Re: On Honesty and Self-Censorship

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My friend who is a great author, editor and publisher posted the above blog this morning which really got me thinking. One, I’m a bit shocked that writers are really afraid of government surveillance to that degree. While I think it’s definitely a bad road we’re going down, I don’t think there’s a danger right now of getting singled out for research or having written something in fiction. In fact, artists are a pretty protected class in this society, getting away with a lot of things that “mundanes” wouldn’t, if you look at the news following actors, musicians, etc.  Do not be afraid, my friends! And support each other! But that’s not the reason I chose to write this post.

As interesting of a poll as that was, I instantly honed in on the second point of the blog – about artists self-censoring coarse language, sexual situations and whatnot.  I balked nearly immediately at the premise. We have LESS of that going on than any time in history. You couldn’t get a book published a generation ago if it dropped a few F-bombs. Now people say it all over the place to the point where the word’s almost lost its meaning.  That said, I bet you’ll be surprised at the conclusion of this blog. Keep reading!

So the premise is a conscious decision to adjust one’s art for an editor, a company, public consumption, a name. Where does one say “this is a good idea and it’s not hurting my artistic integrity” vs. “this is a bad idea and it’s killing my story.”?

I personally don’t believe swearing adds much to a story. In my professional life I have to communicate without dropping f-bombs, so it’s unrealistic to have all of my characters running around in different situations doing just that unless they’re teenagers or not in a professional environment.  It can be realistic at that point, but does it add or detract from the story to say “screw you!” instead? I can’t see how it would.  Same with fading to black instead of really writing out detailed explicit acts. The bottom line is if you push the PG-13 boundary, you’re cutting off a large portion of potential readers both from those who are on a more conservative side of the moral scale, and younger readers.  Now if you’re writing horror or some other genre that the target audience would never be there, obviously it’s something to disregard, but for the rest of us, the vast majority of storytellers out there, thinking about this and cutting out unnecessary vulgarity is a good thing, and a smart decision.

I watched a documentary on Fleetwood Mac’s recording of the Say You Will album last night, and Lindsey Buckingham had these very grand and noble ideas of what he wanted the album to be. They cut to Stevie Nicks who said (somewhat paraphrasing but this is close): “Look, we all love Lindsey and want him to obtain his hopes and dreams, but this isn’t just some art project.”

That’s the key. If you’re trying to be a professional, and your goal is to support yourself and obtain sales, you DO have to keep editors, publishers, distributors and audience in mind when pursuing your craft. It is your artistic idea, but it’s “not just some art project,” you’re doing it to be a professional, and make a living at what you’re doing. It’s sensible to be mindful edit yourself, or as Dario would say, censor yourself, in some situations with your audience in mind.

Now there absolutely has to be a creative line that’s drawn at the same time, where you keep your integrity and say “this is crucial to the story, I will not bend here, because I MUST tell this story.” And as much as when I went into writing this, I wanted to rebut Dario’s point and say emphatically “Darn tootin’ right you shouldn’t swear or talk about mommy and daddy time!” I found that I have been struggling all week with EXACTLY what Dario’s talking about.

On Sunday, I came up with a story, that the entire nature of the story will likely be rejected and perhaps scorned by the target audience I’ve been trying to reach with my comic and my last couple of books. The whole concept will offend those who I want to be my loyal audience, likely piss them off and potentially scare them away from me. I’m waffling on whether to spend the hundreds of hours crafting a novel with that plot, theme and moral in mind because of that very fact. I also considered taking a pen name for it so I can disassociate my other work from it. And it took Dario’s post to realize this but that waffling, that idea of taking a pen name so I can hide myself from my story…

It’s disingenuous. I can’t do it. And I have to write this story.

A triumph for creative expression, but it’s very, very dangerous for the brand I’m building with my name.

So where do you draw the line? Where do you say “this is not just an art project, this is my livelihood” and when do you say “I’m going to go for it, be true to myself and put this out there?” At the end of the day, that has to be up to you. Seek advice so you know what you’re getting yourself into for whatever market you’re targeting, but don’t let anyone tell you what to do, or what to say.



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2 thoughts on “Re: On Honesty and Self-Censorship

  1. Jon, excellent post, and thank you for the very kind words. Isn’t it amazing how sometimes we get just the right nudge at just the right moment. Call it coincidence, grace, whatever you well…it happens. Most of all, major kudos for the decision to be true first of all to yourself. I don’t believe a real artist ultimately has any choice, but it takes courage, especially when commercial realities and even personal beliefs may run counter to that.

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