Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Internal Editor

or, A Little Bird Told Me...

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by a high school senior who wants to make a career out of writing. I hope my answers to his questions were of some use. Some of his questions were about things like motivation, craft, and day-to-day operations. About what one would expect.

Some of the things this rather insightful young man asked about, however, were unexpected and unexpectedly relevant. He attends a local Christian high school, and is a person who lives his beliefs. He's also a creative artist. And he still lives at home. "Honor thy father and thy mother" is not up for debate.

He very tactfully inquired about my belief system. When he realized that we come from similar backgrounds (belief in God, steeped in fundamentalist values that include strict prohibitions on profanity, frivolity, mindless entertainment, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll), he asked how my beliefs affected or informed my writing.

We got to talking, and in the course of the conversation, he described how he would be working on a character who he thought would say something "strong" or "colorful," but he would find himself hampered by it. I believe "self-editing" is the phrase he used.

We had a very interesting discussion about the topic of profanity as a tool and as a crutch. I shared with him my views on the matter (which, truth be told, stem largely from my mother's views).

To a degree, profuse profanity that characterizes a character's conversation generally says more about the laziness of the writer than revealing anything profound about the character. As someone brighter than I once put it, "Profanity is the surest sign of a stagnant mind." Every time I read a book or see a movie that is riddled with the same words over and over again, I am struck by the writer's complete lack of creativity. (A notable exception to this rule of thumb is the staggeringly inventive use of expletives dreamt up by Paul Abbott. But that's another story.)

The director I'm working with on my current screenplay has similar views. He's worked on some less-than-squeaky-clean movies. He's no prude, by a long shot. But his advice to screenwriters is to "Take out all profanity." He believes in trusting the actors to tell the story. If the word is on the page, he argues, the actors will say it whether it needs to be there or not. If the word is not on the page, the actors will put it in if it's necessary to convey the right tone, subtext, and emotion of the moment.

More often than not, it's not needed.

Profanity isn't the only area where one is often advised to listen to one's Internal Editor. Sometimes, the problem isn't with being a potty mouth. Sometimes, the problem has to do with engaging the brain-to-mouth filter.

Take, for instance, the case of Cisco Fatty who evidently bound and gagged his Internal Editor in order to post ill-advised snarky Tweets on Twitter about his recent job offer.

Before the work day ended, Web sleuths revealed "theconnor's" true identity. "Theconnor" was lampooned in a popular YouTube meme. And thanks to Google Cache, the deleted content of "theconnor’s" homepage resurfaced on, a Web site erected to commemorate this cautionary tale.

The bottom line is, think before you speak (or Tweet). God gave you a brain -- use it. Just because you have a thought doesn't mean that it must be shared with the world at large. Just because your first inclination is to write "in cursive" doesn't mean that's the best thing to have come out of your character's mouth.

As I said to my new writer friend yesterday, you are the word master. The words don't master you. Don't give them the power to define you, limit you, or enslave you. Make them work for a living. And make each one count.