Tag Archives: writing

What I Intend When I Write About Sex

Old Couple and Young Woman at Cafe by Frank Paulin (1961)

Old Couple and Young Woman at Cafe by Frank Paulin (1961)

The post also appears as an article in MultiLove (July 29, 2105).

What do I intend when I write about sex? I intend a lot of things and they vary from piece to piece, so let me back it up a step.

What do I intend when I write?

This is more straightforward because the answer hasn’t changed in fifteen years. For me, authorial intent comes down to one thing: I want to understand.

The first story I ever wrote was a vignette called “Passing Unnoticed”. It’s never been published and likely never will be. It’s nothing more than a moment between a tired, jaded young woman and a tired, hopeful old man. It’s not an erotic story, but there is a sexual tension to it that stems from their recognition of something in the other. I wrote that first story because I was struggling to understand two halves of a coin—how do you go on when you want to let go; and how do you let go when you know your life is done?

I still don’t have the answers to those questions. Sadly, writing that story didn’t give me access to universal wisdom. What it did give me was a window into small, specific truths, which I used to explore my questions through small, specific characters. As with so many things, there is no one answer—there are as many answers as there are people to ask questions. So I started asking more questions and I wrote stories for each:

What do you do when you find the child you thought you’d lost?

What do you do when your perception is dangerously wrong?

What do you do when your own nature is trying to kill you?

What do you do when you realize that you’re fundamentally alone?

That’s why I started writing – to explore questions like that so I could try to understand what it is to live. Fast forward 12 years.

I’d always written erotic stories, but only for myself. My intention in writing them was to explore my fantasies and turn myself on. My intention didn’t change when I began submitting to erotica calls, except that now I also wanted to turn the reader on. At that point, my writing had two different purposes: the literary was for exploration and the sexual was for titillation. It wasn’t until about a year ago that this began to change.

When I wrote “The Second Letter” I wasn’t thinking about turning anyone on. I was thinking about what happens when you compromise yourself for something you desperately want. In other words, I was asking a question: How do you recover a self you’ve willingly given up? That was the first time I consciously engaged a question through a sexual lens. (I’d been doing it subconsciously for years, but never with intent).

After that, my intent began to stray. I became less deliberately concerned with arousal, and more concerned with trying to understand, because sex is really effective way to engage the human experience. I’d been so caught up in the demands of the market that I created a divide in my writing where one didn’t have to exist. I could write about sex in the same way that I write about everything else, which was exciting because sex is the easiest and most natural way for me to engage the questions I tend to explore in fiction.

The authors who inspire me—Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin—undermine that same dichotomy. Their work explores what is is to live, love, hate, and hurt, and they do so beautifully (and arousingly) with sex. They’re a sort of intersection between the literary and erotic. Realizing that gave me permission to integrate my authorial intents, so now what I intend when I write about sex is the same thing that I intend when I write—I want to understand. If my stories turn someone on along the way, that’s wonderful. That makes me genuinely happy. But I no longer feel compelled to engineer that affect the way I used to.

I realize the phrase “engineer that affect” could be easily misinterpreted. I don’t think writing to get a reader off is in any way less valid than writing for some other purpose. If that’s your passion, that’s what you should do. There is a sensitivity between writers on either side of the porn vs. erotica debate, just as there is contention along the commercial vs. literary divide in  mainstream publishing, and that divide has become increasingly pronounced in the post-FSOG erotica.

Recently, Remittance Girl wrote a searing analysis of what the erotica market has become, while Tamsin Flowers examined the market issue with a pragmatic, unflinching eye. Each piece looks at the issue from a different angle—Remittance Girl’s from the literary, and Tamsin’s from the commercial. Interestingly, both come to similar conclusions—that erotica is no longer what it was and that authors dissatisfied with the market as it is would be best served by writing in a new or different genre.

I highly recommend both articles. They’re prompting important discussions regardless of how or why you write because, for me, there is no value judgment in being a commercial vs. a literary writer. It’s simply a question of where your work fits.

