Telling the Truth

My mother, God rest her, didn't approve of profanity or any such talk; she called it "the language of the ignorant." This did not, however, keep her from yelling "Oh shit!" if she burned the roast or nailed her thumb a good one while hammering a picture-hook in the wall. Nor does it preclude most people, Christian as well as heathen, from saying something similar (or even stronger) when the dog barfs on the shag carpet or the car slips off the jack...If you substitue "Oh sugar!" for "Oh shit!" because you're thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader - your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story.
- Stephen King, On Writing

I used to be a pastor. I'm not anymore. Oh, I do preach every once in a while and I always appreciate the invitation because I do enjoy it. But just every once in a while. Of the many things I've realized since leaving the pastorate to become a rather obscure, never-published writer is that people talk a certain way in religious contexts and another way in what we refer to as life. There was a language spoken on the church grounds or in the church building and then there was another tongue altogether that was voiced on the golf course or canoeing down the river. It was always a saddening thing to me when, for example, a man would try and talk with me about his marriage but due to the Legion of Decency and you-don't-talk-that-way-around-the-minister, he would struggle like Sissyphus to share what was really on his heart. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this phenomenon in her wonderful memoir Leaving Church. She's not a pastor anymore either.

Of course, you might reply Well, people shouldn't talk that way. And I would reply, Well, but they do. I'm in no way talking about the let's-see-how-many-times-I-can-use-the-F-word. That's a jr. high mentality which, unfortunately, often extends beyond the jr. high years. No, I'm talking about the truth of how people act and talk. That's the point of this little Monday morning type-o-rama; truthfully representing people in fiction writing. And as old pop Stegner said: "We write fiction to tell the truth."

My mother has never, to my knowledge, used profanity and for me, as a writer, to write about her and include salty language in her dialogue would be to falsely represent her. In other words, I'd be lying. Not to mention the fact that I would be quickly written out of the will. I may be hanging on by a thread as it is. However, an old mentor of mine named Edna was just as much a christian lady as my mother, but she did, from time to time, use colorful language. My favorite expression of her's was goodhellamighty. I'd never heard it used before and I've never heard it used since. But when I write about a character like Edna, whether I'm literally talking about her or not, I'm at liberty to use that word. I'm telling the truth. To not do so breaks that contract Mr. King talks about between writer and reader.

Since not being a pastor anymore, I've come to believe there's an unspoken contract between people, whether they're fiction writers or casual readers or ministers or mothers. It's the contract of truth. And people know when it's broken, due to the Legion of Decency or any other Legion. People know when other people are telling the truth. Not always, but most of the time. I've heard some sermons, over the years, from other pastors and thought damn! he's not telling the truth. I read some blogs, from time to time, and think goodhellamighty! she's not telling the truth. And I hear the words that fall out of my mouth, every once in a while, and realize oh sugar! I didn't tell the truth.

1 comment:

  1. I am definitely in this truth-telling straddle because my husband, who is not walking a believer, will smell churchy b.s. a mile a way if I try to pull it. And yet...I find that some of that church-speak is becoming me-speak, so to not use it would be untruthful, too. E.g. "That was a God thing..."

    But I have to of the yuckiest things about going to church is giving up my heavy usage of colorful metaphors.