“After we said billuns of suarewords,”

That is how chapter 3 of my son William’s book begins, the book he’s been writing for the last few days, pencil clutched in his seven year old fingers, red composition notebook already a little sweaty and bent from the effort of making real his dream of being a novelist.

His book is a doozy. I don’t want to give things away (although the title, The Revenge of the Kids, pretty much tells you everything you need to know), but there’s a lot of violence and a lot of swear words, also known as “suarewords”.

Which brings me to today’s topic: what do we say to other writers about their work when it veers wildly into a place we think is ill advised, particularly when we have been placed in the position of teaching them (not a job I’m qualified for, but I am the only one handy in the afternoons when the red composition book comes out). William’s a novelist just beginning on the road to acquiring his craft. He recently learned to read, and he can print pretty well, so there’s not much to keep him off the ladder that leads to the Pulitzer. His motivation for writing appears to be, in equal measure, a desire for power, and a desire to make a lot of money, which I’m guessing is somewhat typical of those who fill the ranks of creative writing classes throughout the country. That these things don’t actually happen need not concern us today. I am more worried right now about the suarewords.

They are in that story because yesterday afternoon he asked me if it was okay if he used “bad words” in his story. Remembering how shocked I was when my own mother told me that I shouldn’t write stories where there were bad mothers (how, then, I want to know, do you write ANY story at all?), I told him he could write whatever he wanted to write.

I should have added, however, that he could not actually read his stuff out loud at the dinner table, but by the time he’d read all the bad words to us, it was too late. William’s novel is full of cusswords. Billuns of them. They are not spelled correctly, but it is quite clear what they are. Read aloud, there is no doubt of them. Plus, lots of people are shot in cold blood and they die with nary a tear shed for their fates.

My husband was shocked by William’s work. He told him he didn’t like it and didn’t want him to use those words anymore. I stuck up for William, but I was a little worried about it myself and wondering if maybe I’d gone too far. So I pointed out to William that publishers of children’s books do not buy books that have lots of cuss words in them, and that, moreover, dying in droves is not always looked on kindly either. His reply: Even in middle school? He seems to have done some market research when he was not busy assembling his opus, one suareword at a time.

But I think I have hit on a solution. Do you remember that Francine Prose book I talked about a while ago? It’s called Reading Like a Writer and in it she talks about how the work of other writers can sometimes be all the help we need when we encounter issues with our own work. Want some help on dialogue? Try Hemingway. Don’t know how to get people in and out of rooms? Check out George Eliot and Jane Austen.

Want to use billuns of suarewords, but still want to sell your book to Scholastic Books? Then you do as Cecil Day-Lewis does in the Otterbury Incident which is the book we are reading out loud at bedtime these days. You say this, “He swore up and down something fierce, using words that are unprintable.” Cecil Day-Lewis is now William’s muse and inspiration. Your characters can swear, and you can still sell your book to the juvenile market. As a teaching technique, particularly when you don’t want to be judgmental or intrusive, it is very helpful to be able to point to someone else to back up what you are trying to say. It’s a little like having your brother tell your child it’s not a great idea to sneak cigarettes in the bathroom at school. It just seems more effective to have advice come from a third party sometimes.

I am still thinking of the dying in cold blood with nary a tear shed problem. I’m sure, though, that somewhere in the library my answer is waiting for me.

38 thoughts on ““After we said billuns of suarewords,”

  1. I got into serious trouble at primary school for the appalling body count and torture that went on in the stories I wrote. Start as you mean to go on, say I. Maybe you should point him in the direction of a little James Elroy or David Mamet – if he’s going to use billions of ‘suare words’, he might as well learn from the masters…

  2. What a clever solution for the suareword (!!) problem.

    Dunno what to say about the deaths. My son, at 8 & 9 years old, had to write at least one story a month for school. I remember saying to his teacher that it was my dearest wish that he once, just once, write a story in which nothing exploded and nobody died. The teacher, having taught hundreds of 8 & 9 year old boys, just laughed at me.