These two pieces prompted me to think about authorial intent because understanding why you write about sex can help you understand where your work does or does not fit. And yes, it’s true that writers write for more than one reason, but there’s usually one overarching motivation that drives the majority of your work. Do you write predominantly to turn the reader on? Or do you write for other reasons—to explore, understand, critique or examine everything from socio-cultural issues to love, death and what it is to be human?

If the former, your wheelhouse is very likely in the commercial realm. If the latter, perhaps you fit into the historical definition of literary erotica. Either is valid. The point is that knowing where your intent and passion lie (even if only from piece to piece) means being able to position your work appropriately.

For my part, knowing that my primary intention is to understand rather than turn-on helps me make larger choices—am I willing to compromise to get commercially published? Am I willing to publish less widely to love what I write? And how can I get my work to readers who want it? Because that’s important too. Readers are the other half of the equation – without readers, I can write to understand all I like, but it’s a self-serving exercise if I can’t connect with someone else.

For me, compromise feels uncomfortable, because in order succeed in a commercial market, I’d have to write away from my natural intent, which means that I’ll very likely have to find different ways of getting eyes on my work. That’s a good thing to know. It will allow me to write in the way that is most satisfying to me, without wasting emotional energy banging at a door that won’t open.

For authors whose work fits cleanly into a market, that a wonderful thing and I hope you take advantage of it. However, those of us with less clear cut paths have to be flexible and creative in pursuing new ways to connect readers with our work. In the end, all I really want is to pursue my intent and match my work to as many readers as I can. I would love for other writers to be able do the same.

On Depression, Need & Difficult Things

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

There are things that I haven’t written about because they’re too personal. Depression is one of them. For me, writing about depression is harder than writing about sex because, regardless of how much I love it, sex is something separate from myself. It’s something I do and enjoy. It doesn’t form my foundation. Depression does.

Depression made me who I am. It put me on different paths than I might otherwise have taken. It made me grow in crooked, creative ways. I don’t know who I’d be if depression hadn’t forced me to struggle with myself but, in the end, I like who I’ve become…most of the time.

I’ve avoided writing about depression for a lot of reasons, all of them hazy and complicated. Then, last week, I received an email from someone in response to a few of my posts. It was a good email – a lot of time and thought had clearly gone into it, but one part, in particular, stayed with me. Towards the end of the final paragraph, the person wrote:

“You have so much perspective. You must come from a very emotionally privileged place. I wish I did.” (Quoted with permission)

Reading that saddened me because the emailer seemed to be saying that they lacked a quality they could not have. It also made me call into question how I’ve presented myself in my writing. I know that depression (and the skills I use to manage it) inform everything I write. It even effects my style – I’ve learned to distill my emotions and I try to do the same with my thoughts when I write – but that doesn’t mean any of this is apparent to anyone else.

In a bit of comic timing, that email came just as I was tipping into a depressive episode that I am still enjoying (and by “enjoying” I mean dealing with) now, even as I write this. The timing made the subject inescapable, so I decided to write about it because that’s what I do.

In one way, the emailer was right – I do have a lot of perspective, but it’s not because I come from a place of emotional privilege. It’s because I don’t. I had my first anxiety attack when I was six and continued to have them into my twenties for reasons I won’t get into here. My parents didn’t know what anxiety attacks were, let alone that a child could have them, so once it was established that I didn’t have asthma, they encouraged me to stop worrying and left me to my own devices. Though well-intentioned, I internalized this as a rejection. Get enough of that as a kid and you get fantastically depressed. Which I was.

Fast forward to university. I started my first semester strong, but by the time the holidays came around, I was deep into my first depressive episode. When I came home for winter break I was way too thin and I slept ALL the time. My parents were worried (because they really did care), but when the doctor said I was anemic, they got me iron pills and ended the conversation.

