Sex in Flash Fiction: The Session

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Thank you to everyone who came to Sex in Flash Fiction. It was lovely to put so many names to faces. For anyone who wasn’t able to attend, this is the presentation in written form, along with the slides that accompanied it. It’s fairly long, and I cherry-picked a great deal, so it includes information that didn’t end up in the session. Feel free to view the slides on their own, or read them in conjunction with the text. Either works

However you do it, use what works for you and ignore what doesn’t. My only agenda was to give you tools to help you to sound like you at your writerly best. This session was about skills—not requirements. Play with them. Experiment. Keep what works and ditch what doesn’t. Trust your gut. No one knows as much about your writing as you do.

SESSION GOALS

  1. The ability to make the most of a limited word count.
  2. A sense of how to use sex to convey meaning and impact.
  3. The ability to set up and subvert the reader’s expectations.
  4. Five concrete tools you can tailor to your own style.

 Erotica can be divided into countless subgenres, but when you boil them all down they tend to fall into one of two categories—stories in which sex is the point, and stories in which sex makes a point. While this session focuses on the latter, you can just as easily apply it to the former or any other kind of fiction for that matter. But, before digging into this skillset, I want to talk terms.

 WHAT IS FLASH FICTION?

Flash fiction is a story stripped of everything that isn’t fundamental to its story-ness. Picture a lush, fairy tale wood full of poison apples and snow queens and pretty ladies with long, long hair. That’s a novel. Now, picture a broken slipper on the forest floor. That’s flash.

Flash fiction takes a microscopic view. Because of that, everything counts. In flash, unlike in novels, what you don’t say means just as much as what you do. That’s why it’s such a powerful form for eroticism and sex.

Concision doesn’t leave room for extensive description, which actually great because we all know how sex works—you don’t have to waste time on thrusts per minute. We get it. What we won’t get is why it matters. In flash, context is king—it’s much more important than sexual mechanics. I know that might sound limiting, especially for an inherently descriptive genre, but there’s actually a lot of freedom in that restriction. It pushes you to find eroticism in the mundane and unexpected, and that’s a good way to connect to the reader.

SEX IN FLASH FICTION

Sex is everywhere, from the bend of a neck to ice cubes melting in a glass. The pressure of a limited word count demands specificity. You’re aiming for maximum impact in a story distilled to its essence. So, how do you do that with sex?

Surprise the reader.

You’re not going to do that by describing a blow job step-by-step. Remember, this is erotica, not a how-to manual. The impact isn’t in the mechanics. It’s in the significance. You have to make the blow job matter. Mine the characters for motive and meaning. Find the erotic in unexpected places. Sexualize things that aren’t normally sexualized.  Set up the reader’s expectations. Then narrow your focus and twist the lens.

That’s how you make a story out of sex. Let sex seep into everything. Let it guide or subvert the reader’s expectations. That’s how you make a story out of sex. Make her horny. Break his heart. Anything goes, but first you have to assume the reader has a baseline understanding of how sex works, (and if they’re reading erotica, they probably do). The assumption will let you surprise them. That’s where the impact is.

THE FIVE TOOLS:

Details

Word Choice

Pacing & Rhythm

Negative Space

Imagery

All of these tools affect one another—Imagery leans on Details; Details lean on Negative Space, etc. There’s a lot of overlap, but details form the foundation the rest are built on, so that’s where we’ll start.

DETAILS

It’s not enough to paint a pretty, sexy, gritty, hot picture—the picture has to do something. The details can be as porny as Friday night on the Vegas strip, but they also have to reveal something fundamental about the story. If your details are generic, then your story is generic, no matter how well your characters get fucked.

Details are also a great way to subvert the reader’s expectations. Don’t tell me your protagonist is a “curvy blonde”. Tell me her nickname was Fuck Me Barbie in school…and then tell me she’s a virgin. Now, dig deeper. What if she’s hired an escort for her birthday? Does the escort know it’s her first time? How would that effect the experience? What if the escort was a woman? Would it matter?

Ask yourself questions and let your instincts give you the answers. Those answers are where you’ll find the details that give sex meaning in a story. It doesn’t matter if that detail has to do with a glass dildo or teacup. Details are the key to impact.

Example:

Kiss me a question, ask me again with your eyes and I’ll answer with my fingers, trailing reasons down your spine. There’s a theory behind your knees and postulate in that sweet spot on your neck, and I’ll respond to your query with a smooch and a holler, roll you up against the sink and wash your hair, make love till the plates fall off the shelf

-Lou Beach (from 420 Characters, p. 77)

Lou Beach is really good with details. The narrator is going to roll her up against the sink and wash her hair. What does that tell you about this couple? How about the smooch and holler? I get a lot more information out of that “smooch and holler” then I would from a “kiss and a smile”.

While it’s true that it would’ve been more efficient for the narrator to say, “I’m gonna to fuck you up against the sink,” that statement doesn’t tell this story. “I’m gonna to fuck you,” belongs to a different couple. This story and this relationship come alive in those falling plates.

WORD CHOICE

With a super limited word count, you just don’t have room for generic prose. The reason Beach pulled that story off is because every word had effects the whole. Just as with details, words give a story momentum and punch, but only if you choose them carefully. You have to make every word count.

And now, a note on euphemism.

Euphemism can be tempting, especially when you’ve already used the word “cunt” fifteen times on a page. But instead of sucking up word count with passion petals, try rephrasing the action. Whereas euphemisms yanks the reader out of the story, rephrasing is less likely to distract. As an added bonus, it usually results in tighter prose. And less cringing.

Moving on.

In her excellent post on flash fiction, writer, poet and editor, Adrea Kore, recommended that you “work your verbs hard” and she’s right. The same goes for nouns. Regardless of whether you’re writing a sentence or a novel, strong, specific words make tight prose. Hit hard with your nouns and verbs, and half your description is taken care of.

Muscled nouns and verbs also let you be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. I’m not saying don’t use them. All I’m saying is choose where and how. If every noun comes with an adjective, the picture gets muddy, but if you’re selective, the few that you do use make the details pop.

Another thing you can play with is reflective words. Think about your characters or situation. Is he trapped in a seedy hotel room? Or does he live in a seedy hotel room? Let his circumstances show in the words you use. Does he have “a nicotine grin” or a “church-lady grimace”? Reflective words show us who he is more efficiently than paragraphs of background.

Example:

it always comes back to you

boils

circles

itches

its way back to you.

– Rupi kaur, (from Milk and Honey, p. 114)

Like flash fiction, poetry demands concision. The poet, Rupi Kaur is a magician with concision because she wrings the most out of her words. Boils…circles…itches…. Her feelings for this person are not easy or comfortable, but she’s going to do it anyway because this person has a pull. It’s inevitable, regardless of how she feels about it, and we know that because of the words she chose to describe her compulsive attraction.

PACING & RHYTHM

Pacing and rhythm effect how your reader engages text on a visceral level. Play with rhythm and you play with the reader, but before you can do that, you have to jump start the story.

In flash fiction, there’s no room for build up, so don’t be afraid to start in the media res. It doesn’t matter if it’s an argument, seduction, an orgy, a date, a trip to the grocery store, whatever. Start in the middle of the action. Dropping the reader in gives the story urgency, and urgency is a very good hook…which brings me to rhythm. Rhythm is a great way to pull on that hook.