  3. What sheer delight this post is! You couldn’t have done better – all juvenile Pulitzer candidates need their raw impulses directed and sublimated. Bravo!

  4. It sounds to me, Diana, like you may have had a similar experience.

    Hello litlove, directed and sublimated — a lot of parenting comes down to those things.

    Ms. Yogamum, the things exploding and dying made me laugh.

    U-Dad — “Start as you mean to go on” strikes me as very useful writing advice and I will be sure to work that in at some point. Thanks for the Mamet and Elroy references, sure to come in handy as the body count mounts.

  5. Let the kid write what he wants. If he wants it edited, you can critique then. But his writing for himself needs to be unfettered. Perhaps he needs a journal he can simply call his own. I like the solution for publication, though. Nice going.

  6. Donna — Yes a journal is a fabulous idea. As for editing, he not only wants it edited, he wants it typed, proofread and the cusswords spelled right. And then he wants me to get him a list of agents and buy him some stamps.

    I, like you, believe that you should not fetter your children when they wish to express themselves in such a sensible medium as words. And I worried a little that saying anything at all might stymie him, as my mother’s very small comment did me. William, however, is made of far sterner stuff. He solicits responses from his brothers and listens carefully to their advice (one mentioned a confusing shift in point of view, the other told him the proper name of the machine gun he wanted his people to use) and seems not at all put out to hear someone’s reaction. Maybe it is from being the youngest, but he seems quite happy to be getting a response — from his brothers in particular — that is not, leave me alone!

  7. Such a wonderful ambition. To not only write but to make a fortune as well. He is beginning at the correct age. As soon as he can write! Perhaps he needs to learn how to use a dictionary. Not a small pocket one, but the largest one in your home; the one with all the suarewords in it. Later on he can put it all on a computer and learn to use the spell-checker.

    He is lucky to have you as a parent because he will be guided and encouraged. I wonder if James Joyce was encouraged by his mother. Above all, do not be too dismayed by the blood and violence. After all, someone has to write the screen plays for those big budget, big body count movies with the monosyllabic Arnie-clone stars. 🙂

  8. William sounds like such a wonderful adventurous soul.

    Do you think he would be at all taken by the argument that really smart, famous, and successful writers don’t use swearwords? You can point out the fact that Rowling was the first author in the history of the world that earned a billion dollars writing great stories and no one died in the first four (or was it five) books and there was no swearing.

  9. This made me laugh so hard–thank you. I would love to see William, suarewords and all, in one of my classes; I am sure he has a more creative approach to his writing than many who are in my classes. I think the bodycount (by the way, I loved “not even in middle school?”) is just a boy thing. My stories from that same age were all about animals, but the animals got to eat a lot of people. Some great writers–Hammett, Cain, MacDonald–are just overgrown boys with the suarewords spelled correctly, lots of bodies flying about, and incredible story-writing talent. I look forward to his publication with great anticipation.

  10. I love how you capture William’s unique personality and yet frame it within all that is so deeply weird (to the mothers who love them) about boys. Power, money, mayhem, suarewords…it’s all there.

  11. What a delightful post, BL.

    I remember when my daughter was about that age, I was a bit worried because she wrote and illustrated stories with characters that dressed like Miss America contestants. Lots of bathing suits and ballgowns. I was perplexed that this little girl who liked to play football with the neighborhood boys seemed to have this dangerous girly streak in her– in perhaps the same way that William’s verbal bloodshed perplexes you.

    It went away.

  12. My guess would be that the bloodshed and the suarewords will go away too, but what probably won’t is the ambition the little guy already shows. That’s what you are nurturing here…and very well, it seems to me. It has to help that he sees you writer and senses how important it is to you.

  13. What a wonderful story! I bet William is a wonderful writer, even with the suare words spelled incorrectly. When he figures out he can write that his character used lots of cursing — and gets away with shocking all the adults — I bet he will be as happy as can be with his writing because it will be brilliant and effective!

