Thursday, November 21, 2013

Aah! The Good Old Days



When I first began to write fiction in the 1990’s I experimented with contemporary fiction for a while, but soon abandoned it as I was forever hitting moral dilemmas that I felt ill-equipped to handle. I was new to the writing game and really those early manuscripts that sit at the bottom of one of my filing cabinet drawers are slightly embarrassing. It wasn’t long before I decided to write period-drama-romance. I had become a fan of Jannette Oke who ironically wrote about pioneering women, and she herself was pioneering the genre of Christian Romance. I decided to follow her lead and write in that easy-read style.

One of the reasons I felt safe writing ‘old-fashioned’ stories was that the period context allowed me to embrace my faith, the Christian values and ideals that were comfortable for me to work with. The ideals of the late 19th and early 20th century were such that my characters didn’t feel a need to swear and were somewhat bound by the Victorian moral codes that I myself still believed in. If they were tempted by sexual sin, it was a problem for them and had to be resolved as a problem. If they wanted to use coarse language, it was frowned upon and seen as unacceptable. The society of that time kept the rules for me and that made it easier for me to write.


Since those early days I have written two contemporary dramas. The first one I felt I was always bumping into these moral dilemmas and was tiptoeing around situations, trying to sound realistic without compromising what I myself believed. A couple of times my characters swore. They had to swear. ‘Golly Gosh’ simply wasn’t going to cut it to express the depth of anger and despair.
This past year I have been sitting in university lectures doing Arts subjects and my hair has practically curled with some of the language that is used. What was somewhat disturbing for me is that no one else batted an eyelid while I was in knots. You might laugh, but in one class we were required to read each other’s screenplays out loud. I was chosen a number of times to read certain parts, and on more than one occasion I was given lines that had some very uncomfortable language in it. I quickly calculated how useful it would be to storm out of the room in a self-righteous display of disapproval and decided it wouldn’t be useful at all. The feel of these words in my mouth was rather horrendous. It didn’t feel right and I’m sure it didn’t sound right, but nobody seemed to notice.

The truth is I have lived in a lovely Christian bubble for most of my life. Christian family, friends, church, Christian Schools and work associates. It has all been very nice and comfortable and not confronting. I have been aware of the four letter words, and have heard them a time or two. I’ve always wondered what the fascination is when deciding what words would be the best to use as expletives. Bodily fluids and excretements, sexual organs and sexual acts seem to be the criteria for choosing a new swear word. None of these words really have anything to do with the emotions or the sentences being spoken, but as far as popularity goes, the F word is now firmly fixed in our western vernacular, followed closely by the S word and a vast array of other four letter words from these categories.
Writing for the Christian market has meant that I have avoided coarse language as much as possible, and really I’m not a fan of coarse language anyway. I can’t see the relevance. But I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that on occasion, when after a stressful day and the soup burns to the bottom of the pan, I didn’t make use of an expletive or two. I would also not be being honest if I didn’t confess that of recent times, having sat in a soup of four letter words, that some of them might have popped into my head first as the word of choice for the disaster at hand. This is usually followed up by a quick apology to the Lord.

I recall a little poem penned by Grace Livingston-Hill, a Christian novelist from the early 20th Century:

Little words like ‘bother’ and ‘blow’
Lead to bigger words
And a fiery place below


I was actually quite astounded when I read this. I loved reading her Christian novels, truly authentic period romances; however, to her they were contemporary. But the Christian attitude of the time was that there is no place for expletives of any sort for any reason, and the consequences could be quite eternally devastating. Wow. Poor old Winnie the Pooh! I had rather taken to the use of the word ‘bother’ as a way of expressing my pent up feelings.
Here I sit today contemplating the chasm that has gradually formed between my nice little Christian place and the language of everyone else in the world. In my discussion with other authors we have found a mounting frustration with some of the niceties of the Christian Bubble. Not that it isn’t nice, safe, comfortable and decent; it most certainly is, and a nice little escape from the realities of life. But that’s the point: it is an escape from the realities of life. This is a question that I am asking myself as a Christian writer. Do I just want to write nice, warm fuzzy stories that reinforce my Christian convictions and ideals? If I do, then I have a nice market of nice people who will feel warm and fuzzy when they finish. But what are the chances of other folks in the world reading these stories? Not great really. The folks I’ve met this year in the different writing and literature classes would dismiss my nice stories very quickly.
What am I saying? It’s not about the introduction of swearing, though that discussion comes up frequently. It’s not about the absence of sermonising and moralising. That is also another point of contention. I think it is about listening to the heart of the world outside the Christian Bubble and trying to understand where it’s at. I haven’t quite got a hold of what is going on to the point I can clearly articulate it, but I feel as if we – Christian writers – are on a journey of some kind, and it is a journey with a purpose. I think it is time to listen and observe carefully, and keep our hearts open to God and what it might be that He has in mind.

Meredith Resce


Meredith has been published in the Christian Market since 1997. Her ‘Heart of Green Valley’ series has been widely received. Recent publications include ‘The Greenfield Legacy’; ‘Mellington Hall’ and ‘For All Time’. These are available as downloads from Amazon.com and in hard copy from lightthedark.com.au

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for that Meredith. I so relate to all you've said - perhaps more so because I'm a little older. I think it's a huge issue for Christian writers if we want those outside the faith (yet) to read our work. I struggle with this in my writing all the time - not that I want to put swearing into my work - but it goes way beyond this, into the aspects of life that we discuss, include, describe in our stories. If readers can't relate and identify, the are likely to put our books down pretty quickly. Big dilemma - needs lots of discussion, reflection and prayer.

