Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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Words With Teeth

I’ve been thinking a lot about language, the last week and a half or so. Partly it’s the shock of going from being surrounded by friends my own age and older at Arisia to being surrounded by kids at work. Partly it’s that I’ve been listening to Matthew Ebel‘s music pretty much non-stop since I got home from the con.

You see, on the one hand there are a lot of these songs that I really want to play for (at least subsets of) the aforementioned kids at work. Almost every song I think they’d appreciate, though, includes language that honestly probably wouldn’t faze them but that I would have a hard time justifying to my boss, let alone to a protective parent. This is especially true of “The Last Pirate,” which (bought from iTunes) has one of those little “Explicit” boxes next to it but which makes librarian-me giggle. (Seriously: it feels like on the rare occasions when I’m not trying to teach kids how to avoid plagiarism it’s because I’m trying to explain the distinctions between plagiarism and piracy/copyright infringement and how they are different kinds of Bad Things To Do.)

On the other hand, it’s nice to listen to such music in my apartment or my car and reinforce the sense that this is a space away from work. It’s similar to the feeling of encountering someone who knows exactly what I mean when I talk about someone or something being “mundane,” but that’s a matter of being able to relax into geekiness. In this case it’s a matter of being able to relax into . . . I’m not sure — adulthood? Into the assumption that everyone present is mature enough to handle “strong language,” especially when it’s being used because the words have teeth?

That’s the phrase that keeps coming to mind as I’ve been thinking about writing this: “words with teeth.” Because really, I don’t just mean profanity in general. Often, profanity is dull and meaningless, used for punctuation or emphasis without any thought about what it really means: profanity for the sake of profanity, or because the speaker (or writer) is being careless. I mean words — profane or otherwise — that are used harshly, to express anger or frustration or self-deprecation or sadness (or . . . or . . . or) in a way that is visceral, that cuts the way those emotions do.

One of my favorite musical examples of this is the Mumford and Sons song “Little Lion Man,” the chorus of which goes:

But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I my dear?

Partly it’s the bitter way Marcus Mumford sings it, the way he bites off the words. Partly it’s the repetition of that short “u” sound. Certainly there are any number of words you could replace it with, but they sound wrong: “screwed it up” doesn’t quite scan; “messed it up” has too soft a sound. “Mucked it up” comes closest, keeping both the short “u” and the “ck” that makes the word appropriately angry and sharp. It’s still not the same, though. Sometimes you really do mean “fucked it up,” not anything tamer.

Lest you think I’m still only talking about profanity, here’s a different example that led me to the idea of words with teeth, this time from another Matthew Ebel song. One of my favorite of his songs (that I’ve encountered so far) is also one of the ones that makes me saddest, mostly because of two lines that have always jumped out at me even before I caught the lyrics surrounding them. First, the song: “These Wars We Fight”

Now, the lyrics in question, with the relevant lines in bold:

Hanging by a lonely thread
Trying not to come back dead
There are worse things, so I’ve said before
So why gripe at all? This mess is almost through
I’ll be coming home real soon
And other lies I’ve said to you before

I actually had to listen carefully to the song, even though I’ve listened to it several times already today, to check those first four lines, but the two in bold I always catch even when I’m not paying attention. (Or do they always catch me?) In this case the sense of teeth comes from the juxtaposition: “I’ll be coming home real soon” is so familiar, so cliché, that it invokes a sense of nostalgia even before you consider the bittersweet sound of the music so far, so to follow that by immediately lumping it in with “other lies I’ve said to you before” (and emphasizing the word “lies” when singing it) takes all that sense of hope and familiarity and uses it to create an opposite effect.

The list could go on (The Decemberists’ song “Red Right Ankle” has a devastating, visceral example in the third verse; one of the most moving moments in the movie Saved! is a quiet scene in which the protagonist simply stands and swears, and in context it’s just . . . powerful), but mostly at this point I’m reminded of the rule of thumb I’ve always heard regarding Young Adult fiction: you can have sex and drugs and violence and swearing and all kinds of things that grown-ups generally try to shield kids from as long as it serves the story. Now, there’s more to it than that, especially in the way a YA novel handles a topic compared with a novel on the same topic written for adults (think Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity*, where the narrator largely talks around her own torture and that of other prisoners, referring to things obliquely and usually in the past tense, not glossing over them but not dwelling upon them or becoming too graphic either), but as a writer I think that’s my own impulse as well.

As a writer, it’s important to me that sometimes my characters swear. Sometimes, having them react differently would be dishonest. But really, at the end of the day I’m much more interested in writing with teeth — my own writing, I hope, and definitely other people’s — whether those teeth come from a deliberate use of profanity, from unexpected juxtaposition of words or ideas, or simply from the exact right word at the exact right moment.

* I’m currently about halfway through Code Name Verity, so no spoilers please! I can say, though, that so far it is absolutely living up to the hype I’ve gotten from friends and colleagues who’ve read it.