It stands to reason that, before I sat down to write a YA novel titled The F Words — in which a teen who tags his high school wall with the F word is required to write two poems a week, each about a word that starts with the letter F — I would make a long list of F words. So that when teen main character Cole Renner writes his F word poems, I would have a large supply of such words to draw on.
And it further stands to reason that — even though Cole attends a multi-cultural working class high school with fellow students who are Black, Latino and Latina, white, African, Arabic, or Asian — most of the words on my list would be of Germanic, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon origin. That’s because our oldest English words are of those origins. (As is the F word.)
Just as I knew Cole would be writing a lot of poems, so I knew from the beginning that my novel would be titled The F Words: plural, not singular. The title stems not only from Cole’s poems, but also from the politics of my novel, which is about teens fighting for social justice. This thematic element immediately evoked words such as fear, foe, fight, flee, food, friend, forbid, forget, forgive, and free, all of them of Anglo-Saxon origin, and therefore deep-seated. Visceral.
Thus armed with a fairly full list of F words and a rough outline, I set about writing my novel — fully confident that when Cole needed to write a poem, I would have an abundant source of appropriate words for him to choose from.
But that’s not how it went down.
Character, conflict, and context — not my list — determined what was on Cole’s mind. In Chapter 1, for example, he’s thinking about his father, who is in Cook County Jail for leading protests against the closings of public schools. Cole writes the poem “Far,” which expresses his feelings about not having his father near. Far was a word on my list. But then, immediately after that, Cole writes a poem titled “Fartlek.” This word was not on my list— it came from Cole, not me, because as a cross-country runner he knows the training technique of fartlek. For a moment, I stopped writing and stared at the screen. At the poem “Fartlek,” which hadn’t been in my mind at all. I asked myself: Could it be? Is the character determining the F words?
In Chapter 3 Cole, still worried about his father, writes the poem “Ferris Wheel” — which (I checked!) is in the dictionary among the F words.
We used to ride the Ferris Wheel
down at Navy Pier,
Mom and Dad with me
safe between them,
my hands gripping the bar
as we hung suspended
in the air,
waiting for the ride
Dad sits behind a different
kind of bar today.
He is not safe and
No way was Ferris Wheel on my list of old Anglo-Saxon words! This term didn’t come into being until the nineteenth century. But Cole is Chicago born and bred and has hung around Navy Pier and ridden the gigantic Centennial Wheel, a big attraction of the pier. This poem came from Cole’s consciousness, not from my list.
Twice, as far as I remember, there were times when Cole couldn’t think of a word to write about, and I couldn’t help him out with a word from my list. So I turned to the dictionary. In Chapter 6, for example, Cole is wondering about Treva, the new student. He’s attracted to her. But she’s an anarchist (which he isn’t), dressed in black head-to-toe, and seems to be asking too many questions. The dictionary and I helped Cole out.
rhymes with Custer
make me ask —
should I trust her?
For the most part, though, I didn’t have to help Cole out. He came up with the F words, as I said, through character, context, and conflict, as when he learns what happened to his father in Cook County Jail:
punches me in the throat,
knocks my breath away
fear of losing
who I love.
This is not
Someone wants to drill
fear deep into my heart
Into our hearts
and our minds.
I hate the system
that grows rich and cruel
and starvation wages
and allows beatings
and uses fear
as a weapon
to contain us.
The middle of a novel is often the turning point for the main character. This is true for Cole in The F Words, both politically and poetically. In the middle of the book Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher, challenges him to write form poems as well as free-verse poems. The first form Cole tries is the cinquain:
where we can barely breathe,
force us back so far we explode
Immediately after writing the cinquain, Cole thinks: Wow. I didn’t know what I was going to say until I said it.
That’s exactly how I, the author, felt about Cole’s poems: I didn’t know what he was going to write until he wrote it. And that is one of the things that makes Cole’s poems so powerful and so important: it is the character, not the author, who writes them.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates, writing tips, and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.