You know how every conversation has a rhythm? Those rhythms are dictated by details, everything from how well the people know each other and whether or not he’s wearing knickers. The same thing goes with prose, except a story’s rhythm is dictated by details in context and narrative rather than by life.

You can play with rhythm in a lot of different ways, but one of the easiest is word choice. Use alliteration and assonance. Pay attention to the way a word feels in your mouth. Slither, crack, liquid. What does the sound imply? Good words set a tone. The reader won’t consciously know what you’ve done, but you’ll grab them by the brain stem if you choose words that establish and mirror the rhythm of the action.

Another good way to play with rhythm is to vary the length of your sentences. Use fragments, and long winding sentences. Punctuate long winding sentences with fragments, or even single words. If a character’s getting off, let the prose mirror the sex, her orgasm or her state of mind—long and drifting or hard and biting? Again, the reader won’t necessarily notice but, subconsciously, they’ll feel it as they read. That’s how you get under the reader’s skin.

Example:

 When she closed her eyes she felt he had many hands, which touched her everywhere, and many mouths, which passed so swiftly over her, and with a wolflike sharpness, his teeth sank into her fleshiest parts. Naked now, he lay his full length over her.

-Anais Nin, from Delta of Venus.

One long, rolling sentence, followed by a short, sharp one. That first sentence, with its dreamy build and “many mouths” cuts off with “wolflike sharpness”. Then she follows it with a straightforward statement of fact—“naked now, he lay his full length over her.”

That rolling rise to blunt statement mimics her emotional experience while they’re having sex, and it’s all executed through pacing and word choice. The rhythm lulls the reader right in—your there before you even know how it happened.

NEGATIVE SPACE

Negative space is subtext that functions on the same principle as rhythm—it forms a visceral connection between the reader and the story. Think of it as a doorway into the text, one you deliberately leave open. There are a lot of ways to do this, but two of the simplest are ambiguity and implication.

Casually speaking, ambiguity and implication do roughly the same thing—they allow for more than one interpretation, but they do so in two different ways. Ambiguity blurs the reader’s ability to draw a definitive conclusion, and implication sets the stage for multiple conclusions.

Ambiguity is all about the deliberate use of details. Unless it’s relevant to the core of the story, don’t waste word count describing her tits, or her hair, or her big brown eyes. Instead, use active description to invite the reader into her sexual response—the peaky, unfamiliar ache of the clamps on her nipples, or how she feels her heartbeat in her cunt.

Ambiguity is not about leaving details out. It’s about creating space for the reader in the details you give. Lack of specificity in some areas paired with great specificity in others leaves the story open so the reader can slide in, and that’s exactly what you want.

Implication, on the other hand, is about interpretation. It works off the same basic principle but, whereas ambiguity leaves a door open for the reader, implication sets up multiple doors, and then allows the reader to choose. This leads me to writerly kryptonite—the impulse to control and explain.

When I first started writing, I wanted the reader to completely understand EXACTLY what I meant, so I tried to explain everything.

Ages ago, I wrote a story about a guy who didn’t answer a text from his crush. I went on to explain that he’d just had a really bad break up with his ex, Michelle, who left him for his sister’s best friend, Tammy, who was from Wyoming, where they now live and raise llamas on a ranch next to a chicken farm and when they aren’t raising llamas and selling boutique llama wool, they’re having amazing lesbian sex that he can hear from three states away.

I put all of that in, just in case—even though it was supposed to be a 100-word story about regret. Needless to say, Tammy and the llamas did nothing to distill that story’s core. All I did was clog the negative space and spoon-feed the reader a pile of useless information. In trying to control the reading, I lost the point.

Negative space is an act of trust. You cannot control how a story is read. You can only control how you write it. So, basically, you have two choices. You can either make the reader complicit and let them interpret your story through the lens of their own experience, or you can fill the negative space with a single, magical meaning. Unfortunately, single magical meanings lock the reader out and risk losing their interest. That’s risky under any circumstance, but even more so when you don’t have enough word count to reel them back in.

Example:

They walk hip to hip, knuckles brushing, as they measure their potential in the rhythm of their feet

-“A Love Story in 18 Words” by Malin James

I posted this a few months ago. It’s an extreme example of negative space. The characters are unnamed and ungendered, all we know is that they’re trying to sort out whether or not to keep dating. The entire story takes place between the lines. My job, when I was writing this, was to create a frame for the reader to fill in. My priority was emotional resonance, so I wrote a story that was mostly negative space with that goal in mind.

IMAGERY

If there were one tip I’d give anyone on writing flash fiction, it would be the one in that quote—start with one, strong, central image and build the story from there. It can be an image from a dream, a painting, a photograph—any kind of visual prompt. A woman writing on her skin, a tall, narrow house, a girl on stage at an auction. Each of those images became a story that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Imagery is the culmination of all of the other tools we’ve talked about. It’s made of specific, telling details and painted with words; it propels the story forward and invites the reader in. It sets up expectations, and just as easily subverts them. It is, in fact, the distillation of a story to its core. So, how does it work, especially with sex?

Start with one, strong central image. With erotic flash, that image can be obviously sexual or, just as effectively, seemingly innocent. This brings us full circle, back to finding sex in everything. Find it, and you’ve got the germ of a story.

Take the obviously sexual image of a couple fucking in a hotel window. You’ve set the reader’s expectations right out of the gate, so now you’re free to mine the characters and situation for unexpected details. What if this isn’t their hotel room? What if they stole the key? What if she’s setting him up? What if he knows?

Dig into the details around that overtly sexual image, and surprise the reader. Take what they expect—exhibitionist sex in a window—and make it significant in some way. Take the reader’s expectation and turn it on its head.

Now, let’s take an image that has nothing to do with sex—like a pair of striped socks. Where is the eroticism in a pair of striped socks? Is it in the memory of the first time they fucked? Did he leave the socks on when everything else came off? Did his partner teased him about it? Or does she wear them under a pair of spiked, patent-leather boots? Are rainbow striped socks her clean little secret?

Imagery taps right to the reader’s expectations—set them up, and then confirm or subvert what you’ve implied. It’s a way to directly engage the reader, give the story impact and distill the story’s core all at the same time.

 Example:

Here’s an example of imagery at its flash fiction best:

She pulled up my sleeve and bit me ‘til it left a mark. She left me a scent of giggles and a note on my skin saying: “Now you’ll remember me.” I walked around for five days with a bruise that had the backside of a rainbow and screams of My oh my. I’ve never been so angry before.

-from “Mine” by Szilvia Molnar, Quick Fiction)

This fragment illustrates how an image can pull all five tools together. A bruise that has “the backside of a rainbow and screams My oh my”…there’s our central image.

Given the playfulness of the bite (the scent of giggles and the “now you’ll remember me”), the reader gets a sense that this was a pivotal experience, laid over with the kind of unspoken eroticism you get with a first crush. But then that last line—“I’ve never been so angry before.” There are acres of negative space in that statement, which has double the impact because of that bruise—that bright, back-sided rainbow of a bite.

The story swings from Coca-Cola sweetness to confused betrayal in less than two lines, all because of details, word choice, rhythm, negative space and imagery hang in meaningful balance. Even more importantly, the author trusts the reader to find that meaning for themselves.