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  2. Hi Meredith - What a thought-provoking post. It certainly can be a dilemma when writing as a Christian from Christian convictions but wanting to touch those outside the Christian bubble. I'm working on my first novel - it has Christian worldview but I'm aiming at the mainstream market (at least at the moment). I've already had a dilemma about how my baddie should talk. I'm trying to give the impression that he's rough and ungracious in his speech but without being too unsavoury. In the last few years, I've also tried to broaden my reading (though am not about to launch into 50 Shades of Grey). I've come across a few books that have had uncomfortable passages in them (e.g., F-words, sex scenes), yet they've really grappled with some important issues and made me think about moral dilemmas. Atonement and The Reader are two that come to mind. I can't imagine myself ever dropping the F-word in a novel, but I am trying to work out how to make that connection with a non-Christian reader while still staying true to a Christian worldview. I'm sure there'll be lots of debates and dilemmas to come. Thanks for sharing Meredith, and good luck as you delve more into this issue too. (Also love the new photo) :)

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  3. Thanks for sharing Meredith. The Christian bubble is indeed a problem and not just for writers.

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  4. Great post Meredith. I think an important point to remember is that we are to be in the world not of the world and that all we do should glorify God. Obviously we are not perfect, yet if we are to witness to others through writing, we must stay true to Jesus and His teachings. We plant seeds, God does the rest.

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  5. I grapple with those issues too. Especially since many members of our target audience haven't been backward in letting us know that they would close a book as soon as a swear word appears. This begs the question you've raised about whether we intend to stick to our niche or reach out to the heart of the world. I know our Christian readers like to feel safe about what they're getting, yet at the same time, I hate the thought of limiting ourselves by not reaching out to the wider world. It's a tricky issue indeed.
    My daughter was asked by a friend recently why she never swears. And when my older son's Uni friends are around, all sorts of expletives get shouted out, yet I've noticed that he never uses them himself, although he participates freely in the conversations. When I mentioned this, he said that he has no issues with his friends swearing if they want to, yet his non-swearing upbringing seems to be bearing fruit. The thing is, his friends don't object to his not swearing, so surely there must be a way for us to reach out to the world with our books without doing as the world does.
    I know what you mean by certain characters though, who are simply not the "Oh bother" type :) Thanks for the thought provoking post, Meredith.

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  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Meredith. I look forward to any wisdom you glean in the future about this dilemma. Personally I prefer books that are outside the bubble. God is outside it, I'm sure and trying to bring love to a hurting world.
    I just wrote a scene that portrayed a nasty baddie. It didn't enter my head for him to swear. But his suggestive stares, innuendos and threats may be enough to offend some. At the moment I'm just writing the story. I'll worry later about possible readership. I know that is unprofessional, but at the moment God and I are enjoying an amazing writing adventure together!

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  7. Ahh, Meredith. Wonderful, thoughtful, honest post.
    Thank you.

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  8. Great thought provoking post Meredith. I too have been in this situation you mentioned and have just asked if someone else could please. No-one has ever objected about doing that. But maybe that was because I felt comfortable in the group to be able to do that. We all have to find our way of working though these issues and remaining true to ourselves and to the Lord.

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  9. Hi Meredith
    Great post, thanks Meredith.

    In some ways, while it makes many of us Christians uncomfortable, I think the swearing issue is a surface issue. It's more about whether we grapple with issues, including the deep falleness as humans that people struggle with everyday. If we find it had to cope with crude words - I wonder how Jesus (as holy God) coped with living as a human among fallen human beings with the far more serious issues of pride, greed, selfishness, anger, bitterness, cruelty, exploitation and brokenness. Yet he did because he wanted (& does) bring healing to a hurting world. I think that's why I want my fiction to sow seeds of faith, bringing hope and providing pointers to God for those who live beyond the Christian bubble.

    But as you say, that's not an easy thing to do. I have been encouraged that my two main critique partners are not Christians and both have thoroughly enjoyed my fiction (which for some Christians may not be Christian enough but does have elements of faith woven through it) - one in particular commenting on its "uplifting" and faith filled nature. I'm in ongoing dialogue with her about faith issues and while its slow, I have seen her move closer to faith in God (with much prayer and patience).

    I would also say that while 'Victorian values" had many positive aspects they are not an exact representation of biblical values (or God's values). As humans we struggle to embrace the fullness of God's values - often passing over important values and overemphasizing others. None of us have it perfectly. Victorian values emphasized family, modesty, faithfulness, piety, hard work, cleanliness - but wasn't so good on fairness for women, often put too much emphasis on property and could be far more prudish than the Bible - for instance substituting saying white and dark (chicken) meat for chicken breast and legs - or covering table legs with individualized drapes to prevent men getting too aroused by their resemblance to women's legs.

    I think that our speech should be seasoned and we should guard the purity of our minds - but God did make the body, all parts of it - and invented sex. So how do we know where to draw the line? Not easy in a world which gone to the opposite extreme - and uses sex to sell everything.

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