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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 12 December 2014

9 December 2014

My father and my uncle and pretty much all of their friends had been Naval Officers during World War II. Lots of salty language. I have lived my life in summer camp cabins, prep school and college dorms and locker rooms. All male bastions. Lots more salty language. So what do you do when you write a memoir and you want to recreate the atmosphere . . . but you want to keep it as clean as possible as well? You choose your words very carefully. Not always an easy proposition, as I have learned over the last quarter of my life.

Years ago when I was writing The Sport of Rowing, I recorded a lot of oral history, and a lot of my tapes had more f-bombs than there are chocolate chips in a really good chocolate chip cookie. I learned something important with one particular reminiscence told to me by a very well-respected Men’s Olympic Coach. He told me a great story, and he told it really well, told it with a lot of passion and personality . . . and it was rib-crackingly funny. I transcribed it word for word, and you could hear the man’s voice, hear his Philly accent, just by reading it.

I did take one liberty. I used the word effin’ a lot! Effin’ this, effin’ that!

“If you want me to effin’ go over and give you an effin’ pep talk before the effin’ race, I’ll effin’ do that.”

As I always did, I sent the transcript to the coach to make sure he was comfortable that I had captured his true intent. He wrote me back: “I’m sure I said that, and I’m sure you have a recording to confirm that’s just the way I said it, but do you think that the story would be just as good if you left out all the f-bombs?”

I was skeptical . . . but I had no choice. I tried it. He was right. Leaving out the language allowed the humanity of the story to come through. And I was comforted by the certain knowledge that any person who actually knew this coach would naturally put all the f-bombs right back in as he read my book. Historical accuracy through the back door, so to speak.

There were similar challenges in writing An Out-of-Boat Experience. There’s another four-letter word that tends to come up a lot. For instance, my mom rarely went past “damn” and “hell,” but she occasionally would have cause to say to her kids, “I didn’t say sh**. I said ship!” which we found hilarious every single time since “ship” made no sense at all in the context of whatever her statement had been. And we could all see a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. “Ship. Yeah, right, Mom. Ship it is.”

But this particular four-letter word can be a tough one for some writers to avoid. “Poop” or “crap” or some such just don’t adequately substitute, though I did use “fecal material” at one point in Out-of-Boat, “male bovine fecal material” at that, a phrase I probably first heard in the second grade, and so I made a joke out of how juvenile it is to try to avoid saying . . . you-know-what.

But there is one place in my book where the only word that would work was the real McCoy, so keep the smelling salts handy. Hopefully, it will take you by surprise. It’s supposed to make you laugh out loud.

The n-word crops up once in Out-of-Boat – Hard to explain here. You’ll have to read the book. – but “n-word” was more than sufficient to get my point across.

I have mentioned that An Out-of-Boat Experience is written as a humorous but sincere homage to a number of literary classics, most notably The Odyssey and Slaughterhouse-Five, enough for English majors to sink their teeth into, but there is also Tom Jones and Great Expectations and Stranger in a Strange Land. It's also not hard to see the influence of author Norman Mailer. After World War II he wrote The Naked and the Dead, inspired by his memories of being a foot soldier island-hopping in the South Pacific. Anyway, Mailer’s book portrays a world where the f-word was a noun, verb, adjective, participle, adverb and preposition . . . but it was 1948, and so he made up a substitute word to get around the strict mores of the day.

As I wrote Out-of-Boat, I found exactly four spots where that most Chaucerian of words was well-nigh indispensable, so I substituted Mailer’s made-up word. I had once spent a year working through all of his books. Obviously, the effort paid off.

My dad had a favorite insult, a really good one – just about as good as they get, in fact – got it from The Iliad, which he translated from the Greek in prep school. This Homeric epithet was so deliciously . . . literary . . . that anyone having it hurled in their direction today would surely be more tickled than offended. My dad used this, his favorite slight, with actual malice toward the end of his life, but he was slipping into dementia and deeply frustrated by a world that was increasingly inscrutable to him. It had always been one of the more amusing of his phrases . . . and eventually it was just about the only amusing thing he could say, and by then, sadly, he was the only person in the room who didn’t get the joke.

Now, 28 years after his death, hopefully we can laugh again.

In Out-of-Boat, I use “Hell” a lot, but I use it literally, capitalized, the opposite of “Heaven.” Heaven and Hell. That's rowing, after all.

There are a couple of other salty words that also made the cut, just a couple, and none are­ used maliciously.

I’d give An Out-of-Boat Experience a PG-13 rating at worst.