Columns > Published on December 14th, 2022

This Is Your Permission To Write Offensive Things

Hi. I’m a White, cis, male writer. And I’m here to give everyone permission to write horribly offensive things.

And, no, I’m not planning to do that by purchasing an entire social media platform. That’s SO last month.

Let me tell you why I can give you permission to write offensive things and how taking it will change your writing for the better.

The Big Idea

An idea for a story, an essay, a novel, a series of children’s books about a bunch of creepy kids who take up residence in a boxcar, probably so they can commit murders and never be caught, what with their identities being totally off the grid—

Whatever your idea, the thing you need to know is that a story idea cannot be offensive, and it can’t be inoffensive.

Because an idea can’t be categorized like that.

An idea is shapeless. Intangible. It exists only as images or words or ephemeral streams of interacting chemicals in your mind (however you think—maybe it’s in musical tones or a series of Simpsons quotes, whatever, you do you).

Your job as a writer is to make ideas real. Mash that untouchable magic into ink.

Then, and only then, once the idea is a real thing that can be examined and experienced, you (and other people) can decide whether it’s offensive.

Spider-Man’s Death Wish

I want to give you an example of what I’m talking about, that an idea is neither offensive nor inoffensive until it’s solidified.

Here's a story idea:

Person with ability to fight crime is victimized by a crime, and that person begins fighting crime, motivated by what happened.

Spider-Man works this way.

And so does the movie Death Wish.

Death Wish (1974) is a movie that depicts the rape of a woman in graphic detail, and that rape causes the woman’s father, Paul Kersey, to go on a brutal vigilante rampage.

Better you learn these lessons on the page than in public.

The tastelessness of the rape’s depiction, and the ways many saw Death Wish as a glorification of vigilantism, offends a lot of viewers. In fact, Brian Garfield, who wrote the novel Death Wish was based on, found the movie offensive. He wrote a follow-up, Death Sentence, that he called “penance” for his involvement with Death Wish.

Spider-Man and Death Wish have the same basic setup, the same concept of a person taking the law into their own hands, both motivated by a crime that harms a loved one.

But the way the material is handled is completely different. Spider-Man trading punches with a guy who dresses like a utility company mascot really doesn’t feel the same as Charles Bronson shooting a guy in the back for the crime of stealing his camera (a camera Bronson purposely shows off in hopes someone will take it).

The idea of someone motivated by crime to fight crime isn’t where the offense comes in. The execution is.

Why Is It Good To Write Something That Turns Out Bad?

You need the experience. You need to go too far sometimes. You need to start a story, recognize that you’re not ready to write that story, and put it away until you are.

You need to work out what “too far” means for you, and you need to learn how to recognize when you’re deep in “too far” territory.

You won’t learn any of these things if you stop before you’ve even begun, if you don’t give the idea shape.

Writing Is A Good Way To Learn About Offense

Better you learn these lessons on the page than in public, than on Twitter, than in some other way that’s far more visible to the average person.

Better you offend some people in a writer’s workshop, where you hopefully have relationships with the other writers and can talk out your problems, where you’ve got a group-approved method of handling this sort of thing.

Writing and Publishing Are Two Very Different Things

Writing something offensive isn’t a problem.

Publishing is where you have to be more careful.

When something is published, it comes with the request that others read it. You push your work into the larger world and insist that it has a place on the shelves next to other books.

Which isn’t me saying that you should not publish offensive things. I have nothing to say about publication at the moment.

I’m just talking about writing.

I'm just giving you permission to write something offensive. As far as publishing something offensive, you'll have to work that out for yourself. 

There’s Your Permission

Think about writing like exploring. If you don’t take a single step into the wild for fear of taking the wrong step, you won’t get a whole lot of exploring done. There IS a time for that sort of caution, and that time is when you invite others to join you on the trail.

Writing is the same way. If you can’t write a line for fear of causing offense, you won’t get a lot of writing done. And the time to be more careful is the time when you’re inviting others into your story.

You should tell your stories. Write them out. Feel them out. Take them from ideas to words.

It’s okay to explore.

Get Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee by Nat Hentoff at Amazon 

Get Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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