Defending the indefensible – the story of my artistic stand

My new mantra

We killed the retarded boy.

Those are the first five words of my book The Takers. One of those words has proven to be problematic. The ‘R’ word may be preventing The Takers from taking that next step into its publishing evolution. What I don’t share with you on a regular basis is the finagling and negotiating going on with bigger publishers about The Takers. I’ve been very fortunate in that it has generated interest from some editors and publishers who want to take it to that next level; wider domestic and foreign distribution -among other opportunities that aren’t currently available to me as an indie author.

I’ve done two fairly significant rewrites based on their suggestions and feedback over the years. And, I’ve also created a number or series outlines for the entire Oz Chronicles upon their request, tweaking it here and there to accommodate their concerns. In short, I’ve been extremely flexible in my approach to rewrites and edits. I know that publishing is a business and if they are going to take a risk on me, I need to reward their risk with cooperation in the interest of selling more books for everyone involved. Publishing is a tough, tough business that really doesn’t need another temperamental artist in the mix putting everyone’s jobs in jeopardy.

I’ve gotten extremely close on a couple of occasions to satisfying the bigger publishers and taking that next step, but for various reasons, the deal never came to pass. For the first time, my latest round of publishing volley was put to an end by me – more or less. Through my agent, I have been in contact with a publishing house for about a year. They requested a major rewrite. I did the rewrite. They hated the rewrite. They made more suggestions. One change in particular made me extremely uneasy. They wanted the first line changed. They were uncomfortable with the word retarded. It is an ugly word, and I get it. In talking with my agent, I learned he’s gotten this feedback before from other publishers who have passed on The Takers.

I took the critique seriously. Retarded is an offensive word. There is a fairly strong campaign by the Shriver family and the Special Olympics to raise public awareness about the hurtful nature of the word towards the people and cause they serve. And they are right, it is hurtful and ugly and disrespectful. Trust me; I don’t particularly want to be in direct opposition with people like the Shrivers and the Kennedys. Especially when it comes to the use of the word retarded.

So, I took the next two to three weeks battling with the decision. Would the story be the same without the word? Would it change the nature of Oz himself? Oz is a bully trying to make amends for the way he treated a boy with Down syndrome. He’s wrestling with his own failings as a person, and despite the consequences, he doesn’t let go of bad habits easily. He’s struggling to be a better person. I’ve lived with Oz for eight years now. In a weird writer kind of way, the kid is always sitting somewhere in my mind asking me the same question over and over again. “Am I bad kid who does good things or a good kid who does bad things?” I’m trying to help him find that answer through his Oz Chronicles journey.

My wife finally gave me the nudge I needed to say no. We went to Asheville, NC for Christmas, and she saw a bumper sticker that read, “Never apologize for your art.” That was it. That was the sign we needed. And this was a “we” decision given that our finances could be affected by whatever decision I made. Frankly, if she would have insisted that I make the change (which she would never do), I would have tried to make it work. It would be unfair of me to do otherwise.

So I said no because the word retarded works. It sets the tone of the story of a bully struggling to be a better person. It’s an ugly struggle. Getting rid of the word makes the story too wishy-washy and safe. Safe is no way to tell a story. I don’t care if it’s for the young adult market or contemporary literature. No one would ask a painter to eliminate the color red from his or her palette because it’s too bold and bright. By the same logic, words should never be off limits to a writer.

So I stood up for the word retarded even though I agree with the Shriver family. It’s a strange day when you find yourself defending the indefensible, but you know what? It feels kind of good. I put my art first, and in the end, that’s what writers should do. It doesn’t matter that I have a personal objection to certain words or other people may have objections to the words I use. I have to serve the story first. That’s my first priority as a writer.

Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Time to Use the R-word!

Oye vey... Houston, we have a problem.

I saw a news story yesterday morning about the Special Olympics’ campaign to end the use of the so called R-word, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending my use of the word in my book, The Takers.  For those of you who don’t know the R-word is “retard” or “retarded.”  This is a blurb from the Special Olympics’ website:

Spread the Word to End the Word is a campaign created by youth, in an ongoing effort with Special Olympics and Best Buddies International, to engage schools, organizations and communities by raising the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encouraging everyone to stop using the R-word.

Crap!  Why am I unnerved by this?  This is the first line of my young adult novel, The Takers:

We killed the retarded boy.

I don’t like the word.  I’m not going to tell you I’ve never used it in my personal life because I have, but they are not proud moments in my life.  I’m not sure if this matters, but I have never used the word to describe someone with Down syndrome.  I have used it to demean people, but frankly, I’ve used it to demean assholes. 

That is in my personal life.  In my book, the main character is referring to someone with Down syndrome.  I used the word to jolt the reader.  I wanted the sentence to be cold and direct.  I wanted the reader to know that the main character, while heroic at times, is extremely flawed.  He’s a good kid who’s done some bad things. 

I have had a major publisher in the UK back out of offering me a deal because the word is so prominent in the book.  I was asked if I could change it, and I diplomatically pushed back because the first line sets the tone for the whole book.  It’s a very weird feeling when you find yourself defending the word “retarded.”  But I wasn’t really defending the word.  I was defending the story. 

I’m not some difficult artist who is unwilling to compromise.  I’ve capitulated on a number of other suggestions from publishers, but I actually felt those suggestions made the story stronger, and they didn’t change the language of the story.  As a writer, I chose my words very carefully.  I don’t choose them because I use them in my everyday life.  I don’t choose them to make me look smart or ignorant.  I don’t choose them to arbitrarily fill a word-count quota.  I choose them because they set the mood, enhance the character, describe the setting, etc.  Words, even repulsive words, have a place in literature. 

Having said all that, if you’re using the R-word to describe someone who has Down syndrome or is otherwise mentally disabled in real life, stop.  It says more about you than it does about the person you’re calling retarded.  If the Special Olympics knows I exist, I’m sure I’m on their hit list, but that’s okay.  I can write other books.  They do good work, and I’m not interested in fighting them, especially since we agree the R-word sucks.    

BTW – I feel obligated to post the entire first section of The Takers for those of you who haven’t read it, so you don’t think I’m a total jerk. 

We killed the retarded boy. He took his own life, but we killed him just the same. Everybody should have the right to go through life unnoticed, and we took that right away from him. Every chance we got, we reminded him that he was different. It was harmless fun, harassing the retarded kid, thrusting disgrace upon him every day. We were kids. What did we know? He was like a dumb animal to us. He didn’t absorb the abuse. He shed it like a snake sheds its skin. Or so we thought. We didn’t know that a tangible sense of worthlessness was building up inside his damaged mind. Slowly he came to believe that he was less than human, not because God made him that way but because we saw him that way.

His name was Stevie Dayton, and I think about him almost every minute of every day. In fact, it’s pretty much all I think about since the world ended.

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