How the C-word made me a braver writer

The trouble began when I realized I’d used the C-word.

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Published May 10, 2014   Updated May 31, 2021, 8:18 am CDT


The trouble began when I realized I’d used the C-word.

I’d written a novella I was excited about. I’d edited it for publication with a new publishing venture I loved, I’d proofed it with the copyeditor, and at no point during any of this did it occur to me that I was setting myself up.

I’ve published novels, short stories, and essays. When I write, I’m a ventriloquist. I think only about the character whose story I’m telling: how does he say this? What words might she use to describe her situation? It’s my job to write in the accent and with the humor or tenderness or anger of whomever I’m trying to bring to life on the page. And when I’m doing that work right, I have no sense of embarrassment, nor any instinct for self-protection. I’m just following that line of words, trying to figure out where a character is headed.

The trouble, if any, comes when a piece is published. That’s when I need to stand up in front of an audience and read my own words. At which point any self-consciousness I might feel about anything I’ve written—whether it’s a foray into political controversy or a sex scene—is something I need to get over in a hurry.

Which brings me to the word “cunt.”

My novella, I Was Herebegins like so: a woman named Charlotte, who isn’t particularly well educated and who has struggled to put her adult life together after being sexually abused as a child, has been asked to serve as a character witness in the trial of the man who abused her two decades ago. While her own childhood abuse was hushed up and never prosecuted, her assailant is now in jail awaiting trial for the recent rape of two young girls. Charlotte has agreed to testify against him—but soon she begins receiving obscene and threatening text messages from an unknown person.

So that’s how the novella opens: with the buzzing of the cell phone signaling the arrival of that first text message. And a few pages and a few text messages later, the word ‘cunt’ makes its debut.

In fact, the novella features just that one “cunt,” though there are f-bombs aplenty, as well as a bunch of more creative swears (the choicest of which were gifted to me by a Long Island police officer I interviewed for my research). All of this is a bit of a departure for me—I’ve generally written about characters who speak more like I do, and my recent work on a historical novel has meant my characters are more likely to say ‘kiss my parliament’ than its modern equivalent. Until I wrote this novella, most of my work didn’t involve a lot of what my beloved and very proper grandmother used to refer to as “Language” (as in, My bridge partner and I walked out of that movie because it contained too much Language).

This novella, though, turned out different. The characters and their circumstances led to some pretty intense moments. That didn’t concern me while I was writing it; I don’t think of myself as particularly prim about these things. I have a long and contented relationship with several key expletives, though I usually reserve them for driving in Boston without my kids.

Still, the word ‘cunt’ isn’t part of my repertoire. In fact, it’s a word I never experimented with even in high school, when Language was the epitome of freedom and independence. I don’t think my discomfort with the word is due to my admittedly over-developed sense of embarrassment, though I’m certainly capable of my share of dissolving-into-giggles immaturity. I don’t use the word ‘cunt’ because the word has always struck me as angry in a particularly anti-woman way—more so, somehow, than other derogatory words specific to women. “Cunt” is so often spoken with a malicious edge that for me, saying the word would feel like amplifying that verbal violence. And while I could surely join those who have done a feminist reclamation of “cunt,” it’s never been high on my personal to-do list.

At the time when I was first asked to give a reading from my novella, I was staying in Jerusalem. I’d been offered a two-and-a-half-month teaching gig at Bar Ilan University, and my family and I gratefully accepted an invitation to live with dear friends. It was a living arrangement that came with its share of chaos—our friends have five kids and a dog—but it was the loving, fun-filled kind of chaos.

And one, I should say, that came with a lot of Language. The friend with whom we were living in Jerusalem is Rabbi Susan Silverman. You might have heard of her outspoken and warm-hearted political activism in Israel—or you might know of her as the rabbi-sister of comedian Sarah Silverman.

While Susan is a rabbi, she and her famously foul-mouthed sister share pretty much the same vocabulary—a truth my kids encountered on the way back from the airport, when Susan dropped two f-bombs in rapid succession as she completed the highway merge, and then, with a quick glance at my kids in the rearview, informed them apologetically that this is just how she talks, and she can’t help it, and they’d need to get used to it for the next couple of months.

My kids, I should say, are used to my comparatively straitlaced style of parenting. Never have I seen such wide-eyed, overjoyed children as in the backseat of that car.

With Susan’s family in Jerusalem, my kids were exposed—often simultaneously—to political activism, swearing, and humor, all in a climate of love. “Language” was never used in anger in that household—on the contrary, it often surfaced in those parenting moments when love for one’s child feels so bright it’s like the sun: unbearable to look at directly. Then Susan might summon one of her kids with an adoring look and a whispered Come here, you little piece of shit. My kids were agog at this new vista of adult behavior; my eight-year-old turned to Susan at one point, drop-jawed, and announced, You are a swear-a-tron!

Privately relieved that their inevitable exposure to this new vocabulary was happening in a context of humor and not anger, I told them: Enjoy listening, just don’t think it means you get to do it. To my amazement, they didn’t—not even the time my son, erasing a mistake in his writing assignment, muttered oh, poop, and Susan turned to him with mock sternness: Don’t say “poop.” It’s offensive. You’re being raised wrong. Say “shit,” okay? That’s “shit.”