  14. Hello Cam, I’ll be sure to invite you to the launch party, the one where those who believed in him from his earliest days are given appropriately signed first editions of Revenge of the Kids along with bottomless glasses of champagne or other cocktails of choice.

    Welcome Joe — That’s a very nice long view to have on this. It’s true, as you say that our children imitate the things we love to do. I just want to be clear, though, that I don’t suare! He got that someplace else.

    Kristin, Writing is the place we can put all kinds of things, things we just want to play around with, things that are bugging us, things that we love — how wonderful that there’s room for ballgowns and bathing suits.

    They are indeed deeply weird, aren’t they, Carrie. Who knew we’d end up with so many of them on our hands?

    Hob, i think you and he share the same aesthetic, which is not a bad thing in the least, but exciting and fun. I look forward to hearing how your book’s going, by the way — what a launch party THAT will be.

    And you, Dorothy, will be presented with an autographed copy at the launch party also, because you believed in his earlier work, rough though it was. (I am speaking here of William. Having seen the Hob’s earlier work, I know it couldn’t be described as “rough.”)

    Lilalia — what a great model to hold up. I’d not realized that about the Harry Potter books. We love them around here, mostly for the wands and the spells that make people shoot across rooms and/or disappear.

    Yes indeed Archie — art and commerce combined in one small soul. The dictionary — the really big one — is a most excellent suggestion.

  15. It is cool that Williams incentive to not use suarewords comes from the thing that he likes: books and stories. This was fun to read but I can imagine why Mr. BL did not find it funny.

    This reminds me of the time when I mistakenly blurted out S**t, and my cousin who was eight at the time, opened her mouth and eyes wide and gleefully went to the kitchen and complained to her mother.

  16. When I was seven, I was writing books about teddy bears and their adventures. Now I write ghost stories with plenty of suarewords (although I try not to use too many, because, I can’t remember which writer it was who said it, but someone basically said that using lots of swear words was for people who didn’t know how to express themselves, and I tend to agree. When you read writers who wrote before it was acceptable to use them, they were so creative in expressing how angry people were), in which people die in cold blood with nary a tear. Perhaps by the time William is my age, he’ll be writing about teddy bear adventures?

    Brilliant solution on your part to suggest imitating other authors. But then, I would expect nothing less than brilliant parenting solutions from you.

  17. Precocious and raw anticonformist literary talent sedated by jesuitic auto-censorship advice. The swearwords and the death toll will be sanded out and polished bright to mimick the environment and fit the expectations of the powerful. I do not know how much was lost to literature (and psychoanalysis) in the process.

    I would probably have only given advice to:
    – do thorough research on the swear words to know exactly what he would be writing about
    – deepen the description of secondary characters, especially the families and kids of the people who would die.

    But OK, the result would have been exactly the same (auto-censorhip) or even worse (psychological disorders).

    (thinking out loud) I wonder whether there is a way of preserving the raw material, even if it’s not for public use or dinner-table reading. Could he have both a first raw story-board (aural, private) and a polished final draft (written, public) ? I’d love to hear/read them side-by-side.

  18. My dear Mandarine, I could not have put my concerns about intervening better. I do recall that when my own mother expressed dismay at my subject matter I was quite taken aback. I found it shocking — far more shocking than the story I was writing — that she didn’t see that this was a STORY. That mistake has been made many, many times, and I suppose we can chalk it up to the power of fiction. As for Mr. Precocious and Raw, I’ve pointed out that it’s fine to write whatever you want to write, and you should. Still, I’m with Emily — as a writing tool, the suareword works best when it is rare.

    Polaris, Having been precisely like your cousin at that age, and having been ratted out myself on more than one occasion, I can only conclude that it’s a da****d good thing we have taboos. Had we not, there’d be nothing for children to hurl themselves up against, no way to defy the big people, no way,in short, for the Revenge of the Kids to occur.