I flew back to New York and the depression got worse. Eventually, I saw a counselor who diagnosed me in one session, which was a relief because I finally had a name for what I was trying to deal with. I was so relieved that I called my parents to tell them, but they glossed over it. They didn’t know what to do with “my problems”, so they acted like I had the flu and hoped I’d “feel better soon”. I didn’t – not for a really long time.

What surprises me even now is that I didn’t feel ashamed, despite my parents’ reaction. I felt anger, hurt and frustration, but never shame. What developed instead was the conviction that this was my problem to deal with. The worst thing I could do is need someone’s support. Needing became a dangerous thing.

As a result, I built an emotional scaffold that allowed me to function superficially while limiting access to my real (depressed and messed up) self. I dismantled that scaffolding a few years ago, but the impulse to withdraw is still something I struggle with because needing is uncomfortable for me. It is an awful thing to need something desperately and have that need denied. As a result, I made myself into the kind of person that other people need, rather than allowing my own needs to have a voice. Even now, needing someone or something does not fit my self-image.

The other reason I learned to withdraw was that, for a long time, I felt out of control. There are different kinds of depression. Mine is chronic, which means that sometimes my neuro-chemistry get wonky and I get depressed, even when everything is situationally great. The fact that depression is at least 60% physiological for me was difficult. I would get irrational, unreasonable and short-tempered, even on medication. I suffered, so I made everyone around me suffer too. Finally, I got tired of being bad for people, so I hid through episodes until I could put on my public face.

Now, at 37, I have an easier time of it. There are a handful of people I talk to when I’m heading into the depths but, for the most part, my depression is under control, even when it’s bad. I run 5-6 days a week and have done for years, and I have a mindfulness practice that keeps me balanced even when I’m in rough emotional shape. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, but I’ve spent so much time cultivating rationality, reason and calm, that those things are reflexive to me now. Which brings me back to the emailer….

The perspective I have is hard won, which is really good news. Because it’s the result of work and not luck or privilege, it’s attainable, even if you’re a hot mess (and baby, I was a hot fucking mess). That said, maintaining my equilibrium is active, daily work – work that I’ll have to do for the rest of my life. No matter how much I achieve, my greatest accomplishment will be getting and keeping my shit together. It is, hand’s down, the hardest thing I have ever done, and the most valuable thing I will ever manage.

So please, please understand that when I write about difficult things, it’s not from a pedestal. It’s from down in the muck. My roots are in mud and depression and self-loathing and disgust, and it took an act of will and a concrete reason for me to grow up out of that. Buddhists use the lotus flower to symbolize that process of digging your roots into the blackest parts of yourself, and allowing something beautiful and resilient to grow out of it. That is what I’m trying to do. If I’m successful, that will be the metaphor for my life.

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Kinky People Sex

Art by Franz von Bayros

Art by Franz von Bayros

I’ve been thinking about labels recently. It started with the resurgence of the erotica vs. porn debate (which Tabitha Rayne addressed beautifully in this post) but quickly spun out to include people, sexuality, kink and the labels we use to describe ourselves.

I’ve written about my own system of genre classification and many others have addressed the question from different angles since. But when the issue was brought up again, I was struck by just how subjective labels like “erotica” and “porn” are. Yes, there are standards most people agree on – erotica has a narrative focus while porn is primarily concerned with sex – but beyond that there’s a lot of grey area defined mostly by an individual’s impression of a work.

I’m not saying that literature and genre defy definition (I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a post-modernist). What I am saying is that regardless of what label we place on a thing, that thing’s identity (or classification) will likely retain some level of fluidity. Anais Nin called a great chunk of her work pornography, while today we consider her catalog one of the foundations of modern literary erotica. A group of Christian moms considered this fondant teddy bear’s seam to be an overly sexual image. I can’t say I agree. The point is that a thing can shift labels depending on who is viewing it.

Which brings me to my actual topic. Labels and people. People use labels as a short-hand for larger, more nuanced identities – are you one of us, or are you “other”? In this way, labels can be incredibly useful. But if you become unquestioningly wedded to your label it can box you in, because labels can’t always keep up with the fluidity of a person’s experiences.

