When I was younger I thought writing an adult-oriented script meant lots of swear words and bodily fluids mixed in with adult themes like infidelity and loss. Now that I’ve been an adult for a little while, I’ve realized that I was spot on and that’s exactly what adult life is like that majority of the time.
So what’s the problem?
There is a difference between writing for adults and being unnecessarily crass. Different people have different tolerances for language and “rude humor” or other unsavory things. When you’re writing for a large audience, as I would hope to be (maybe… eventually…) that’s something that needs to be taken into consideration. The problem here lies in censoring oneself in the interests of other people.
There are not only a lot of individual moments in stories where I want to use a word or reference a scenario that is unsavory, but individual stories I want to tell but am afraid to. Stories that deal with the thoughts that people keep locked away inside their minds; secrets they will take to their graves because these thoughts are a part of some base instinct that we, as civilized people, are supposed to have overcome generations ago. Stories that are so deep and psychological no matter how they were written they would be uncomfortable and, possibly, horrific.
I think a lot of self-censorship is based in two things:
1.) Audiences have certain expectations for certain characters and scenarios and will reject a story if it strays too far from that. For example, if a story takes place in a drug den we expect it to be dirty and for there to be foul language and possibly hard-to-watch things being done to people’s bodies. But if a story takes place in suburbia somewhere and we’re introduced to a middle aged woman we’re off-put by her swearing like a sailor or shooting heroin in her filthy bedroom. But, is that true to life? Is that not just as interesting a story to tell, if not more so? But it won’t fly because that’s not what audiences are accustomed to. A small recurring critique of The Inhabitors was the fact that there are two gay characters in the center of the story. One of them deals with some pretty intense homophobia very early in the script. Both facts, the gay characters and the homophobia they face, were important to the story but still bothered people. In the latest draft I ended up getting rid of all of the blatant homophobia. It’s still there, I hope, under the surface somewhere, but I became worried I’ll never sell it if I kept it in.
2.) I, as the author, worry that these things are somehow a reflection of who I am. There is truth to the idea that whatever someone writes is, somehow, a reflection of themselves. Every character has a piece of its author’s personality inside them somewhere. Ever theme is a reflection of a writer’s personal ideology. There is a truth to those things, but it’s a small truth and as I’ve written more and longer and tried to tell different stories I’ve found it’s a small truth that keeps getting smaller. Most professional writers, I would wager, don’t fall into that mold. But being an amateur writer it’s something I worry about. I don’t want to write a story about pedophilia along the lines of Lolita and have to defend the decision as an artistic one. Even in The Inhabitors I go out of my way to avoid the characters using the conscious-transferring antique as a way to explore carnal pleasures because I didn’t want to deal with that fallout. I didn’t want my characters to be those sorts of people, even though that’s exactly the type of people they are in every other sense. It scares me too much. Which, in all honesty, is a totally personal problem. There are plenty of writers that don’t worry about that sort of thing. There was controversy around Lolita for its subject matter, with Nabokov himself being faced with exactly what I’m so afraid of:
‘There is a certain type of critic who when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i’s with the author’s head. Recently one anonymous clown, writing on in a New York book review, mistook all the declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own’
One thing that Nabokov had going for him was his mastery of language. Lolita, for all its perversions, is a beautifully written book. But does that excuse the subject matter?
But execution is a major part of any story. In an attempt to break through my own fears of this phenomenon I wrote a hyper-sexual story of cuckolding called Our First Time With a Knife. It’s about a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. One night, in a fit of pent-up lust, the husband essentially rapes his wife when she isn’t in the mood for sex. He is ashamed of it, but when he apologizes the next morning he learns that she liked it and thought it was just the shot of adrenaline their relationships needs. So they begin to experiment with more and more perverse sexual strategies, culminating in her asking him to participate in a partner-swap with another married couple. He is hesitant but, desperate to make her happy, he agrees. But as he watches her have sex with another man he is driven into such a blind rage he can’t even remember the rest of the night. When they finally get home she’s still turned-on from the night and asks him to take her in the kitchen and to grab the knife while he’s at it. Still reeling from the events of the night he feels like the wants to kill her. In the end, he stops himself short and tells her he wants a divorce.
I don’t think that’s a bad story at all. At least in summary. After I wrote it I felt like it was the most honest and compelling thing I’d ever written. The problem is in its execution. It’s crass and doesn’t explore the husband’s feelings or motivations nearly enough to be a successful work. In my attempt at freeing myself from self-censorship, in this case anyway, I merely reinforced the reasons why I censor myself.
Which is a bad thing. I don’t think any writer should censor themselves in the beginning. That first draft, especially, should be full of sharp edges and roughness. The reason for that is because it can be difficult to fully explore ideas without making unpopular choices. If the story will be better for those decisions, do it. Do it tastefully, but don’t shy away. It may be the wrong decision, but I don’t think that’s possible to know until it’s done. If, like in my case, a manager or other person who is interested in your work asks for a change to make it more palatable, consider it. They may be right.
In the end, though, all ideas are only as good as their execution. That’s going to be my guiding light going forward.