  19. I was reading your blog from a grandmother’s point of view. What a special gift you are giving to your son. Every Monday I pick up my grandson from school who is 6 years old and while driving him home we play “The Game.” We make up stories and sometimes they can be violent. After playing the game, we have a discussion about how we really have to be nice to people and can’t hurt them. He always telling me the game is not real it is like the Power Ranger movies and he would never hurt anyone. The latest game is that he is the dad and I am the child this game is very loving.

    Thanks for your blog. Helen

  20. Dear Charlotte, Aw. He is lucky indeed to have so many people, people he doesn’t even know exist, rooting for his art.

    Welcome Helen, That sounds like a lovely drive home. By the way, I know that game — the one where they pretend to be the parent, and you the child — it’s such a marvelous turning of the tables. It is also at the root of every fine children’s book, this move where the parents are either dead, at war or so deeply non-functioning that there is nothing for the child to do but go about having wonderful, hair raising adventures.

  21. may i add that William has an automatic buyer in our house. My almost-ten-year-old fits William’s original stance to a “T” (standing for something suarewordish, I’m sure.)

    of course getting paid for the real words may not be exactly what you have in mind.

    (this makes 3 writers in your house, yes?)


  22. Has William ever expressed any interest in news reporting? I know its not fiction, but it’s still writing.

    We in the journalism profession might be a crude lot of ink-stained wretches, yet we adhere to strict set of rules of ethics; no swearing, no hurting, no lying.

    There must be a story out there about newsboys back around the turn of the century that might deal with this topic? Maybe showing him a little bit of how much the Va. Tech shooter hurt people might help him understand that shooting isn’t like it looks in the video games and movies.

  23. When my brother was ten my parents couldn’t keep him from shooting his b.b. gun at cats, robins, etc. His he-men killed all my barbie dolls. When he was three he had a twisted bowel and was in the hospital for along time…after one particularly bad enema he looked at my mom and said “I’m going to cut the doctor’s head off and feed it to the birds.” She said she feared she was raising a serial killer.

    When I was in the first grade I wrote a story about a girl who had a brain full of worms which made her, excuse me here, a bit slow. I brought in a sketchy surgeon who chopped her head open and removed HALF of the worms ( the surgery was too tricky to remove all of them) makign her, thus, only partially slow. The end. The school psycologist was called and every one freaked out on me. My parents told themall to stuff it and said I just had a good imagination, and here I am. I think its best to let him write what he writes what he writes, while perhaps leading him to great writers as is age appropriate…maybe some hemingway short stories in the next several years, some Jack London, etc.
    I think William is going to be a master writer!

  24. Oh Courtney, a head full of worms! A half-head, I mean. Yes, I’m with you on writing what you want to write.

    Ann — I love your newsboy suggestion — in fact, that sounds like a wonderful story in itself.

    I have been thinking about that Virginia Tech guy, and whether there’s anything about him that might matter to us. My response has been to decide that I don’t want anything about him — his actions, his clearly unbalanced mind, his story, his history — to come near my house. I think that children know quite early on the difference between real violence and the violence they play at. It is only when something goes terribly wrong that they get that mixed up.

    Hello OP — Yes, writing up a storm over here in BloglilyLand.

  25. As a teacher of lots of boys in their early teens, I can tell you that your son’s bloodthirsty literary style is well-loved by that group. I have read many a tale of death and destruction (with cool gadgets! and very technical weapons!) from lots of lovely, well-balanced boys. It’s great that he is writing and even better that you are encouraging his efforts.

    Thanks for such a great post!

  26. I loved this – I’m going to adopt his spelling. I used to write terribly morbid things, until well into my teens – I remember choosing “Death” as a topic for some multimedia English assignment and writing some godawful poetry for it. I think that was more of a faux-goth stage though, rather than the joyous zest that young people have for literary violence.

