Shtuff

What is “shtuff?” That’s what you get when someone starts saying “shit,” then changes their mind to “stuff” midstream.

As in: “I’m getting too old for this shtuff.”

This word isn’t in any dictionary I know (except Urban), but I hear it a lot in conversation. Maybe someone realized there was a kid nearby, or that a friendly conversation with the boss perhaps shouldn’t be that friendly.

However it happens, it’s a quintessentially human word. In a single awkward syllable, it encapsulates so many aspects of our nature. The unguarded truth, straight from the inner self, hidden at once behind a wall of propriety. The anxiety of how we appear to others. The split-second flexibility to choose a new path when the first one’s barely begun. Something weak and powerful at once.

I realize I’m waxing pretty philosophical for a word that means “poop.”

Yet it’s striking that a word so commonly used in real life rarely appears in art. When you read a book, when you watch TV, characters say “shit” or “stuff,” but not both at once.

Why?

Partly for clarity. New writers are often told that real conversation is too fragmented, too halting and uncertain, to be rendered in narrative. That’s mostly true. Yet I think, especially in writing, you could get across this meaning clearly and succinctly with a construction like “shi – stuff.”

The fact that we rarely see this says something about our art.

As writers, we unconsciously tend toward an idealized version of our world, a place where things make more sense than they really do. As I said, this isn’t all bad, and is partly a courtesy to the reader. But we shouldn’t be afraid to let go of that tendency at times, to embrace the uncertainty, the fuzziness, the anxiety, the strangeness, of genuine human life.

What do you think about that shtuff?

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6 responses to “Shtuff

  1. “New writers are often told that real conversation is too fragmented, too halting and uncertain, to be rendered in narrative.” I think this is true, and, since almost all fiction is written this way (and readers are used to it), if you wrote the way people actually speak the average reader would probably think your characters are morons. (This is true of movie dialog as well.)

    But I think some writers take this further and give us dialog that is far beyond what anybody actually produces in day-to-day life. So, in addition to dialog which is the way we think we really talk (though is actually cleaned up), there is also dialog which is the way we wish we could talk. Nobody talks the way people talk in Hawks or Tarantino movies, but who cares? I never played sax as well as Coltrane either, but I still like to listen to him play.

    That being said, the occasional uncertainty can be very effective. I always remember an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show where Betty White’s character pulled a souffle out of the oven (on camera, as I remember it) and it had fallen. “Oh, shhhh-urely that isn’t what that’s supposed to look like” was her line, and it was hilarious, partly because of her delivery and partly because she had hinted at a word which you couldn’t actually say on television.

    “As writers, we unconsciously tend toward an idealized version of our world, a place where things make more sense than they really do.” I disagree with this. It’s completely conscious in my case (this comes up in particular ways in writing mystery stories), and I don’t have any reason to think I’m unusual. And the way my characters speak (which in some cases is quite elevated, though not to Tarantino levels) is deliberate as well. My detective character grew up reading classic detective fiction, and she trained herself to speak that way (like Nero Wolfe, for example). So, in her case, too, very conscious. 🙂

    • You’re right, there’s certainly a wide range of possibility in terms of dialogue realism, and I wouldn’t want to lose the Tarantinos and Sorkins of the world either. I think there’s a place for both. Sometimes you want to read (or watch) tight, smart writing. Other times you want to experience something that recognizes how senseless, random, and fragmented the real world can be. Art is strange like that…

  2. You didn’t mention another use of “shtuff”- at least among my peer group, we use it as a concious euphemism for “shit”, sometimes to account for nearby adults, and partially because it’s just really fun to say.

    Of course, outside of our little group of adolescents, I don’t imagine that’s a very common usage.

  3. Well, this post is really, really fascinating. I think that if using shtuff expresses a part of a character particularly well, then writers shouldn’t be afraid of using it. At the same time, if it’s not necessary, I don’t think that it should be anywhere near the words that appear on the paper. As for in real life, this brings up even more fun philosophy and other such assorted nonsense (Said sarcastically, in case that wasn’t evident in the sentence). I’m curious now-what are your thoughts on why hiding ourselves is so necessary for society to function properly? Is it necessary for society to function at all, or is it just something that evolved early on in the evolution of society and isn’t necessary anymore, but continues to exist anyway?

    • I think misdirection – hiding ourselves – is as necessary to society as honesty is. Reining in your true feelings isn’t just necessary to protect others. It also protects yourself, allowing you to get work done when you don’t feel like it. If we dumped our feelings all over each other, we’d never learn to control them – and there wouldn’t be time for anything else.

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