What happens when the real narratives get a bit too real? How do you deal with student’s use of realistic language in short stories and creative nonfiction?
Every year, I am met with the unique problem of reading student short stories that include language that would get them in trouble if they were to say these words in the hall or the cafeteria or the library.
At the beginning of the year, I make it clear spoken profanity is inappropriate per the rules of the student handbook, but, in their writing, everything is on the table. All language is at their disposal as a narrative tool as long as those tools—details, scene, character, dialogue or language—serve the purpose of the writing and ultimately the total piece. In other words, the use of profanity or adult-themed scenes must be used to advance the plot or develop a character or create a tone. If they don’t, those elements must be cut like any other extraneous detail or writerly indulgence.
Recommending a student cut out profanity or sexual scenes is never a moral call, but an artistic one. The use of profanity often exhibits a lack of vocabulary or a lack of technical skill, and the student’s purpose has nothing to do with art. The purpose is to merely shock their teacher and awe their peers.
I have this conversation every single year. Every year, I have two or three freshman students who are completely intoxicated by the freedom to swear in their writing. From what I gather, students are reacting to the zero tolerance policy for profanity. Some of their thrill in using these words is in rebellion of what they perceived as a fascist and arbitrary rule.
Last year, a student used 31 expletives in his screenplay as well as numerous sexual references, which I allowed to remain when we workshopped the piece. His protagonist and the protagonist’s friends were 14-year-old males, and I gave him a bit of latitude with that language because he was attempting to characterize their innocent-trying-to-be-tough bravado which is present in almost all adolescent males.
And predictably, the class called him out in workshop, not on the basis that they were offended by the language, but that he was trying to characterize his protagonist only by his use of cursing. The protagonist was one dimensional, flat, and underdeveloped, they said. In his revised short story, he used one mild profanity and developed the character’s complexity through action and precise dialogue, and the piece was much stronger.
Another student turned in a poem written almost entirely with curse words. The poem was supposed to be some sort of social, political or cultural manifesto. Again, the class felt like the poem lacked sophistication and subtly from a craft standpoint, showcasing only a knee-jerk and almost clichéd reaction to American foreign and domestic policy, but the poet said he wanted to express anger, and he chose those words to do that. Again the class responded. This time, they were willing to concede to a few of these words were necessary, but they questioned the lack of fresh images to carry the meaning of the poem.
Profanity is a fact of life in all high school classrooms. Having a real conversation about these words, about the political and moral power of language, and even about the etymology of curse words is a standard-sweeping lesson in itself.