If you’re primarily straight but have slept with someone of the same sex, does that make you bi? If you’re primarily dominant but sometimes like to sub, are you a switch? If your experiences or beliefs are non-binary, then labels may fit accurately, but if you inhabit an ideological or sexual grey area, it often becomes a curiosity when you deviate from the behaviors your label dictates.

Kink is a great example of this. Kinky people are generally thought to be those whose interests fall outside the sexual norm (whatever the “norm” is). I’ve identified as kinky since my early twenties when I realized that threesomes (and foursomes) were a thing. Adopting that label was liberating at the time. As a result, for much of my twenties, I allowed the “kinky” label to direct my sexual interests. I played in ways that I might not have otherwise done and, for the most part, I loved it. I also enjoyed a ton of sex that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed if I hadn’t also adopted the label of slut. But I also remember feeling that my occasional desire for straightforward, vanilla sex didn’t adhere to my label(s), so I often went without the no-frills missionary I also craved.

At that point in my life, I thought that kinky people were supposed to have kinky sex all the time, which isn’t necessarily true. For many people, kink defines their sexualities in a very whole and satisfying way. But for others, like me, identifying as any one thing excludes five other labels that I could just as easily adopt. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I made up my own label – sexually omnivorous. I want a helping of everything and always have. Or, to put it another way, I have a very fluid relationship to my sexuality and kinks.

Now, just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ll toss out a few of the labels that I do feel comfortable claiming:

Bisexual

Non-monogamous

Voyeuristic (with an exhibitionist streak)

Dominant (though not a Domme. I’m more of an alpha who likes D/s. Domme implies things I don’t want to claim.)

I also like rough sex and boundary pushing. I like feeling vaguely uncomfortable and I like it when my partner feels vaguely uncomfortable too (within the bounds of consent). More than anything, I love intensity. If a sexual experience serves up intensity, odds are I’ll be interested. It doesn’t matter if the intensity is emotional or physical. Even better if it’s both.

That said, I also love vanilla sex (which can also be emotionally and physically intense). I love missionary. I love waking up, having slow, drowsy sex and then going back to sleep. I love catching a quickie before running out for drinks. I love oral – both giving and getting. I love Sunday mornings in bed. I love entire week-ends spent doing nothing but straight up fucking – no games, no trappings, just hungry-for-more fucking. I even love making love with the right person.

So, do my more conventional tastes cancel out the kinks? I don’t feel they do – I think my sexuality covers a lot of ground and that exercising all aspects of it gives me pleasure. I’m hardly going to lock down the snuggly-missionary-loving part of me in the name of kink, any more than I’d give up D/s play because it doesn’t fit conventional sexual tastes. What I want has everything to do with who I’m with and what we need at the time. Sometimes, it’s rough. Sometimes it’s sweet. Unlike my young self, I’m not interested in missing out on either.

So, to bring it back around. If a person dedicates themselves to writing “porn” that’s great. If they claim the label of “erotica” (or “erotic romance” or “smut”) for their work, that’s great too. The danger is in becoming overly committed to a label – whether it’s porn, romance, kinky, straight, feminist, Christian, atheist or anything else. My concern is that, when a label becomes an ideology, it can curtail the intellectual, creative and sexual fluidity that makes you an individual, rather than a component of a larger, homogenous group (kinky people sex aside); or, in the case of erotic fiction, it can needlessly limit your work in a falsely simplified genre.

Trust Me: On Edge Play in Erotica

Photograph by Howard Beach

Photograph by Howard Beach

Last year, I had the happy honor of going on the (It Girl. Rag Doll) podcast with Molly Moore and Harper Eliot. We covered a lot of ground but, as with all good conversations, there was still a lot left. Afterwards, the lovely Jane Gilbert of Behind the Chintz Curtain asked this question: (forgive the paraphrase)

Is there anything you haven’t written about yet that scares you or makes you nervous?

