Why I Used the F-Word in My First Book

I’ve been wanting to write this pestersome post for almost a year now. But I’ve also really wanted to avoid it. I’ve wanted to pretend like “the issue” didn’t exist or matter and, like, whatever. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Avoidance works for a while. Sometimes, avoidance works for a long while. After a long while, though, avoidance hurts more than action. It distracts, it obsesses, and it cripples. And so, I think it’s finally time to write this pestersome post.

I want to explain why I used the f-word in my first book. (For the faint of sight or heart, be warned that the f-word makes an appearance in this post.)

The F Word

Photo courtesy Edmond Lok-Yin Wong, Creative Commons

Truthfully, I was as shocked as some of you were. When I first started writing Struggle Central, I never set out to swear.

Me? Curse? In my first published work? And of all the awful words to use, the f-word, in a book about my life? My Christian life?

Alas. When you start writing about struggles like shame and inferiority and homosexuality, a messy vocabulary emerges. Like mold spores to overstocked bread.

My book originally contained about twice as many swear words as the finished deal. When I let others review it before publication, they suggested several instances where my swearing was unnecessary. I could get my point across just as easily, if not better, without it.

So, I listened to their advice. I edited out those words.

Of the wordy-dirds that remained, though, I still scrutinized over them. Draft after draft, I wrestled and wondered whether this was really me. After all, the “me” in real life doesn’t swear (often). And what would my mostly Christian audience think?

Here’s the thing I’m learning about writing, though.

If you don’t write true to your story, fictional or nonfictional, why write it at all?

Yes, I could’ve published this book without utilizing a single swear word. None of those offended Christians would have contacted me.

And yet I can’t help thinking something would have been inextricably lost. Because for those few offended souls, there have been many more resounding affirmations. People who did appreciate my authenticity as I held very little back.

Nonetheless, the decision to use the granddaddy of all despicable words did not come lightly. This was the scene:

I was at camp training two summers ago, trapped in the longest two weeks of my life, trapped even further in lifeguard training on a dock in the middle of a lake surrounded by other young men like me and yet not at all like me. What came so naturally to them was not for me.

Forget the simple task of swimming seven laps like all the other guys.

Forget the simple task of diving fifteen feet down like all the other guys.

Forget even the simple task of being shirtless, exposed, compared to all the other guys for 6 hours a day.

Traumatic lifeguarding episode aside, I felt like such a loser. I was five years older than most everyone, I didn’t know anybody, I was quiet, I was awkward, and all the while my secret struggles with shame and sexuality were spiraling beyond containment.

Above all, I didn’t know how to be a guy like all the other guys. I should have learned how to be a man a decade ago like everyone else. Instead, I felt like a toddler just learning to stand and staggering staggering staggering with every daring step forward.

Lifeguard training was a snapshot of my 25-year existence, surrounded by two dozen shirtless confident manly men who so easily did what they’ve known to do their whole lives — be men.

Sure, I was outwardly a man. Inwardly, though, I was something else entirely. A boy cut-off from all the other boys. A boy who resonated more with the girls. A boy who desperately wanted to enter that forbidden masculine inner circle.

It’s partly what beckoned me to work at a boys’ camp in the first place: to be a man among other men.

I tried to build up the scene. I tried to sculpt that “struggle cesspool” as the “inverted climax” of my story. The lowest of my quarter-century lows.

The f-word had nothing to do with my inability to dive into frigid murky water or even lifeguarding in general. The outside elements only triggered what was bubbling burning breaking inside.

More than anything, I just wanted to be a man. A fucking man like everyone else on that dock. I felt like I’d failed the test. Again. Like before. Like always.

Hopefully, you saw that; hopefully, you understood. I’m certain some, many, of you did. I also know some, many, of you did not. I’m sorry if I “failed.” I’m sorry if you were offended.

I’m not sorry for using the f-word in my book, though. I thought about it, prayed about it, spoke earnestly with others about it, and when I went to bed every night, I just couldn’t see myself not using it.

Yes, it was risky; yes, it was stressful. But that kind of desperation was how I felt at the time. I couldn’t find any other way to convey the emotional significance of that scene: a “top-5” significant scene in the overarching story of my life.

Ultimately, I never want to shy away from where my writing is taking me. Even if the journey takes me through fields of uncomfortable words.

This life, this journey — it’s not all roses and sweet aromas. There are thorns, too.

I don’t ever want to neglect the thorns.

Life is still beautiful though, isn’t it? The messy and the miraculous, together? Sometimes it’s impossible to capture the unique beauty of it all; sometimes, there are no words.

And sometimes, there are f-words.

  • transparentthought13

    I think that was actually one of the comments I made when I first read your book. The word just fit the situation, and I respected that you actually had the guts to use it. I’ve typed it out in several posts only to go back and edit it out before publishing. Like you said, life is beautiful and wonderful and amazing. But sometimes, it’s not quite as rosy, and there just isn’t another word to adequately express what’s going on inside.

  • Andy

    But avoiding things means I don’t have to deal with it and doesn’t exist! Oh wait… No it doesn’t… *sigh*
    I know I definitely appreciated the raw honesty in that part of the book. Well, the raw honesty was throughout the whole book actually but I do remember that part specifically being very impactful. It’s funny how one word can garner so much attention, good or bad.

  • foglight11

    I remember reading this and was surprised, because I didn’t think you knew that word. In all seriousness though, curse words can have several effects. I have been called a lot of words. F Words, in fact. It’s always effective, good or bad. In this case I thought it was so powerful in expressing vulnerability. Swearing, especially from those who rarely swear, shows such a vulnerability in that no other word can represent how extreme a feeling or emotion is. It is raw. And in this case it was powerful.

    • Me, the Wandering Wordsmith, not know a word?? HOGWASH.

      In all seriousness, though, I appreciate the affirmation, Allan. Glad and encouraged that that scene could resonate with you.

  • Rebecka

    I really appreciate that you don’t neglect the thorns, Tom.

  • Jeffrey Jackson

    I have yet to read your book; but in all honesty, as a writer myself, I realize that conveying the emotion behind your words (or art) is a necessity – even if the extent is deemed controversial. This is the case in all art, considering art is the outward representation of an inward object. In your case, the F-word allows the readers a window into empathy towards your agitating struggle against insecurity for who you are at that very moment.
    I look forward to reading your book, your courage, talent, and faith in Christ is an inspiration to me.

    • Hey Jeffrey, thanks for the comment! I always love hearing from new readers, especially fellow writers. I also appreciate your insight into my decision to employ the F-word. You basically hit the nail right on the head. Thank you so much for all the kind words.

      I’d be honored if you read my book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you finish! Much love, brother.