It’s a brilliant piece on all fronts and, while it’s not deliberately erotic, the image it centers on—the bruise—is deeply erotic. Even better, that eroticism underscores an overall effect that is complicated and deeply human. That is eroticism at its most powerful. Human complication is right at home with sex.

CONCLUSION

While the tools I’ve talked about have a place in all writing, flash demands a little extra focus in how they get used. But there’s no magic formula. Anyone can do it, especially if you’re willing to surprise yourself. Surprise yourself, and you surprise the reader.

Unlike long-form fiction, flash isn’t about dating the reader. It’s about giving them a hard, smacking kiss. It’s up to you, as the writer, to provide the chemistry. Sometimes it takes experimentation to get the balance right, but when it works it’s immensely satisfying.

Sources, Resources, Examples, Links, Recommendations & Two Prompts

Sex in Flash Fiction: Sources & Resources

Black and white photograph of a woman in a black dress wearing white glovesAs promised, here is a list of presentation sources, resources, links, recommendations and examples of sex in flash fiction. Basically, this is everything that wouldn’t fit on a PowerPoint slide, plus two bonus prompts. (ooh!)

I’ll post the full presentation in the next few days, but in the meantime, here are some rabbit holes to fall down.

Presentation Sources:

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Fielded. Tara L. Masih. Rose Metal Press, 2009.

Adrea Kore’s Guest Post on Flash Fiction. F. Dot Leonora, October 7, 2016.

“Short and Sweet: Reading and Writing Flash Fiction” by Amanda Christy Brown & Katherine Schulten. The New York Times, October, 3, 2013.

‘”Flash Fiction: What’s It All About?” by Becky Such. The Review Review, 2015.

Example Credits:

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2015. (p. 114) –> Word Choice.

420 Characters by Lou Beach. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. (p. 77) –> Details

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Harcourt Brace Jovanavich, 1977. –> Pacing and Rhythm

“A Love Story in 18 Words” by Malin James. People. Sex. Culture. February, 2017. –> Negative Space

“Mine” by Szilvia Molnar. Quick Fiction. (Out of Print). –>Imagery

Additional Resources:

On Implication by Malin James

Tell Me a (Very Short) Story: On Plot in Flash Fiction by Malin James

What You Owe the Reader by Malin James

Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction by David Gaffney

Why Write Erotic Fiction by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Flash Fiction: A List of Resources at The Review Review

FlashFiction.Net: For Readers, Writers, Editors, Publishers & Fans of (Short) Short Fiction

Recommendations & Examples:

F. Dot Leonora’s Friday Flash Meme (erotic flash fiction)

Remittance Girl

Adrea Kore

Dirty Little Numbers, ed. by Lana Fox & Angela Taveres. Go Deeper Press, 2013.

The Big Book of Orgasmsed. Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis Press, 2013.

The Big Book of Submissioned. Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis Press, 2014.

Gotta Have Ited. Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis Press, 2012.

Sudden Fiction, ed. Robert Shapard & James Thomas. Gibbs Smith, 1983.

Bonus Prompts!

  • Write a piece of erotic flash fiction, no longer than 500 words, about a mundane item of clothing. No corsets, knickers or ball gags. Think trainers and pajama pants. The challenge is to make something not sexy, sexy in as few words as possible. Added points if that sexiness gives the story resonance.

 

  • Take a tired, done-to-death trope, like the big bad alpha or the simpering sub, and turn it on it’s head. Twist the lens. Find something fresh and erotic in a scenario you’ve basically read to death.

ps – If you write or post anything based on these prompts, let me know – I’d love to read it.

Eroticon: Meet and Greet

Eroticon is less than 2 weeks away (!) and the traditional online meet and greet has begun. Over the years, I’ve read Eroticon introduction posts by various bloggers and friends and wished I could be there in person. I’m over the moon that this year I finally am. So, here are my answers and I’m very much looking forward to seeing everyone there.

NAME:

I’m Malin in real life and @MalinMJames on Twitter.

What are you hoping to get out of Eroticon 2017?

I have kind of a two-part answer to that. As one of the speakers, I’m hoping to give a session that empowers writers from all sorts of backgrounds to explore and experiment with their work.

As an attendee, I’m definitely hoping to learn all sorts of things I didn’t know that I didn’t know – the schedule is packed with speakers from all sorts of disciplines. That said, I’m also really looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting news ones. It sounds corny but it’s true.

This years schedule at Eroticon is pretty full on but which 4 sessions do you already have marked down as ones you want to attend?

This is a hard… I have a feeling it’s going to be a bit like ordering on the fly at a restaurant, but I do know that I want to see Kate Lister’s talk on the erotic history of obscenity and Tabitha Rayne’s session on erotic art (I’m definitely not and artist but visual art fascinates me). I’d also love to see Girl on the Net’s talk and Ashley Lister’s… deciding is going to be tough in the best possible way.

Tell us one thing about yourself that not many people know?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a museum curator….and an actor. Weirdly, I became an actor, but I never got close to being a curator, though did work in a university library’s historical archive, which is super cool.

If you made the papers, what would the headline be?

God, I don’t know. Can I take a pass? Unless I win the Nobel Prize (not likely) I think I’d rather remain a reclusive writer.

If you could have one skill for free (I.e. without practice/time/effort) what would it be?

SINGING! Oh, my god, I’d love to be able to sing. Like, really sing.

Complete the sentence: I love it when…

It rains? My daughter smiles? People think for themselves? People I love are happy? I love it when a lot of things happen. I’m kind of easy that way 🙂

And that’s it! To read other introductions, click here. And if you haven’t bought a ticket yet, and you’re planning on going, go here and do that. Seriously. For serious. See you there. 

Tell Me A (Very Short) Story

Black and white image of a woman with writing in black ink on her back

Skin Writing II by Matou Malin

Welcome to the second installment of my pre-Eroticon, I-Had-More-Material-Than-Will-Fit-In-The-Session series. This one is on flash fiction and plot. Or, more, specifically, does flash fiction need to have a plot?

Opinions vary (sometimes violently), but my answer to this question is yes. And no. Flash is a wily thing.

Before I can dig into my non-response properly, it’s important to look at what, exactly, “plot” means.

Generally speaking, plot is defined as a story’s rising and falling action, or what’s typically called a narrative arc. Implicit in that understanding is the assumption that a traditional narrative arc is one of a story’s baseline requirements. In other words, it needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. If it doesn’t, it’s something else—a vignette, a scene, a prose poem, but not a “proper story”.

So, given all that, what’s the difference between flash fiction, (which often doesn’t contain a clean narrative arc), and, say, a prose poem?

It’s a thin line, but the difference is in the fact that fiction, unlike poetry, is an inherently temporal form – it’s rooted in a particular time and place. By contrast, a prose poem is, essentially, an observation, which means that, as prescient as the observation might be, it has a universal quality that prevents it from anchoring itself to a specific, temporal space.

Stories, unlike prose poems, are populated by characters with needs and motivations, and those characters need to exist somewhere. That somewhere (even if it’s just an empty room in an unknown year) implies physical existence, the passage of time and changes in circumstance. Stories have characters and characters have needs, which means that something will change, or fail to in a meaningful way. That process is dynamic, and the dynamic movement from point A to point B is what forms a narrative.