My knee-jerk response, and the one I’d likely have given were I to have answered on the show, would have been edge play – specifically knives and cutting. In fact, I started writing about this on several occasions, but it never quite felt right. Recently, I realized why my initial answer didn’t work. Knives and cutting aren’t actually the issue for me (as a writer). They’re the way I’m drawn to addressing the thing I actually want to explore: Trust.

Personally speaking, trust is a nuanced, risky thing, which is probably why I feel compelled to write about it despite the fact that it makes me uneasy. While vulnerability is a prominent theme in my writing, I’ve always treated trust as an implicit part of that, rather than explicitly addressing it though higher-stakes scenarios. Something shifted as I considered Jane’s question and I suspect that limiting myself to the implicit isn’t going to satisfy me anymore.

But to bring it back to cutting. Knives and blades are, in and of themselves, not without significance for me. For a long time, I assumed that it was that personal element that made me hesitate when I considered writing stories about cutting or blood-play. Once I dug out from under that assumption, it was pretty clear that knives were only part of the issue. For me, knives (and blades in general) are the metaphorical hinge on which trust swings. I also realized that I’ve been playing with that metaphor implicitly for years.

I’ve written a number of stories in which a woman shaves a man with a straight-razor, and scenes in which a woman allows her lover to shave her pussy even though she’s scared. In life or fiction, shaving someone is, for me, a fantastically intimate act that requires a great deal of trust, especially if straight razors are involved.

My grandfather was a barber. He taught me how to use a straight razor when I was about 12 because the razor (as an object) both scared and fascinated me. I remember him showing me how to hold it lightly, as if it were delicate. He told me it was just a thing. It couldn’t bite me or wield itself. As long as I held it, I was in control. That was a revelation.

The experience of learning to use that razor fascinated me, not in a sexual way (or at least, not in a way I recognized as sexual at the time), but in a very human way. I was being trusted to do something dangerous (with help – my grandfather’s hands guided mine the whole time). In hindsight, I can’t believe his customer allowed himself to play the guinea pig. But then, my grandfather inspired great trust in people and , to my knowledge, he never broke it. Happily, it all went off without a hitch and I spent the next week thinking I wanted to be a barber.

It’s not difficult to realize how much power you have when you’re holding a razor and a person is literally exposing their skin for you. What makes the situation possible is that there is an unspoken contract in place – both parties assume that the person with the blade will not take advantage of their ability to cause harm. That’s what allows the person baring their throat (or labia, or groin) to trust you not to hurt them.

But what happens when the contract is slightly different? What if the contract is not that the person with the blade will not cause harm but, rather, that the person with the blade will cause harm but in a responsible and agreed upon way? You allow the person with the blade to open a door (meaning your skin) and you are trusting them to stop. That takes trust to another, even higher, plane. The interpersonal contract that allows for this is emotionally packed and worthy of nuanced fictional representation. It’s also something I feel strongly about doing right because I do fetishize trust to such a degree in real life, even if it doesn’t manifest as cutting in my own sexual practices.

There are authors who have handled blades beautifully in their fiction – Jane Gilbert did it in this story, and Remittance Girl has done it several times, here and here, as well in her novella, Beautiful Losers, in which there’s a shaving scene that is beautiful, intense and reflective of the emotional complexity that underpins the relationship between the characters involved. Exhibit A did it as well in this story, also a shaving scene, in which trust is central to the story and a single drop of blood is let.

The reason these stories work so well is that, at their centers, trust is (either implicitly or explicitly) recognized as the foundation of the intimacy that underpins the experience. Trust is the risk that allows the blade to work. For me, as both a writer and as a reader, it’s not enough to write about a taboo (or, in this case, edge play) and rely on the riskiness or transgression to titillate. For me, as regards edge play in fiction, it’s the intimacy that allows someone to put themselves in their partner’s hands that’s the turn on. It’s also the universal factor that might allow someone who has absolutely no interest in knives (or breath-play or non-con, etc) to see why someone else might get off on it.