Which brings me back to the C-word.

The reading I’d been invited to give was to take place in a beautiful studio in an orchard on the Mediterranean coast. But as the date neared, it dawned on me: if I were to read from the early parts of the book (and beginnings often make the best readings), I would need to say the word ‘cunt’ in front of an audience.

A word I dislike and in fact had never uttered, combined with my general tendency to go red in the face over the too-specifically-anatomical: a perfect storm.

In moments of true panic, one confesses one’s problem to one’s rabbi.

Susan, I have a problem. It’s the C-word.

My child, you’ve come to the right place.

Susan wasted no time in announcing that we would have a multi-step training program. Phoneme by phoneme, I would learn to pronounce the word “cunt” without turning red and falling off the stage. Realizing quickly, though, how poor a student she had on her hands (I believe I even balked at saying the word to her in the presence of a housekeeper who spoke no English), Susan offered to stand in the corner of the room where I gave my reading and split up any difficult words with me, Electric-Company-style. (Remember?)

Nothing doing. I could say it in front of Susan, but if other people were around, I choked. It made no sense. If I could write a word, shouldn’t I be able to say it? Couldn’t I trust that the audience would know I was speaking for a character and not for myself?

Clearly my weird uber-delicacy called for extreme measures. Ushering me away from the kids one afternoon—which is how I knew I was in for it—Susan found a quiet spot and proceeded to show me this song by her sister. For, as she said, training purposes. (Definitely not suitable for the workplace, though I guess that goes without saying.)

It worked, sort of. I couldn’t get the song out of my head and found myself singing it at inappropriate moments.

But I still dreaded my reading.

And then—lo and behold—I looked more closely at the manuscript of the novella. I realized that the most dramatically interesting reading I could give did indeed begin with the opening passages, but then hopscotched from there (skipping over the C-word scene) to include two other sections, including one in which a teenaged boy visits his father in prison.

Deliverance! And with only the tiniest whiff of disappointment in myself, I traipsed happily away from the challenge.

The reading was on a stormy December night—unusual weather with high winds and flooded streets, and a snowfall that would ultimately shut down Jerusalem for the better part of a week. Near the coast, though, the roads were passable and the crowd was intrepid enough to show up. I reached the venue and got up on the little stage, still rationalizing: OK, I’d shirked a challenge, but I had solid literary reasons for picking this reading. And with no C-word, this would be a cinch. The pages I’d be reading, which I’d finished selecting that afternoon, contained nothing but a bunch of f-bombs and a few other R-rated phrases. In truth, in my relief at skipping the C-word scene, and amid all the last-minute fuss over possible flooding and road closures, I hadn’t looked over my planned reading as carefully as I usually would.

After a short opening Q & A with the audience, I began reading. I reached the first f-bomb and felt the audience register the jolt.

This wasn’t a particularly religious crowd, but neither did it feel like an anything-goes audience. I was quite suddenly aware of being in a quiet citrus orchard by the Mediterranean, not a hard-edged Manhattan venue with sirens in the background. As I continued reading, I was dismayed to discover that the scenes I’d selected contained a whole lot more f-bombs than I’d realized—and in addition to those, one more colorful vulgarity that I hit like a pothole. Because while I might be the author of this text, it turned out that I hadn’t been expecting the impact of the spoken words any more than the audience had. I’ve given plenty of readings, but this was a first for me: I stammered through that line before getting my bearings again.

I’m pretty sure it ended up all right. After that little mishap I let the story carry me and eventually stopped worrying about the language, and I could feel the audience doing the same. We braved those expletives together, the audience and I—helped along by the moderator, who began the follow-up Q&A with a gentle As you could tell, the vocabulary in that segment was quite different from Rachel’s own vocabulary.

I left that event realizing that, unless I planned to bring a Silverman sister with me every time I read from the novella, I had a little growing up to do.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera defined kitsch as the absolute denial of shit. For a writer to avoid kitsch, I think, she has to be willing to name it all: shit to shinola. Cunt, too.

Yet while I might have been living up to that artistic standard on the page, I was doing a pretty lousy job of it in person.

Over and over again, the writing life teaches the same lesson to any writer paying attention: this isn’t about me. Writing, if I’m doing it right, has nothing to do with my ego. Nor is it about whatever sense of delicacy or propriety I think I ought to maintain (sorry, Grandma). The best writers get out of the way of their own characters, leave their own hangups aside, and write like hell. And, one hopes, ultimately feel comfortable reading that work aloud. Censoring one’s own characters out of embarrassment would be just as bad as pumping up their vulgarities for shock value. The fact that some might be repelled by a given word is as irrelevant as the fact that others might think I’m a prude to avoid it. Good writing means standing up, simply and without fanfare, for what you see: the real world as it is.

In conclusion: cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt.

And if by chance you put your ear to your computer screen and overhear the faint sound of someone stumbling through a speech, pay no attention. That’s just me learning to read this blog post out loud.

This article was originally featured on Medium and republished with permission. Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, as well as the new novella I Was Here (currently available as an e-book). Her essays and short fiction have appeared in the New York Times, on National Public Radio, and elsewhere.

Photo by Gwyn Michael/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 10, 2014, 11:00 am CDT