This tinkers with the traditional notion of plot, but less so than you’d think. It doesn’t matter if the change happens on the grand scale or unfolds quietly in a single page. What matters is that the change is rooted in a character’s longing. It can be as broad as trying to save the world, or as subtle wanting to get out of bed and not being able to. If there’s need there’s change and that naturally forms plot.

And, in the end, that’s all plot really is—a character pursuing a need. Or, to put it more dramatically, plot is the portrait of a character’s desire—how they pursue it, how it’s  thwarted, and how (or if) it’s resolved. That resolution of a desire usually comes in the form of an epiphany—a realization that signals a pivot in the character’s outlook or circumstance. That pivot is the change that represents movement through a set of temporal circumstances, i.e.: the plot.

The journey from challenge to resolution has acres of room to breathe in novels. It has the opposite in flash fiction. But just because a character’s longing can’t unfold in epic or obvious ways doesn’t mean it’s not there.

While the brevity required in short, short fiction doesn’t often allow for a “fully developed plot”, flash fiction has the luxury of taking a microscope to the thwarted desires and revelations that drive traditional narrative forms. Flash fiction may appear to be inherently “plotless”, but if there is a character at the heart of it, and that character has a need, then that story has the DNA of plot and can, quite comfortably, be considered proper fiction.

Now, I’m going to be wild and crazy and say something that a lot of people would disagree with. I don’t think flash fiction has to have a plot, even in DNA form. That said, it also can’t just shuffle around without a point or purpose.

Monologues, vignettes, scenes and sketches, like prose poetry, are driven (generally speaking) by the universal observations I mentioned earlier. While some would disagree with my taking an inclusive view, I believe that these are also legitimate forms of storytelling because they achieve through observation what plot does through desire and conflict—they reflect an essential human truth or condition.

When you strip it down, that’s what fiction is, regardless of length. It’s a made-up story that reflects an essential human truth. That’s why characters in flash fiction are more important than a beginning, middle and end. The truth can be anything from desperately wanting to fuck your ex, to grieving the loss of a child. Whether it happens through observation, or the temporally specific plot movements, fiction reflects what it is to be a person in the world. Whether it’s a novel or a paragraph, that’s what fiction does.

So, does flash fiction need a plot?

It would be more useful to ask if flash fiction can accommodate a plot, and the answer to that is yes. But flash can also accommodate breathless observation, devastating reflection and humanity in all of it glorious, filthy complexity, and, in the end, they serve the same function as plot.

We are humans, and humans are driven by desire. Whether that desire is for a glass of water or the golden fleece, longing, wanting and needing are fundamental human conditions. As long as a story taps into what it is to be fundamentally human, it’s storytelling and it’s powerful, regardless of length.

Other Eroticon-Inspired Writer Posts

On Implication

What You Owe the Reader

On Implication

Repeating image of hands overlapping against a black and white back drop.

Hands, Hands…Horst P. Horst (New York, 1941)

It’s February, which means Eroticon is less than a month away (and shining like a light on the horizon), so I’ve started pulling my session notes together. The subject of my session is sex in flash fiction or, more specifically, how to write sex that turns the reader on reader on and lends a story impact, weight and relevance.

In writing as in life, sex is powerful on multiple levels. Knowing how to play with those levels makes for fiction that resonates—not just sexually, but emotionally and psychologically, as well. It’s one of my favorite writerish things to talk about, mostly because there’s so much to say—far more than I could ever fit into 55 minutes.

Rather than try to fit the ocean in a teacup, I figured I’d write a small series of posts on some of the things I’d flesh out a bit more if I were hosting a series of workshops, rather than a single session. It also has the nice, inclusive side effect of opening up the topic for those who aren’t going to Eroticon this year.

Side note: While the session is going to touch lightly on all of this, these posts are in no way a prerequisite. The only prerequisite I have is that you bring an open mind and a willingness to experiment in whatever way suits your style and interests.

So, back to keeping your writing tight. For this post, I want to talk about implication, which is as important in fiction as it is in flirting, (and, as any good flirt can tell you, worlds of filthy stuff can be said between the squeaky-clean lines). It’s part of something called “negative space”, which I’ll get into more during the session. For now, I want to focus on what implication has to do with connecting to the reader.

Sex and flash fiction were made for each other, largely because, like horror (or any other psychologically driven genre), the best erotic writing has a visceral impact. A restricted word count forces every element to count, which makes for a story that packs a hard punch. While a 250-word limit might sound crazy-pants, it’s actually an opportunity to nail your reader down on a deep, visceral level. But, in order to make that work, you’ve got to do something first. You’ve got to trust the reader. Here’s what I mean.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this:

They walk hip to hip, knuckles brushing, as they measure their potential in the rhythm of their feet..

I wrote that sentence in response to someone’s assertion that it’s impossible to write a “proper story” in less than 20 words because you can’t “trust the reader to get it”. Whether or not this qualifies as a “proper story” is a matter of opinion—some people like a clear beginning, middle and end, so if that’s what you’re after, it may not be your cup of tea. The idea of trusting the reader though, that’s something I have definite feelings on.

The story in that sentence comes more from implication than actual text. These two people are in sync enough to walk naturally together, but they aren’t yet sure of their potential as a couple. It’s a very specific moment in a relationship—the exploration of an unspoken line. Will they continue on together, or not? I know what I think is going to happen, but what I think isn’t the point.

That’s where trusting the reader comes in.

The reader’s only job is to read – not correctly interpret the “true” meaning of a story, as laid out by the author with loving precision. While I do believe that the author’s intention is important, I don’t believe the reader is obliged to treat it like the word of an authorial god.

What an author intends shapes a story. That’s why intention is important—it lends the writer direction and purpose. It is not, however, the only determinant of a story’s impact. Impact comes not only from the writing, but from how the reader engages it. It’s about making and maintaining a connection…sort of like flirting.

While you definitely don’t want your motives misinterpreted (flirting is one thing, but being a creeper is another), the best way to facilitate a natural connection is to be aware of the person you’re talking to. So, rather than trusting the reader to “get it”, it’s much more productive to invite their interest. Implication is one really efficient, really effective way to do that.

A writer controls the writing process. What a writer can’t control is how a story gets read because every, single reader will bring something different to it. And that’s okay. That’s how connections are made. That’s how you get a story that has a secret, powerful, visceral impact on someone other than yourself. All you have to do is leave a little blank space between the lines, and let the reader fill it in.

That’s how you get out of the way, and let the reader engage your work on their terms. When they do, it’s magic, like crazy chemistry on a first date. It means they’re trusting you enough to let you take them somewhere, anywhere, even places you don’t know about. It means they’re with you, no matter where it leads.

Fiction: Christmas Yet to Come

Classic pin up writing her Christmas List for Christmas Yet to Come by Malin James

Nylons, club coup, Cary Grant….
(Studio pinup c. 1955)

It’s a few days before Christmas and I love Christmas. In fact, Tim Minchin pretty much summed up all of warm, cosy feelers my atheistic little heart has about Christmas in this song (which totally makes me cry, by the way. Big feelers). 