Now that I do understand that it is not blades, but blades as signifiers of extreme and total trust that both turn me on (as a reader) and unsettle me (as a writer), I’ll be able to convey what is valuable to me – that the trust and complexity inherent in the act are what make it powerful and erotic. It isn’t just the transgression of letting blood.

Notes to My Younger Self

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Last week, I wrote a post about a relationship that, even now, I struggle to admit was abusive (I usually just call it “toxic”). A few days later, someone asked me if I would go back in time and avoid the whole thing. Surprisingly, I said no. While there are things I wish I’d known or understood, that experience was a pivotal one. It’s quite possible that, if I did change something, I wouldn’t end up being the person I am today, and I like that person a lot.

That said, I do like the idea of going back in time to have a little chat with myself. In fact, I keep a list of things I’d probably tell myself over drinks, and not just regarding that relationship. Maybe it’s just that I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife but even if younger me ended up doing everything exactly as I already had, it would still be nice to have my future self’s perspective on certain things. Plus, I’d kind of like to hang out with me (pretty narcissistic, but true).

So, here’s my list of 15 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self:

1. Try not to drink quite so much (she says, sipping a G&T). You don’t have to stop, but you’re using alcohol to numb things you need to pay attention to.

2. Don’t smoke. Like ever. Yeah, I know, this one’s a drag. But here’s the thing – we quit ten years ago and I still miss it. And it’s so bad for you. So don’t start. Don’t bum that first cigarette from Theresa Flynn sophomore year, okay? Just don’t do it, because you’re going to love it and it’s going to suck when you have to stop.

3. Write more. Right now. Write more. Worry about getting good later. Right now, you just need to write. Get it all out of your head. Writing will help you think, and honey, you’ve got so many big, messy feelings, you need to make some space to think. Plus, it’ll give us something bittersweet / poignant to read down the line.

4. Sex. You’re going to love it. LOVE IT. You’re going to gobble it up. But, it’s also going to make you vulnerable, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s good. Just try not to confuse sex with love. Sex and love go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but they don’t have to. You’re not a bad person if you just want to fuck. And you’re not unworthy of love if that’s all he (or she, because you’re totally bi) wants too.

5. Don’t cut your hair short. I know it’s shallow but seriously, that Audrey Hepburn pixie thing you want so much? Don’t do it. And if you ignore me (because you probably will) and you hate it (because you’re totally going to), don’t spend two years growing it out just to cut it again because “maybe you’ll like it better this time.” You won’t, okay? I promise.

6. It’s fine that you have small breasts. I know you hate them. I know you’re hung up, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, cares. Meanwhile, you have no idea how good they can feel, and that’s a freaking crime.

7. You will love him but he will never love you. He’ll want you. In fact, he’ll want you so much it makes him sick, but he’ll never love you. (See #4). There is no way to make that not hurt and it’s going to fuck you up. But it’s also going to be ok. You will get yourself out. You always do…just, maybe, try to do it a little sooner this time around.

8. Don’t move to Texas. (No offense, Texas. We’re just not a good match).

9. Eating a jar of almond butter with a spoon* is not a solution. You know that. That said, stop beating yourself up about it. If it bothers you so much, put the fucking spoon down. C’mon, girl. Either own what you’re doing or change it. <3

*Also applies to wine, bourbon and gin. And cigarettes. And casual sex. Fuck, you’re vice ridden…

10.  There is a difference between testing your limits and disregarding them. You can take a fantastic amount of damage. That doesn’t mean you should inflict it on yourself.

11. Museum studies. It’s a thing. Look into it while you’re at NYU. Also, acting will never make you happy the way writing and academia do. I know your ego wants it and I even know you’re good, but try to channel that energy into your real passions and not a glamorous fantasy.

12. Your self-image and your reality very often don’t match. When that happens, one of them has to change. Either adjust the way you see yourself, or work to become what you wish you were.

13. You’re going to do what you do. It’ll be easier and you’ll suffer less if you follow your instincts, worry less about what other people expect and own your choices.

