Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Language, language

Welcome to #askthestoryteller, a weekly column where I answer your questions about storytelling, performance, craft and narrative. If you have a question you'd like me to address please comment below or email me with the heading Ask the storyteller.

This week's question comes from Ward R. It's a great question and one with several facets, so I'm going to include the whole question pretty much verbatim before getting down to business.

Been enjoying your series, Ask a Storyteller, both because of the answers you give and the discussions it sparks. A lot of the questions or things I ponder have to do with generational aspects of storytelling; here's one of those.

I cuss in a fair amount of my storytelling. Partly that's because it's authentic to who I am as a person, and storytelling is, to some extent, about relating to an audience in an authentic fashion. Partly that's because I tell stories that would be hard to tell without using profanity - the story calls for it. In all cases, I believe it's an artistically sound decision. When I take a gig, I ask for language restrictions and give the curator a solid sense of the work I do, so I also consider professional concerns around language.

Nonetheless, the most common piece of feedback I get from members of the older generation of tellers is that I ought not use profanity. Not that a particular piece of profanity was a poor choice of words, but that profanity in general ought not be featured in storytelling. I've lost friends from that community over this particular issue.

We accept the role of profanity in literally every other word-based art form. Shakespeare cussed; Ursula K. LeGuin cussed. Bukowski cussed; Sinatra cussed. The blanket statement that profanity has no place in storytelling seems baldly preposterous. What are your feelings on profanity in storytelling? What are the origins of this anti-profanity aesthetic, and why does it persist?

I love this question. Generational issue have been around since there were generations and are present in every aspect of human life. I imagine Australopithecus parents shaking their heads of the outrageous antics of their young.

As always, this answer reflects my own experience and biases.

Ward, not too long ago I was one of the young new tellers. I was frustrated that storytelling didn't seem to reflect a broad range of experience (this was before slams were prevalent) and I wanted to hear stories that included me, as we all do. So I began to tell stories that included swear words, sex (and were sometimes R rated), observations about age, race, weight and gender. I was told that I was inappropriate and was sullying the art. Like you, I was told this by older storytellers. I struggled with it, because I was telling authentically, just like you, but these were my respected elders. Ultimately I made the same decision you have; I still tell those stories (and more extreme versions sometimes) but I make sure it's appropriate to the audience. I check with the curator and I make my own decision in the moment. Kids in the audience change my content though I have been known to talk with parents when they bring children to a show that was advertised as adults-only. Every venue I have ever run has a free-speech clause, asking only that tellers let the audience know if they are including PG-13 or greater content so the audience can decide if they want to hear it.

This is my experience. This should tell you my general feelings on the matter. I think you're handling it correctly by being up front about who you are, what you tell and what your audience should expect. I assume you don't swear when telling to little kids and so on, that you have good common sense. Now, onto generational issues and what you might do about it.

You ask about my feelings on profanity in storytelling and the origins/persistence of this aesthetic. It's easier for me to think this out as a list, so here we go.

  1. Where did this aesthetic come from? Generational issues have always and will always exist. A few examples: Video games, rock n roll, stockings, brassieres, hip hop, Beethoven, Italian food in America and so on. What's more, it's not only generational. It's cultural, too. Not all older people will be offended by harsh language. Not all younger people won't be. I think it's part of being human. It's very easy to decide that we have the moral high ground and be shocked when someone disagrees with you. 
  2. It will persist because different people have differing moral senses. I am reminded of this every day on Facebook and Twitter. People I care about deeply may hold opinions I find repugnant. I'm sure I offend others regularly.
  3. Ultimately it's your audience and their reaction that matters. The older tellers who say profanity is inappropriate probably aren't telling to the same audiences you are. If they are, then the audience gets something of value from both of your styles. I would urge you to keep telling your stories in your way; we need diversity of voices. Honor the wisdom of the older tellers by listening to them, learning from them and being grateful for all that they have done. And keep in mind that some day you will be one of the older tellers and will then have the opportunity to delight in being startled by what your younger colleagues say.
  4. Let the audience self-censor. I make sure my curator and my audience know what they are in for. I absolutely believe in free speech. I also believe that everyone can choose what they are exposed to. Let your audience know you use salty language so they can decide if they want to hear it or not.
  5. Use your common sense. If you are hired to tell to pre-schoolers you might want to tell stories that don't include swear words. Give parents forewarning (as I mentioned above) if they show up at an adult oriented gig with their kids. If you're telling to 90 year old nuns mind your manners. Common sense goes a long way.
  6. Authenticity matters. If the language makes sense in the context of the story and who you are then it belongs there. I would never, ever ask a teller to be anything but authentic. 
  7. Ask yourself why the friendships ended. Was it only over a disagreement about language or was it deeper? This isn't a personal advice column (I'd recommend Dan Savage (especially if you like salty) or Ask Amy if you're looking for that) but a friendship that ends over a disagreement about swearing might have had other structural faults. Personally, I value my friendships with those whom I have radical disagreements. As long as we both can talk about it civilly and recognize there is at least personal value in the other's opinion, we learn from one another. And sometimes those disagreements make it clear that the friendship can't continue.
  8. I want to end this list by saying fk'em if they can't take a joke, only with the word spelled out. But I am choosing to censor myself because I don't know who is reading, I want to respect all my potential readers and you get the point anyway.

I hope this helps. I'd love to know what you think. I'm looking forward to answering more questions next week on #askthestoryteller.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. First to let you know I am an older storyteller - perhaps even an elder. Cussing to me is different than swearing and, as a listener I will accept cussing or "salty" language if appropriate to the story and the setting. But swearing is never acceptable. That said, often cussing is used as a crutch. The English language has such richness that with creativity you may be able to paint a more vivid word picture, often with increased humor, by widening your word choices. Last observation, the repeated use any word substitutes for "ers," "and thens," and "you knows." The occasional use of "salty" language can be very effective while the constant repetition often causes the listener to tune out the repetitive word(s) and be lost to the story.

  2. About right on target. I know many well-educated, people-focused performers and teachers who can't go two sentences without swearing.

    Adult shows are adult shows, PG13 is some swearing and Family is family. We've lost the battle of dirty words- every 5th grader knows the starter set anyway.

    And, as far as nuns go, you haven't worked with many :-). Gawd, can they tell a dirty joke and gripe about people in very diverse, err, language. Peace.

  3. Hi Laura and Friends, For six years I have hosted Speak Up Spoken Word Open Mic every Wednesday evening. We meet in Lynn, MA. There is a ditty, "Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin, you never come out the way you come in." With that in mind we (Don White, my partner and the creator of Speak Up) came up with the three obscenity rule for folks on the open mic. Now you don't have to cuss if you don't want to but that rule lets people know this is not a kid's event. There are times when a well place F-bomb is just right. I know of one person who doesn't come because our language is too salty for her. Hey, we are not going to be everything to everybody. We can be who we are though, our real swearing selves. For the 30+ regulars who come every Wednesday they sure enjoy all the words shared from the microphone, cussing and all. A little common sense goes a long way.

  4. Also, know your audience. The first time our local storytelling festival hosted a noted bilingual storyteller, he told a hilarious personal story, authentic to his experience, about teaching his grandmother English wrong. The next year he performed in our local fringe festival, told the same story, just as hilarious, but the words he taught his grandmother were profanity. To me, it was more hilarious. Both versions were authentic (I'm fairly certain that the profanity-laced one was more truthful), both versions played to their audiences. (I'm the sole member of the union of the two sets of audiences in this Venn diagram)


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