My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Marion Winik, author of the new memoir, Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled through the Joys of Single Living. Laura Lippman, author of And When She Was Good, has this to say about Winik's latest book: “Highs in the Low Fifties hits the bull’s eye—funny, sharp, poignant, wise. Sometimes, I think Marion Winik is simply selfless enough to live the life that most of us are too scared to try, then generously shares the results. Her latest memoir has her trademark candor and poetic cadences. But there’s something new here, too—happiness. Rueful, cautious, but happiness nonetheless. It’s like finding the Rough Planet Guide to Middle-Age.” Highs in the Low Fifties joins Telling, First Comes Love, The Lunch-Box Chronicles: Notes from the Parenting Underground, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead and others in the ongoing saga of her life. She writes a bi-weekly column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com, reviews books for Newsday, and contributes to The Sun. You can find lots more info at MarionWinik.com. (Please note: this essay contains adult language. Sensitive readers are advised to click away. As fast as they fucking can.)
The First Time I Censored Myself
A long, long time ago, it was 1992. I was a commentator on All Things Considered. A literary agent who'd heard me on the radio called and asked if I had any more work like what she'd heard. She flew down to Austin, we spread the essays across her bed at the Four Seasons, then she went back to New York and sold my first collection, Telling, to Villard.
While I was not a pornographer or a terrible potty-mouth, my book was certainly rated R. It discussed drug use, shoplifting, lying, and various other types of misbehavior--in fact, its confessional aspect was essential to its nature and summarized in its title. So I was very surprised when the editor excised the two uses each of the words "shit" and "fuck" in the book. This was a book for grownups, and such books were full of words like this--and ones a lot worse, too. Why did everybody get to say "fuck" but me?
I wrote back a very detailed response. I agreed to lose one "shit" and one "fuck" and argued to keep the other two. But I wasn't going down easy, as these notes reveal:
p. 43: But it is a damn nose job. "Damn" expresses my ruefulness about it.Fast forward 20 years and many books and articles later. These days I write a column for an online magazine whose publisher has the same sensibility as my Villard editor, and I still am ready to put up my dukes and fight about poop jokes, dicks and the F word, none of which are preferred in the Baltimore Fishbowl. I struggle with the same fervor as always, though I have often noticed that a cleaned-up piece is not a whole lot different than the dirty version I was trying so hard to keep. And I do get away with shit sometimes.
p. 45: The puke and the hosing off are part of the unglamorous, pedestrian suburban acid experience I am trying to describe. Yes, it's a little gross but so what.
p. 47: As for "suck my dick," I think it is humorous in its absurdity--after all, it's my 14-year-old sister saying it. I've taken out the use of "dick" in "On Being Gay," so at least we're down to one dick overall.
The single shit and one of the fucks are in dialogue, and I don't even say them. My mother is "fucking disgusted" and my son exclaims "oh, shit." But the third was mine, all mine. Though I had read it many times in manuscript, this was the first I saw of it in print, between covers, and this time it hit me differently. The section in question describes an ill-advised rendezvous with one of my former graduate students.
He led me to a floodlit, garbage-swept concrete parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence. With no further preliminaries, a furious make-out session was in progress. It was fun, but Zach and I had different ideas of what came next. I wanted to discuss our relationship; he wanted me to give him a blow job. This seemed beneath my dignity as a fifty-two-year-old mother of three so I regretfully declined and we went back inside. He seemed to be about one millimeter from either puking or alcohol poisoning but was still on his feet when I left.When I read this passage, I felt a little betrayed. Who was this writer who was making me look so desperate and trashy and lacking in self-respect? Just a couple days before, I had read another woman's memoir where I'd been taken aback at her crass attitudes about men. Now I was having that same reaction to myself. And though I'd pressed send on that email too fast to redact the demeaning words, now I had another chance.
The next day my dignity went into remission and I emailed him to ask if he was having regrets, and if he wasn't would he like to fuck my brains out.
I wrote the editor asking if it was too late to change the phrase to "wouldn't he like to continue where we left off." She said sure, and that's the way it reads in the final version.
So look at that. Every degrading thing in that passage was okay with me, right up to the phrase with "fuck." That's the point where I felt the reader's judgment of me might just go past "this woman is craaaaazy" to "ick, this woman is gross and I don't want to read another word about her disgusting life." I could be wrong, but that's where I was drawing the line.
"Fuck" has power. That's why we want to use it. And that's why it's worth being careful when we do.