On Cussing, by Katherine Dunn
On Cussing is a lecture that Katherine Dunn gave at the Pacific University Masters of Fine Arts Program in Writing—unless I missed it, the book doesn’t specify when, but obviously it would have been before Dunn’s death in 2016.
Is it a book that will change my life? Probably not, but I’m not a writer.
Is it a book that was a pure joy to read after a particularly awful meeting at work? Absolutely.
Is it smart and thoughtful and colorful and hilarious? Also absolutely.
For example, from page 19:
This was back in 1950. I was not quite five years old and had heard the word all my life. My big brother and his friends said it when they were angry or upset. On the rare occasions when my mother said it, it meant we were all in serious trouble. My dad, the mechanic, made it into a poem. He’d be sweating under the hood of some gasping Ford or Chevy on a hundred-degree day, and he’d chant it. “Fuck the fuckity fuckin’ fucker.” Now this music of his delighted me. It became my secret song. Later in school I used it to learn the parts of speech and the forms of a sentence. This chant had it all. Verb, adverb, adjective, noun—action, modifiers, and subject—all in this one magnificently dangerous word.
And then, I kid you not, she diagrams the sentence for us.
She talks about boring cussing versus interesting cussing; about how using cuss words as filler detracts from their power, and is, again, boring; about the rise and fall and rise and fall of different sorts of cuss words. She cites Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr, which I’m going to request at the library TODAY. She includes quotes from various classics from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Trainspotting, and I admit, even at my advanced age and even though, according to Josh, he’s pretty sure he married a sailor, the excerpt from Tropic of Cancer made my eyeballs pop and I said, “OH MY” like I was 9,000 years old.
It’s short, it’s sweet—or, more appropriately, salty—and I grinned ear-to-ear the entire time I was reading it.