I normally do at least one Christmas story for the blog, but December’s been crazy and I haven’t written anything that didn’t make me want to stake myself with mistletoe, so I decided to post a story I wrote for Rose Caraway a few years ago for a Christmas edition of The Kiss Me Quick’s Erotica Podcast

This story, “Christmas Yet to Come”, is an unapologetically romantic take on Scrooge’s redemption in A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite Christmas stories, especially when performed by the Muppets (don’t judge). And, if you’re looking for a distraction while you’re wrapping presents or baking or cooking food for an army, you can listen to Rose Caraway read “Christmas Yet to Come”, as well as her own sexy take on the Dickens story (this one involving candy-striped knee-high socks), by clicking here.

“Christmas Yet to Come” by Malin James

Art by Dayv ‘Big Daddy’ Caraway

“If I have to say merry Christmas again, I’m gonna kill someone….”

Mark adjusted his glasses and picked up the invoices he’d been trying to file all morning. It was Christmas Eve—the world wouldn’t end if he left them. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that Claire was about to leave early, so he was stuck on the register saying “Merry Christmas” when he’d rather be in his office ignoring the holiday altogether.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” Claire, asked as she shrugged on her bright red coat. “You don’t look good, Mark. I hate thinking of you here all alone. I mean—”

“It’s okay. I know what you mean.”

Mark ran a hand through his rumpled hair, frustrated to a degree he knew was unreasonable. The divorce had barely gone through, and his ex, Bethany, was spending the holidays with her new fiancé—their former marriage counselor, Travis Dean. It was the first time in five years she wouldn’t be with him at the store on Christmas Eve.

“Look, Mark,” Claire said, straightening the bookmarks in their little, metal rack, “why don’t you come to my sister’s house? She made goose! And plum pudding…whatever that is.”

Claire’s brows crinkled beneath her fluffy white hat. Mark tried to smile. He knew she was only trying to help. Everyone and their mother was trying to save him from a lonely, miserable Christmas. The only problem was that a lonely, miserable Christmas was exactly what Mark wanted.

“Thanks, Claire. Really. I just want to keep it low-key. Go and enjoy the goose.”

“Are you sure? I mean…it would be great if you to could come.”

Claire met his eyes and blushed. Despite everything, Mark’s stomach flipped. For a moment, they just stood there, looking at each other. Finally, Mark shook his head.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sure.” Then he handed handed Claire an old umbrella. “Here—you’d better take this. The storm is getting worse.”

Claire smiled, but couldn’t quite hide her disappointment. Mark turned back to the invoices. Her pretty, blue eyes were almost enough to change his mind.

“Okay, then. If you’re sure…” Claire said, as she headed to the door. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. Merry Christmas, Mark.”

“Merry Christmas, Claire.”

 

Despite the busy morning, the store remained empty all afternoon, thanks to the massive storm hitting the Bay. They’d always stayed open on Christmas Eve to catch any last minute business. Needless to say, he wasn’t up for that this year. This year, Mark’s big plan for the holiday was to bury himself in paperwork and turn off the Christmas music. Now that would be nice, Mark thought, contemplating the silence. More than anything he just wanted Burl Ives to shut up.

Mark flipped the Closed sign and locked the door before eying the Christmas lights Claire had insisted they put up in the window. He was itching to turn them off, but that would have required rummaging through a tangle of cords and power strips, which wasn’t worth the hassle, so he left the lights blinking and headed back to his office.

His office. Not his and Bethany’s. Because Bethany was in Peru with Travis Dean.

Mark pinched the bridge of his nose, torturing the headache he’d had for months. Bethany loved Christmas, and she was missing it because Travis Dean loved Peru. Fucking Travis Dean…. Every trip they’d never taken twisted Mark’s gut as he shoved past Bethany’s chair. Then he shook a handful of Tums out of an industrial sized bottle and tried to get work.

Mark squinted, trying to make sense of the inventory screen, but the numbers kept bleeding together. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was so goddamned tired. He could have slept for days….

“Wake up.”

Mark heard something, but chose to ignore it.

“Dude, wake up.”

There it was again. Mark shifted but didn’t open his eyes.

“MARK! WAKE THE FUCK UP!”

Mark sat up and slammed his head on the shelf above his desk.

“OW! Fuck! What?

“There you are! Finally. You’re a super heavy sleeper, huh?”

Mark blinked and rubbed his head. There was a girl sitting on his desk. She was wearing a pencil skirt and cowboy boots and a leather jacket over a Metallica shirt, but despite the thrown-together look of her clothes, her hair was glossy, and her cat’s-eye make-up looked airbrushed on.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m Marley,” she said, kicking her feet.

“Marley? Like Marley in A Christmas Carol?”

“No,” Marley said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t be a dumbass.”

“How did you get in here? Did you break in?”

“No! Of course not!”

She looked indignant, as if he’d really offended her. He almost felt bad, but then he remembered she was sitting on his spreadsheets and he still didn’t know why.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, before standing up and whacking his head again.

OW. Never mind. Just go.”

“I can’t go,” the girl said. “You’re my assignment.”

“Your assignment?”

Marley smiled and patted his arm.

“Why don’t I start from the start. Strictly speaking, I’m not here. The only reason you can see me is because you’re asleep—see?”

Mark looked down. His body was slumped over and his head was on the keyboard. The screen was filled, appropriately enough, with zzzzzz’s. He didn’t look good. He might have been drooling. Embarrassed, he tried to shake himself awake, but his hand passed right through his body. Marley smirked.

“Sorry, dude. You can’t touch yourself.”

“Then why could I hit my head?”

“I dunno,” she said, shrugging. “It’s your dream. Look, I just need to give you the skinny on what’s about to happen. Then you can go back to sleep for real. Okay?”

“Sure,” Mark said, edging into Bethany’s empty chair. It took his weight with a groan. He gave Marley a look.

“Seriously, why can I sit in this chair but not shake myself awake? Is it dream logic…? Or something else?”

“I told you I don’t know. It’s your dream. Jeez, you think too much. Anyway, like I was saying, I’ve been assigned to you. Every year I get sent to someone who needs a little perspective. You’re my someone this year.”

Marley paused, swinging her legs back and forth. Mark shifted uncomfortably. She had really good legs.

“Thanks,” she said, grinning. “They’re not my best feature, but they’re all you’re gonna see!”

She gave him a wicked grin. For the first time in months, Mark felt his cock stir. All of a sudden, Marley jumped down off the desk and into his lap. Mark tried to shift away, but his cock only got harder.

“Aw! That’s super sweet! I haven’t given anyone a hard on in ages! Yay me!”

Mark stared at her, vaguely horrified.

“Don’t worry, dude. I’m older than I look,” she said. “So anyway, here’s the deal—”

“Let me guess,” Mark interrupted. “I’m going to be visited by three spirits.”

Marley rolled her eyes.

“God, you’re such a dork. No. They’re busy with people in way worse shape than you. You’re going to have a dream.”

Mark shook his head.

“I thought I was already having a dream.”

“You are having a dream, but not the real dream. Pay attention to the real dream, because the real dream is going tell you something you need to know. Plus, it’s gonna to be good, if you know what I mean.” She wiggled her brows suggestively. “You’re going to wake up happy.”

