A few weeks ago, I had the delight of doing a radio interview/performance with Ken Wolverton for his Techno Sadhu Road Show. I dropped the F-bomb like ten times and almost got the radio station’s license revoked. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. I’d known Ken for decades, having met him when I was in my 20s and written a feature about his art for a newspaper I worked for. I was well-aware he had lots of problems with real bombs that blow people up but few problems with word bombs that, at worst, make some people uncomfortable. (That’s why I’m his friend. I like people who are more offended by nuclear bombs than F-bombs.)
His radio show was a hippie show in a hippie town, and I guess I wasn’t familiar enough with FCC regulations to understand they don’t make exceptions to their rules for hippie radio hosts in hippie towns. So there I was, blithely reading from my soon-to-be released novel, The Long Ride Home (which is veritably littered with F-bombs), when Ken started writhing miserably, making all kinds of fairly difficult to read hand gestures, and eventually, gesticulating wildly, as if he was being overrun by fire ants and dying before me in silent but very real agony.
I stared at him, the sheer horror of the knowledge that something was very, very wrong washing over me. But instinct kicked in. Before I was a writer of any note, I was an actor, and in moments like this, I fell back on my stage training, which was pretty much as natural to me as breathing. At this point in my life, the phrase “Never break character,” is engraved on my stem cells. I can handle just about anything the stage throws at me without letting the audience know something is wrong.
Like that time I was playing a baton twirling lunatic, with some pretty complex baton twirling blocking (at least for me—I’m notoriously clumsy) in Talking With, and the stage crew left a giant bench right in the middle of my stage. The bench was part of the monologue before mine, but I was supposed to have a clear stage so I could do all sorts of baton twirler stuff. I walked out on the stage in front of a crowd full of theatre goers, trying not to let on that looking at that bench was sending me into an active panic attack. Lightheadedness. Heart palpitations. Nausea. The whole bit. I could do none—NONE—of the blocking I had rehearsed for months. I had to improvise, come up with a whole new routine, on the spot. All while trying to bring emotional authenticity to my performance. I pulled it off, I think. I worked around the bench, delivering pieces of my monologue standing on top of it, as if it was meant to be there. I don’t know that I was good, per se, but I’m pretty sure the audience never knew I was madly reworking my blocking.
Or the time I was in the middle of one of my most important monologues as Meg in Places in the Heart, and an actor knocked on the door about ten minutes too early for his scene. I said, in my character’s Southern drawl, “Not right now! We’re having a conversation!” to the mistimed knocker and continued with my monologue undeterred. He came back a few minutes later on his scheduled entrance line, and the show went on.
Of course, there were other times that my, “Never break character,” rule didn’t go as well. Like when I was playing Doris in Same Time Next Year, and part of my blocking in a fight scene involved lobbing a decidedly hefty wooden hairbrush across the biggest stage I had ever worked on, at my costar Vern. During rehearsals, the director said, “Be careful not to hit him.” I laughed and said, “You have no idea how bad I am at sports. I couldn’t hit him if my life depended on it.” Most nights, I was right. I threw that hairbrush with fury, and it landed with a plop about two feet in front of me and fifty feet from Vern. But one night, I was really, really into the scene, and I lobbed the hairbrush with all the rage in my soul, and it flew all the way across that stage, which was roughly the size of South America, and slammed right into the side of poor Vern’s head, almost knocking him out. He visibly reeled. I stared in horror, something akin to the horror in which I stared at Ken that day in the studio, trying to keep it together, trying to stay in character. And then Vern freaking blew it for me. Rubbing his head, still swaying, he said, “Your aim’s gotten better.” The audience erupted into laughter. We were all in on the joke now, so I broke character and laughed my ass off. We rolled with it. The rest of our fight scene was played out with me being in a sort of gleeful frenzy. I guess I pulled off a new brand of crazy rage during that scene. Or more likely, I just sucked.
Anyway, I had to do my best to stay in character at those times, think on my feet, so I tried to do that as I read my novel, and Ken writhed in front of me, performing a modern dance number, looking very, very concerned. I thought maybe the place was on fire. I thought maybe Ken was having a heart attack. But I kept reading. We were on the air after all. I couldn’t break character. But Ken’s gesticulations just got crazier, so finally, I stopped at the end of a paragraph, trying to pretend it was all I had planned to read.
