Writers on Writing #55: Mark R. Brand
Hazardous Word Choices; Or, I'm Going to Regret This Someday, I Just Know It
I got really hung up on a word recently, and I wasn't sure what to do with it. It was at the midpoint of what my editor said he thought was one of the strongest stories in my new collection, and, as they do, individual words started to take on that last-round-of-edits sense of gravity. Sometimes these word choices only matter ten years later, when you thank God that your editor convinced you to go with something quieter and more muted than your original choice. Sometimes it doesn't even take that long. This one was tricky, though: it felt right for the sentence, it set the tone beautifully for the passage it began, and it even had an undeniably euphonious rhythm and cadence. Ten years later or twenty, I want to make sure that it's the right word to use, but I'm a little afraid of this word, which sounds stupid if you don't know the backstory. The word? "Cockblock."
The story context is this: the narrator and his wife live with their son in a second floor apartment that's been quarantined as part of a city-wide effort to avoid spreading a scarily-lethal strain of meningitis that's been killing children. The narrator and his wife love each other, and they both adore their son, but being cooped up in this tiny apartment with each other is starting to drive them all a little nuts. They irritate each other mercilessly, and they're so strung out on anxiety, cabin fever, and hypochondria that they become near-hysterical toward one another by the end. To make it seem as mimetic as possible I chose to limit the reader to only one point of view: the dad's.
This story isn't as autobiographical as it seems at first glance, but there are plenty of similarities. My wife and I DO live on the second floor of an apartment in a semi-urban area, and we do have a single child, a son. There's a scene where the narrator goes on a Google binge, searching for phrases that compliment his state of mind and his inability to emotionally cope with the quarantine. This is a partially autobiographical sketch of how my mind works when I'm worried about something, except it's usually Wikipedia that I spend hours on surfing from link to link like a hellish version of the Discovery Channel. The meningitis scare is based on something my neighborhood and school district went through in the early 90's where we all had to get special vaccines, etc., and sit through FEMA-style lectures on how to spot the early warning signs of a communicable and unusually deadly season of meningitis. We weren't quarantined, but the whole thing scared the hell out of my parents and everyone else in our community.
Anyway, the first thing the dad, who has been quarantined for months in a tiny apartment, Googles in the story is: Help, my child is a cockblock! The character is worried about a hundred different things in this passage, all of them sincere-sounding but ultimately a standard set of dad-worries: the waning of his sex life, his aging, his loss of control over the trajectory of his life, and all of the other minor, everyday suffering expected of any dad. But I said before that "cockblock" is a word I was afraid of, and here's why: someday, probably sooner than that ten years I mentioned earlier, my son is going to read these stories. He's a voracious reader now, at six and a half, and I'm doing my level best to encourage that at every turn. What happens when he reads this story, though, presumably as an older teenager/young adult, and finds this seemingly somewhat-autobiographical story with the word "cockblock" applied to this familiar tripartite family's only son?
My son isn't any more of an intruder into my marriage than any other normal kid is, and that's an important fact to keep in mind because fiction, even especially mimetic fiction, requires quite a bit of exaggeration in order to make a point. What worries me is whether or not he'll be mature enough as a reader to understand this. Readers don’t relate to a modest admission of moderate adversity, they want characters an inch away from a full-on meltdown. I’m including myself here when I say “readers.” It’s easier to relate to a character like that gets worked up, and a hell of a lot more entertaining. But here’s what’s so tricky: I have to take a feeling that’s more like faint background noise in the story of my real life and bring it, for a moment, into sharp, vivid, intense focus. The distortion involved in this can be done well, or it can be done poorly. I feel like I more or less nailed it with this scene, but my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Will my son understand that Tim, the narrator, is perched on a precipice that every dad goes through, a precipice where he totters between embracing the more mature, fatherly attitude, and the insistent, regressive juvenile one? Will he get that Tim is just a young dad who hasn't totally "gotten" it yet, and standing on this precipice for a while, being pulled in both directions, is the painful maturation process demanded of every father? Will he understand that it's this maturation, not the family drama or the dystopian sci-fi quarantine, that's really the point of this story?
He might still be too young, at seventeen or eighteen, to grasp that. It might not register with him until he's had his own children, but after that, if not before, it certainly will. He's smart, and perceptive, like his mom, but he's also soft-hearted and sensitive, like his dad, and I'm worried that that context-perfect word "cockblock" might be like carelessly shooting an arrow over a hill to satisfy my creative vision and unintentionally wounding him a decade later. I'm worried he'll wrongfully apply it to himself and believe that this is what I thought of him, when at worst it's an exaggerated fragment of a memory of the process I went through to stop being a self-centered asshole and start being a man worthy of being his dad in the first place.
I want this word to be the right word, and I want it to come with a guarantee, like a Hippocratic AppleCare for Manuscripts, that it will First and Infallibly Do No Harm. But unfortunately there is no such guarantee, and again, for the thousandth time as a writer I'm forced to admit that there is a constellation of consequences in play for being who I am and doing what I do. I've decided to keep "cockblock" and honor the story's tone and theme with the right word for the passage. I like to think a version of my son in his mid-thirties, with children of his own, will respect the choice for its courage and honesty, but he may not. Either way, there's responsibility inherent in a word choice like that. Dicking around with a manuscript that's never finished is safe, and that's why so many writers stay permanently in the shallow end. Sometimes for that right word, you have to accept the danger that it may someday, to someone you love, be the wrong word.
Mark R. Brand is the author of the novels Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), Life After Sleep (2011), and The Damnation of Memory (2011), as well as the editor of the 2009 anthology Thank You, Death Robot (2009). He is a two-time Independent Publisher Book Award winner, and is the creator and host of the video podcast series Breakfast with the Author (available on iTunes). A native of northern New York, he now lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife and son, and teaches English at Wilbur Wright College. He is currently completing a PhD in English with a focus in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.