Marley ruffled his hair and jumped down off his lap. Mark tried to ignore the fact that his dick missed the curve of her ass. He wanted that hard-on gone. Suddenly, Marley shoved a finger in his face.

“Keep that hard on. That hard on is good. I swear you’re gonna have a merry Christmas if it kills you.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, warding her off. “Take it easy. Why do you care?”

Marley cocked her head. Suddenly, she looked serious, and much, much older than she’d first appeared to be.

“Because I get where you are. I remember. And because I’m assigned to you. Okay?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”

“Cool. Don’t flake on the lesson thing. And don’t think too much—you think way too much. Just have a good time. But learn something. I don’t want to see you next year.”

“Sure,” Mark said. He was starting to feel drowsy again. It was getting hard to process what Marley was saying.

“Poor guy,” Marley said, softening. “You’ll be okay. I promise.”

The little clock on the desk began to chime. Mark squinted at it, but couldn’t see the numbers straight. It looked like midnight, but that didn’t make sense if he’d only closed at four….

“Oh shit! I gotta go! Good luck. And Mark?”

“Yeah?”

“Merry Christmas!”

Suddenly, Marley was gone. Mark looked down at his body, but even as he did, things got blurry and he drifted back to sleep.

 

Mark heard something ringing. At first he thought it was the clock on his desk, but it was too insistent for that. Groggily, he sat up and wiped the drool off his chin before stumbling out of his office. His head ached like a sonofabitch, and the ringing didn’t help.

Outside, the storm had picked up—the wind was rattling the windows, and it would have been dark as midnight if it weren’t for Claire’s Christmas lights.

The chime rang again. Mark looked around, rubbing his head. The phone wasn’t ringing and nothing was on. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Then he heard a knock at the door and peered through the gloom.

Claire was outside, stomping her feet and blowing into her mittens. Even through the glass he could see that she was soaked.

Pushing his glasses up, Mark turned the lock and let her in.

“Claire, what are you doing here? I thought you were at your sister’s!”

Claire took off her sopping woolen hat and wrung it out before stepping over the threshold.

“Jeez, Mark. I wish you’d listen to messages. I forgot my sister’s present so I had to come back. Then is started to rain and there were no cabs, so I had to walk but when I got here, I didn’t have my key, so—”

“I got it, I got it,” Mark said. “Come on in.”

He was just about to close the door when the wind snatched it and slammed it shut.

“Whoa. It’s bad out there.”

“Yeah. I’m soaked.”

Mark glanced at her. It looked like someone had shoved her into the Bay. Her blonde pixie cut was plastered to her head and red woolen coat was soaked through. He didn’t usually notice how little she was because she was such a dynamo, but right at that moment, she looked like a miserable fairy. Then Claire started shivering and Mark’s protective streak kicked in.

“C’mon. Let’s warm you up.”

“Thanks,” she said, teeth chattering like a wind-up toy.

“The heater’s on in the office,” he said. “Take off your coat. I’ll dig up some towels.”

Mark went into the tiny stockroom and brought out a bath towel leftover from who knew what.

“Here,” he said, passing it to her. “It’s old, but I think it’s clean.”

“Thanks,” she said, giving him a lopsided grin. “I don’t suppose you have any spare clothes too?”

Claire plucked at her ruined leather pants.

“Uh…,” he said, noticing her figure for the first time.

She usually wore layers, but in tight pants and a wet sweater, he could actually see her proportions. She looked like a dancer—tiny breasts, slender waist, hips like a champagne flute…. Mark’s cock stirred. He wanted to see more, but he wasn’t about to con her into getting naked.

“Let me go check,” he said. “I might have a sweatshirt somewhere.”

“You know what,” she called, as he turned away. “It’s okay. I’m already warming up.”

Mark looked back at her, surprised by the husk in her voice. Claire was not a flirt. She was bookseller. Not that a bookseller couldn’t flirt, but she wasn’t that kind of girl–

the kind with a come-hither voice, who stripped down in her boss’s office. Except apparently she was.

Mark watched as she drew her fingertips down over the little metal button at the top of her ruined pants. Then she popped it and drew the zipper down, before working the wet leather slowly down her legs. He’d only just noticed her pink satin thong when Claire lifted her sweater up and slid it over her head. Mark caught his breath. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Naked, her breasts were as beautiful as he’d thought they would be—sweet and round with little pink nipples that were puckered from the cold.

Mark wanted to fill his mouth with her. He wanted to slide in between her slender thighs. He’d have given anything to see her without the useless little thong.

Claire smiled. Then she wiggled her hips and kicked her panties off as if she’d read his mind.

“Merry Christmas, Mark” Claire said.

The playfulness was gone, replaced by a lovely, sweet softness he was starved for. He wanted softness from her. He was tired of hard edges and strain. Mark cleared his throat.

“Merry Christmas, Clai—”

Before he could finish saying her name, Claire closed the distance between them and fit her hips against his, pressing his now massively hard dick into the hollow between her legs. Then her mouth was on his, gentle and sweet, despite the insistent push of her hips.

Mark, the man who never stopped thinking, stopped thinking then. Every ounce of his awareness sank into the silky chill of Claire’s skin. He felt as if he’d been asleep for years, and that her mouth was waking him up. He wanted to touch her everywhere, he wanted to touch every inch of her, but she broke the kiss before he could push her back against the shelv

“So,” she said, grinning as she unbuttoned his shirt, “all I needed to do was drown in a rainstorm and strip in your office? If I’d known it was that easy, I’d have done it months ago!”

“Well, the leather pants didn’t hurt,” Mark said, grinning as he shrugged out of his shirt. Then she sank to her knees and his smile faded.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said

“Do what,” Claire asked, clearly confused. “Suck your cock?”

Mark didn’t know what to say. Bethany had hated oral. On the few occasions she’d done it, it had always been part of a “gift.” He was used to his partner not wanting to suck his cock, so the fact that Claire was kneeling in front of him, unbuttoning his fly with the intention of doing just that made him feel a bit gun shy.

“Uh, yes.” he said. “That.”

Claire slid his boxers down and stroked shaft, slowly, from base to tip. Mark’s knees almost buckled.

“Of course I don’t have to, silly,” she said, angling her head. “I want to.”

Then she kissed his cockhead and slid it into her mouth. She sucked once, then twice, long and slow, before she released him with a smile that said she could have sucked him off for hours.

“You don’t understand, Mark,” she said, working his dick with her hand as she settled herself more comfortably on her knees. “I’ve been wanting to do this for years, but you were married, so there was no way. Now though…it’s okay, right?”

Mark’s pulse throbbed.

“Yeah,” he said, trying to see straight. “Yeah, it’s okay.”

“Good,” she said, licking the tip of his oversensitive head. “Then I’m going to get back to it.”

Mark braced himself on the doorframe, and began to thrust cautiously into her mouth. His ex had hated having her face fucked, but Claire seemed to be urging him on, pressing her fingers into his ass, and moaning when he began to move with less restraint.

“It’s okay,” she said, glancing up at him, before going right back to it.

She tongued his shaft and sucked him back in so hard that her mouth pulsed around him tighter than a cunt. He felt the tip of his head nudge the back of her throat, but even as the muscles contracted, Claire softened and pressed him deeper. Suddenly, Mark couldn’t stand it. He hauled her up and kissed her before she could protest.