“Do you have more to read?” Ken asked. “I’m sorry I stopped you. You just can’t say those words on the air.” Do you know what I said back. (This is really smooth. You can see my actor training paying off in the next phrase.)
“Oh! I can’t say fuck on the air?” Because if I hadn’t gotten the radio station’s license revoked already, I needed to clinch it fast. Ken looked like he might throw up.
I continued reading after that. I don’t think I swore again. Though I can’t be sure.
To be honest, I’m not really aware of my swearing. I just think “fuck” is a word that people use sometimes. I don’t understand being offended by four letters that make up a word that rhymes with “duck,” a word that basically, if taken literally, indicates the sex act, which most of us, if not all, have in engaged in from time to time. I don’t understand being offended by four letters when the world is falling apart, when babies are being blown to smithereens in Syria and gay people are being herded into concentration camps to be beaten and murdered in Chetznia and a homicidal yam has taken over Washington and seems intent on blowing up our planet in an act of petty, pubescent, ego-fueled rage. Honestly, I feel like many of the people who are horribly offended by the word “fuck” have a misplaced set of priorities. (I’m not saying all people who choose not to use the word “fuck” have a misplaced set of priorities. People have good reasons for not using it too. I’m all for being able to say–or not say–whatever you want. I’m just saying if someone is more offended by that word than he or she is world hunger, he or she may need to reassess a few things.)
Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the common human being uses the word “fuck” pretty often. And as a writer, I want to speak to my human brothers and sisters in the language they use, the language that resonates with them. I always say that the only way you can make a true human connection is by reaching across, not down. If I am reaching down to my brothers and sisters, I’ve already lost the battle. Because whether I use the word “fuck” or not, I am not better than anyone. I am still racked with all the insecurities and rage and love and desire and beauty and brokenness that make all of us human. I’m not interested in faking it.
Did you know that the word “fuck” used to be an Irish term for sowing seed, as in farming, that in the beginning, it didn’t have any negative connotation, or any association with the sex act? At least that’s what my linguistics professor told me, way back when I was an undergraduate. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s always stayed with me. Fucking originally had nothing to do with sex.
But even if it’s not true, even if fucking always had to do with sex, why is it that we are so terrified of sex? I have a great deal of reverence for sex. I think it’s beautiful and yes, even sacred. I used to be pretty free and easy about it. Now, I won’t have sex with anyone, because throwing my sex around loosely cost me little pieces of my soul, the same way throwing my friendship around loosely, giving it to people who didn’t really value me, cost me pieces of my soul. I’m saving my body for someone that loves me, reveres me, protects me. I’m careful about giving it away now because it’s precious, and I love me. But that’s sort of the opposite of what people seem to think about sex. That it’s somehow dirty, in and of itself. That we should never talk about it, or think about it. That we should be ashamed because many of us (not all—I do understand and respect that there are beautiful asexual beings on our planet) are biologically predisposed to wanting it.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. A few months ago, I received a letter from a fan who told me she loved my work, but I was ruining the beauty of it by using the word “fuck,” turning people away from work that would otherwise be accessible to them. I didn’t write her back. Maybe I should have. But I get tired of moralistic judgments from people who don’t know me, who don’t understand who I am, who have no idea why I do the things I do. Yes, I studied and thought about words enough to pull of selling books to major publishers. (For reference, the odds of getting drafted into the NFL are higher.) But it never occurred to me to think about the ramifications of using the word “fuck” in my writing. Because I’m just a dumb bimbo who catapulted to the place she is without one deep thought in her pretty little head. Thank you for schooling me.
I felt the same when a man met me at a reading of Beauty of the Broken, bought my book, friended me on Facebook, proceeded to write me constantly, as if we were very close (he seemed to have me conflated with the protagonist of Beauty of the Broken), and post on my wall obsessively, and then wrote me in fury a few months later saying he couldn’t believe the way I sexualized myself on Facebook after all I’d been through (this man had no idea what I had or had not been through) and the way my “posse” played along with it. He was going to punish me by unfriending me. (On, no! Not that! Say it ain’t so.) Unfriend away, dude. I don’t want to be your friend. My sex is NONE of your business. (I blocked him.)
