece would carry on his Wyoming sheep rancher’s traditions. (My apologies to those ranchers who refrain from cussing a blue streak.)

I lasted one morning  in school, answering every question I was asked, including my name and age, with an adjective or adverb that the lovely, elderly teacher–who for years had maintained serene control of her class room–had never experienced. I was escorted home in the afternoon; my shocked parents were told to clean up my language before I would be readmitted; Uncle Bill thought his joke was the best he’d ever pulled, and it took my mother a full week to deprogram me. It was not completely successful, but I have managed some restraint in my writing.

So, what is too much? What is not enough? What is authentic? What is offensive? What is gratuitous?

Some of the characters in my short stories and novel curse: some do not. A wisecracking hairdresser, a frustrated father, a woman who has exploded with hurt and anger cusses out the man who hurt her. My guide is circumstances and what would be a natural “voice” for my character in those circumstances.

When I taught writing, some students had either discovered a range of four letter words (mostly just one) or were experiencing the freedom of their first year or two in college. Either way, they seemed to revel in including a minimum of two swear words in every sentence. When I suggested there might be another way to say the same thing, they’d retort that they liked what they had written. “Okay,” I’d say, “but will your reader?”

That’s the fine line a writer has to walk. What is authentic and what is gratuitous? We all have a definition, depending on our upbringing, our values, the image we wish to project. My time on a sheep ranch, and later visiting on other ranches, inured me to finding “language” offensive; however, like anything else, the situation dictates the response. Most of us differentiate our behavior depending on how solemn or rowdy the occasion warrants. So must our characters.

It would seem unusual for a character, regardless how constrained and conservative, to utter, “Goodness, I believe I just injured the digit on my left hand,” when the jack just slipped and he smashed his finger. Or to have a driver utter, “My, my, that car is coming straight at me,” before a collision. You can supply the more typical responses.

It all comes down to knowing your characters, gauging their typical responses, portraying their level of emotional involvement, and keeping their dialogue real.

Note: Uncle Bill is somewhere laughing his . . . head . . . off.