“I need to fuck you. Now.”

He’d never said anything like that to a woman. But then he’d never needed to fuck anyone like he needed to fuck Claire.

She smiled as he picked her up and carried her back into the office. Her hair was a mess and her lips were swollen. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Suddenly he knew he’d been waiting. He’d been waiting for this. He’d been waiting for Claire. Claire’s heart-shaped face was the only thing wanted to see, and he wanted to see it every second of every day.

Mark backed her up against the messy shelves and lowered her onto the desk. The keyboard and a pile of invoices fell to the floor, but Mark didn’t care. Not when Claire was spreading her legs and tilting her hips with a dreamy, peachy smile lighting up her face. Mark reached down and touched her clit, rubbing gently as she whimpered and ground against his hand. Then he slid into her sweet, wet warmth.

She was an impossibly perfect fit. She was made for him, he thought.

“Are you okay,” she whispered, stroking his back.

Mark pressed his face against her neck and thrust in long, languid strokes, as if fucking her answered every question he’d ever had.

“I’m happy,” he said, smiling against her neck.

“Me too. Now, answer the door, okay?”

Mark looked at her, confused.

“What?”

“Answer the door, silly. I’m standing outside. Let me in so we can do this for real….”

Mark’s head began to spin. He squinted, trying to control the vertigo that was twisting the space around him. Then it stopped.

Slowly, Mark opened his eyes and saw the computer screen blinking like a Christmas tree. Mark rubbed his jaw and grimaced. He had drooled. He hoped the keyboard would be all right.

Very faintly, he heard a knock at the door. His cock was still hard. So hard, he was amazed he hadn’t come in his pants. Marley hadn’t been kidding—it really had been a good dream.

Knock, knock, knock.

“I’m coming,” he said, shaking his head to clear it. The dream was still vivid in his mind—he could practically smell sex and Claire’s sweet, violet scent. Shoving it aside, he hurried out to the tiny sales floor.

Claire was standing in the window. The rain had stopped. She was dry but her nose was rosy from the cold. Mark’s heart slammed hard enough to break his ribs. Telling himself to pull it together, Mark adjusting his glasses and opened the door.

“Hey,” he said.

He felt breathless. He felt like he was going to pass out.

“Hey,” Claire replied.

He stood there for a second, taking her in. This was the Claire he’d known for years—not the soaking wet minx wearing leather pants, but the bright-eyed sweetheart with her hand knit beret….

“Hey, wait. Are those leather pants? You have leather pants?”

Claire gave him a quirky little look.

“Sure I do. I wore them to work last week. You said you liked them…remember?”

Mark nodded. “Yeah. Now I remember.”

He remembered her looking hot.

They stood there awkwardly as something fragile passed between them. Mark wanted to pull her into the store and wrap his arms around her. He wanted to kiss her. But the dream was just a dream. He couldn’t assume….

“Hey, Mark? Look up.”

Mark looked up. Dangling over the doorframe was a sprig of mistletoe.

“Where did that come from,” he wondered.

“I hung it up the other day. Silly….”

She smiled shyly and leaned into him. Her hand was cool and sweet on his face.

“Is this okay,” she asked. Her mouth was a whisper from his.

“Yeah. This is okay.

Then her lips were on his, as soft as they’d been in the dream.

“Merry Christmas, Mark,” she whispered.

“Merry Christmas, Claire.”

THE END

For more on the holiday theme, check out the links below. An most importantly, Merry Christmas. May it be full of all the best feelers a holiday can bring. 

Dark and Deep

2000 Miles

The Holly and the Ivy

In the Bleak Midwinter (nonfiction)

Fairy Tale of New York

Flash Fiction: Dark & Deep

Black and white image of a woman biting her shoulder for Flash Fiction: His Voice by Malin James

From the Sacra series by Mona Kuhn

She thinks of his voice, his soul-grinding voice as she drifts off to sleep in a bed that’s far too big. His voice, that voice, drips through her. It echoes and coats her skin, like frost on the windows of the cold, dark room at the top of the narrow house.

Humming, lilting letters tumble down her spine. They slide into her hips. In his mouth, her name is the drip of melting ice, fragile and quiet, a secret dark and deep. It’s the forest in a poem, his mouth and her name, in a snowy, winter wood.

What is it about the way some people, one person, says her name – her name, the name she gave herself – that makes it the language of home? Not her physical home in the too-wide bed, but the home where her pulse rests deep in her belly, buried between her thighs.

She thinks of the language he made of her name as her hand slips down, past cotton and flannel, down to her lonely skin. Her body strains to meet her. Her name on his tongue is the country they made, the map of her slippery soul. She arches, placing the whole of herself in the cup of her capable hand.

Sounds, not words, filled the room long ago. In her mind, they do again. His breathing, her breathing, catching breath, bitten moans. They melt ice and salt the bed. She strains and falls open, longing for home, his voice, her name, her name…. The hollow ache of absence. The weight that isn’t there. Her mind is somewhere dark and deep, slick with dripping frost.

Her mouth parts like a shell, round and full of a name, his name, the name he has given himself. It tumbles down her spine, carried by her voice. Tight, pulsing echoes. Sound cracks, like ice, in her chest. Bones shudder and she is home.

Frost limns the window, but she is warm, warm, warm. Her breathing deepens and slows. Memories, murmurs, whispers on skin, so many years ago…she rests in the language they made for themselves, long ago in cold, dark room at the top of a narrow house.

Pleasantville: The Promise of Trump’s America

Photograph by Malin James

Photograph by Malin James

I wrote the original draft of this post a few months ago. Suffice it to say, a lot’s changed since then. One of the ugliest presidential elections in history is finally over and, after months of contention, the results were pretty hard to swallow.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton lost—she’s a complicated figure and the reasons for her defeat are equally complicated. What disturbs me is that Donald Trump, an openly racist misogynist who never held public office, handed people a fantasy wrapped in violence, and enough people swallowed it to win him the election.

Many of the people who voted for Trump would not consider themselves to be racist, xenophobic or misogynistic – a lot of them voted for Trump “despite” certain issues, but that “despite” is still a problem. What happened last Tuesday can best be described as a reaction to a package deal. Sure, Trump’s (freaking chaotic) platform included a ton of racist and misogynistic rhetoric aimed at women, Muslims, Latinos, queers, trans people and pretty much everyone who isn’t cis, white and male, but he tied all that hate up in a promise to Make America Great Again, and that promise resonated with a lot of people.

Make America Great Again. It’s standard political rhetoric – a phrase that sells a vague ideal, one a candidate can define flexibly so supporters attach based on their own personal contexts. In this case, Make America Great Again harkens back to the conservative golden age of post-WWII America. This period in U.S. history has taken on a nostalgic sheen, one in which the economy thrived, people had jobs and everything was safe. And white. And run by men. In essence, Trump promised his constituents Pleasantville, and that promise was enough to outweigh the racism and hate he wrapped it up in.

For those of you born in the 21st century, Pleasantville is a Toby Maguire movie from 1998. The citizens of a fictional town called Pleasantville live in squeaky clean, 1950’s black and white world until social and sexual revelations turn everything technicolor. It’s a clever send up of the nostalgia we have for a past that was, under the glossy surface, repressive, judgmental and deeply homogenized.