  27. I’m confident Francine Prose never thought her advice would help in this kind of situation and for so young a writer. But I’m not so sure that William should try James Elroy just right now. Just not the right vocabulary I guess…

  28. I’d be willing to bet that there is a connection between the suarewords and violence that sometimes appears in children’s writing and the fact that kids have nightmares that are more vivid and scary than do most adults.

    Reading this post, I am reminded of one of the most important moments in my spiritual and intellectual development. I was thirteen or so when I went into the tiny library in my small hometown to check out Catcher in the Rye. I had it on good authority that the book contained lots of suarewords and that the word “booger” made an appearance in the first chapter. I wanted in on the action. But I was horrified to find that the volunteer behind the checkout counter was none other than my church’s stated clerk (the stated clerk is the top lay-leader in a Presbyterian Congregation). I was sure he would disapprove of me for wanting to read suarewords. I considered ditching the book and bolting for the door. Instead he took the book from me, did all of the stamping that they used to do in libraries, and gave the book back to me saying, “Ben, I’m glad you’re reading this book. Someday soon this book will be recognized as one of the greatest novels ever written.” God bless him.

  29. I love this blog. I would so grateful if someone came up with a list of writers to go to when other writers need help. Thanks!

  30. My dear Yen, I am so happy you do — and really pleased to see you here. Welcome. As for writers to go to when other writers need help, if you ever have any specific question or need, please do email me (it’s bloglily(at)yahoo(dot)com. I can see from your blog that you are in the midst of what must be an extraordinarily difficult time and I am wishing you all the best. xo, BL

    Ben, What a kind and gracious and wise adult that man is. I love knowing you wanted in on the action, and that it was literary in nature. (I didn’t know that booger shows up in Catcher in the Rye. Sounds like something I must re-read.)

    Yes, Smithereens, I’m sure she had a slighly older audience in mind. Still, if it works it works.

    Fencer, It certainly is innovative. After a stunned moment, I realized he was spelling swear that way because it rhymes with square, a word he was using in math that week.

    Hello Jess — Let’s hear it for the cool gadgets! And the very technical weapons! Yay boys (and any girls who care to join in the mayhem)!

  31. You have made my week. There’s hope for the world. When I was seven, the war was still on, and my mother came running down the driveway with a bucket of soapy water to wash away the swastika I had written with my chalk on the sidewalk. It must be progress if seven year olds are now writing novels, and without the need for censorship.

  32. This post reminded me of an experience in my (unfortunately) long distant past, when my mother was confronted by my writing. The story was one of anger, death and destruction. Her response to my efforts was to steer me towards the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. She appeared completely unconcerned about the content of my tale, but by gum, it was going to be grammatically correct, in addition to being spelled accurately and punctuated correctly!

    Much later in my life, I wrote a poem of which I was quite proud. I sent it to my older sister for her enjoyment. By return mail, I received my opus, with her suggestions for its correction and “improvements” in red ink. I was so traumatized by this that I did not write any more poetry for two years. I know I over-reacted, but the point is, when you are dealing with a fledgling writer, it is important to nurture the creativity and imagination. Too much criticism can stifle that.

  33. healing magic hands’ account of creative writing abuse should be posted in every super market and department store, not to mention every school, milk carton and postage stamp.
    It is an honor to be named after one of her cats. Believe it or not, I just took a picture. ten minutes ago, of a very smokey cat, a stray who meandered through my back yard to the back deck to sneak some of my own cats’ food. I let them say any ungrammatical thing they want.
    Bloglily, you have such nice and interesting friends.

  34. Bloglily, this post made me laugh very hard, not least because not so long ago I put a similar case to the thirtysomething boy that I live with re: the use of “suarewords” in the songs that he writes for his band–about such words being more powerful when used in moderation, and about the diminished prospect of commercial radio play of profanity-laden songs. Your son is way ahead of the game! And, incidentally, “suarewords” strikes me as a rather more sophisticated spelling of the word than the correct spelling. I hope to one day have the opportunity to read William’s work!

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