I’m not ashamed of being a sexual being. I refuse to play along with a culture that has defined women by their sexuality, that says that women fall into two categories–virgin or whores. What if my sex is my own? What if I can express the fact that I’m a sexual being—wear sexy clothes, own my sexuality—without it discounting me as person? What if I don’t give a flying FUCK what society has to say about my sexuality? What if I’ve decided to own my vagina, and my sexual urges, and my breasts, and all of it, as an act of love for myself? I’m fully aware that this will make people discount me, categorize me, demonize me. I. Don’t. Care. My sex was part of my birthright the day I was born on this planet. It’s not yours. It’s not society’s. It’s not men’s. It’s MINE.
Speaking of sex, if you haven’t noticed, I dress in a way that acknowledges my sexuality. Many people who love me deeply and honestly have expressed concern over this. I love those people back. I know their concern for me comes from a good place, and I thank them for loving me. On the other hand, many people who hate me deeply and honestly have used the way I dress as an excuse to vilify me, call me a slut and all that shamolee. You know how it goes.
But the truth is, I’ve put as much thought into the way I dress as I have into using the F-bomb in my work. I LOVE being a sexual being. I LOVE being a woman. I think the female form is gorgeous, and I feel lucky to be in possession of one so I can dress it up in all kinds of sparkles and spandex and lace. I’m not going to wear mumus because I live in a horribly fucked up culture that has decided that a sexual woman is a dumb woman. Guess what. I’m a sexual woman. I’m also really fucking smart. Guess what. I’m a sexual woman. I’m also really proud of who I am, and no, just because I own my sexuality doesn’t mean I’ll give it to anyone who asks for it. (But even if I would, is that anyone’s business but my own?) As a matter of fact, I won’t. As a matter of fact, as I said, I’m pretty fucking careful about who I sleep with these days. As in, I sleep with no one. Because, as I said, I love me, and I’m waiting for someone who loves me as much as I do. But I’m not throwing my sexuality under the bus so our fucked up culture, which has decided that female sexuality = evil, thinks I’m a good person.
If you think I’m evil because I say fuck, and because I show off my cleavage (I happen to have awesome cleavage), I don’t want to know you anyway. If you are so shallow and caught up in our culture’s bullshit that you can’t think past appearances, you aren’t really the kind of person that I’m interested in befriending.
I remember a director of a play I was in once said to me, “When I met you, I thought you were some Marilyn Monroe knock off bimbo, but then, I started talking to you, and you were smart, and you knew literature, and I said, ‘Wow, she’s pretty fucking amazing.’” Yes. That is, at least in part, why I am what I am. I like to challenge people’s preconceived notions of femininity and the stifling categories into which it falls. Because maybe next time that director sees a woman who looks like me, who owns her sexuality in spite of a culture that is determined to call her a whore if she does so, he will withhold judgement. He will talk to the woman and find out how fucking amazing she is instead of categorizing her based on the way she presents sexually.
Whew. Ok. Glad I got that off my chest. In spite of my behavior, Ken invited me back, this time to cohost the show, on the condition that I would “restrain my rebellious tongue frothing with unmentionables.” I love that description of me. I told him I was going to put it on my resume. I do have a rebellious tongue. This world needs rebellious tongues. It needs people who will say “fuck you” to the powers that be. Because frankly, as is, the powers that be are making sure we all die without living. And as of late, it seems to me they are working very hard to simply make sure we all die.
I will be cohosting the Techno Sadhu Road Show this month (dates and times forthcoming). I will do everything in my power to avoid using that list of unmentionable words that I realized after the radio interview hung very prominently over Ken’s head. I don’t know how I missed the sign. After my reading, Ken said he was pretty sure I had checked every word off the list. I had. But this time, I will refrain from saying “fuck” out of respect for Ken and his show, not because I agree with the FCC.
Turns out, I am a rebellious woman frothing with unmentionables. I want to embody the parts of self that we’ve decided are dirty. Because they aren’t really dirty. I want to mention the things we are afraid to mention. Let’s talk about it, for fuck’s sake. Let’s talk.
P.S. Here is the radio show in question, which Ken titled The Tawni Waters Special. I’m special. My mommy says so, and so does Ken. So there.