Trump evoked this nostalgia with his bonkers, often illegal promises to Make America Great Again. The wall he’s going to build along the Mexican border? That’s a promise to keep foreigners out of Pleasantville. Threats of deportation? Same. His plans for a “Muslim registry”? Yeah. That too. Every bit of xenophobic bile is a brick in the foundation of that promise, and that’s not even counting his treatment of women.

Here’s what disturbs me. People wanted the Pleasantville he was selling enough to overlook the violence, misogyny and human rights violations that would inevitably come with it. Whether or not his voters liked the whole packaged is irrelevant at this point. They didn’t mind the ugly enough not to vote for that nostalgic, deeply traditional throwback to a “safer” time, despite how literally un-safe it makes half the population.

That’s the thing about Pleasantville. It’s a lovely, seemingly safe place – seemingly safe because the safety it promises is contextual at best and a lie at worst. It’s a place full of social masks and people passing for “normal” in a traditionally straight, sexually conservative, patriarchal society. It’s a safe place to be if you’re vanilla, straight and white, and it’s the promise Trump ran on. It’s the promise he won on. Which means, it’s the thing we have to be careful of in the next four years.

Sex, race, gender and sexuality. These issues have always been political and, as exhausting as it is, this is normal. This is good. This is the opposite of homogeneity. As long as our bodies remain deeply contested political entities, it means they remain deeply contested political ground rather than territory conquered in the name of an imaginary past.

Trump and his rhetoric—both the hate speech that appealed to the Klan and other marginalized whites, as well as that promise of a newly “great” America—would normalize the homogeneity that we, as women, immigrants, minorities, queers, trans people, liberals, allies and anyone else who fails to toe the line, defy by existing out in the open and without apology. Now, more than ever, we are the body politic, and that means we need to engage, and stay engaged, long past when the disgust, disillusionment and anger wear off. The socially safe America Trump promised doesn’t exist. It never has, and the promise of it shouldn’t be normalized as an unfortunate side effect of a disappointing election.

Human beings can only live with stress for so long before we grow numb to the stressor. It’s seen most often in cases of domestic abuse, a comparison I do not make lightly. Trump’s own lawyers testified that he gaslights them so routinely they have to meet with him in pairs. With Trump’s newly vetted influence, people will eventually get used to the idea of his presidency. It will normalize as an exhausted populace digs in to wait him out. And that’s the real danger now. What he proposes is not normal and, while I know his supporters feel otherwise, the values he’s espouses in conjunction with his vision of a “great” new America cannot be normalized, not without a lot of people paying a very high price.

I’m not saying this to scare people. People are scared enough. I’m saying it because there are still things we can do to keep moving forward, rather than sinking openly and gleefully into black and white.

  1. Donate to charities and institutions aimed at helping people under direct threat. Whether it’s time or money, they’re going to need all the support they can get. The ACLU, the Trevor Project, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP are good places to start, but there are lots  of others too.
  1. Subscribe to reliable news outlets – the New York Times, the Washington Post and Bloomberg News are about as reliable as it gets, but there are a bunch of others too. And if you like your news in audio form, check out NPR. Wherever you get it, vet your news so you know what’s actually going on. Read things you disagree with. It’s the only way you can reliably decide what to believe.
  1. Most importantly, support each other. Have useful discussions. Advocate for equal treatment under the law. If you see someone struggling, help them. Community is one way to set a foundation for changing things between now and 2020.

Some of us will slip under the radar because we’re white or middle class -because we can “pass”. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. If nothing else, it’s become obvious that there is a deep longing for the illusion of safety in the promise of Pleasantville, an illusion that people voted for, regardless of the cost to others. Whether you wave your freak flag loud and proud, or quietly support a charity while protecting your job or family, please try to stay engaged as much as you can. Educate yourself. It’s going to take a lot of of well-informed fuck off‘s to the lure of Pleasantville to get though the next four years.

On Mining Yourself

Black and white pen and ink drawing of a young woman old woman optical illusion for Mining Yourself post by Malin James

Young Woman, Old Woman Optical Illusion by W.E. Hill (1915)

I’ve always loved this image. Is it a picture of a young woman or a crone? Even when I was little, I saw them fluctuate, like a portrait under water, equally young and old. It’s a powerful visual metaphor, one my brain seized on well before I could understand why.

I’ve always split my writing time between fiction and essays. Recently, though, the balance has tipped and I’m  leaning into fiction as I focus on a collection I care a great deal about. That said, project-love isn’t the only reason for the shift in focus.

While there is, inescapably, a lot of me in those stories, there’s a distance in the writing that I need right now. Fiction is, and always will be, fiction, no matter how much of the writer informs the narrative.

The nonfiction I tend to write, especially for this blog, doesn’t have that natural buffer. Everything I write here takes on an inherently personal bent, whether I’m ranting about sexual history calculators or exploring different aspects of non-monogamy. Even when I don’t draw directly from my own experiences, my opinions and history inform those posts to a massive degree. While I usually lean into that level of transparency, my boundaries are higher right now, which makes that transparency hard.

I’m going through an odd time. Things that are fundamental to who I am as a person are shifting and changing, like the young woman and the crone. I grew up affected by a trauma I couldn’t process, and the effects of that trauma unknowingly molded my childhood, my relationships and even my sense of self. Over the course of the past 10 months, I’ve begun to unpack the issues I’ve avoided for 35 years. As a result, my internal landscape is shifting, sometimes quite suddenly. It’s terrifically destabilizing – on some days. On other days it feels great. But the swing between the two is both constant and erratic, so I’m extremely hesitant to write about it. Yet.

In order for me to write well, I need distance and perspective. Venting feels good (oh, so very good), but if I don’t broaden my understanding I run the risk of ranting aimlessly or navel-gazing or, even worse, both. No one likes a ranty navel-gazer so I try not to mine myself until I’ve gained some insight. That’s why I didn’t write about this or this for more than a decade, even though I did (and still do) have plenty to say.

That’s the key, for me, to writing personal essays. While nonfiction takes a thousand different forms, my natural approach is to mine myself for material and (hopefully) create something that connects with a reader in some kind of meaningful way. This often means that the most immediate, difficult or overwhelming situations (the ones I tend to want to vent about) are best left alone until I understand the lay of the land.

At the moment, my emotional landscape is the sort of primordial jungle that guys in pith helmets get lost in. Except for scrawling in my journal, writing about any of it would, in the end, make me feel worse. The young woman and the crone might use the same hand, but they write from different perspectives. Anything I say now will very likely shift given time and emotional clarity. Writing is a way to pin my thoughts down. That’s a hard thing to do when they will very likely change.

Eventually, I’ll put enough distance between myself and this mine of material but, for now, there’s little I could say that would be of use to anyone but myself. I admire writers who produce beautiful, cogent essays in the middle of great stress. It’s a magnificent talent, one I quite notably lack. My strengths lie in hindsight, and hindsight takes time, so I’m leaning on fiction and quiet…at least, I am for now.

On Mining Yourself was inspired in large part by this post by Honey at Happy Come Lucky. If you’re looking for perspective and clarity, there are few bloggers as gifted as she is. I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out.