14. When you first start to write, you’re going to obsess about details. You’re going to strive for perfection in tiny, precious works. You need to. I get it. Here’s the thing: you’re going to suck. It takes years not to suck. Just lay off the impulse to grind every story down and keep cranking out the words. They’ll get better and so will you…And maybe try erotica sooner.

15. Stop faking orgasms. I now you’re nervous, but it’s keeping you from feeling real pleasure. Spend some time with a vibe and your hand because you can come, honey. Oh my god, can you come. Your body can do things you can’t even image. Just take your time and learn yourself.

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Write What You (Don’t) Know

Skin Writing II by Matou Malin

Skin Writing II by Matou Malin

The first writing advice I ever got is probably the same that most budding, eighteen year old authors get:

Write what you know.

For ages I did. I wrote what I knew in the strictest sense. I wrote about teenage pain first heartbreaks. As I grew older, I wrote about failed relationships and various what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-with-my-life fears. These stories were almost always told from a female POV, with the vast majority of my protagonists being either bi or straight, in their twenties and predominantly white. I was writing what I knew. Needless to say, what I knew wasn’t much.

The first time I broke out of that box was with a story called “Resurrection”. Though I’d always shied away from writing from the  male point of view (because what the hell did I know about being a guy?), I drafted “Resurrection” without thinking about it. It was only as I was editing that I realized I’d made the male protagonist the POV character. I remember wondering if I should switch to the woman’s point of view, but I dismissed that pretty quickly. The major arc was his and the narration had to reflect that, so I left the point of view the way it was. That’s when I started to reframe the idea of writing what I know.

Up to that point, I’d been pretty literal about that advice, meaning that I’d limited myself to writing about things I was concretely familiar with – academia, acting, being a white, middle-class woman in the States (etc, etc). Those are all fairly tangible things. What I hadn’t considered was writing about what I knew from in the more abstract emotional / psychological sense.

For example, experientially speaking, the protagonist in “Resurrection” and I have very little in common. I’m not a male ex-POW. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never buried my best friend, or been subjected to torture, or assumed I would die. I have however, shut down emotionally and sexually due to damage, and I have woken back up again. So, in a very real way, I had written what I knew – I knew his psychological and emotional state, though he’d acquired it through experiences very different from my own. I’d written him by falling back on empathy to bridge the gap.

Understanding that opened up a lot of possibilities because I realized I could relate to my characters as human beings, rather than as women (or men) with experiential markers that exactly mirrored mine. That said, it’s important to remind myself that empathy isn’t enough, not when you’re writing characters with lives you can only imagine. While I can understand a character’s ambitions, I still don’t know what it’s like, practically speaking, to be a guy, or a conservative religious person, or a trans person, or person of color, and so on. There’s a danger is in thinking you “get it” without realizing there are nuances you might have missed. So, research ends up being really important.

Well, no shit, you’re probably thinking. Writers love research. We are so notoriously into research that another famous piece of writing advice says, “don’t get so caught up in research that you forget to write” (that’s really good advice, by the way). The research I’m talking about isn’t general purpose, like finding out what a crinoline actually did (the answer is this, if you’re curious) or, what happened when you got the plague (it’s really not pretty). That stuff’s important, but the things that really need to be understood, at a character level, are the things that inform a their impulses and reactions.

For example, what’s it like to be a mixed race woman out with your Caucasian dad and have someone assume you’re his call girl? I don’t know, but I’ll bet it would piss you off on a lot of levels, so I’d better dig into some interviews and essays by women who’ve had that experience because as important as it is, empathy is not enough. I can understand that character’s probable anger, but I need to understand the cultural experiences underlying it to get the tone and quality right. Otherwise, I may assume the wrong thing and create a well-intentioned but ridiculously normative portrait of her.

It’s a tricky balance, one that I’m hypersensitive to because I hate stereotypes and I really don’t want to accidentally perpetuate them. That said, I also don’t want to let that fear box me into writing only what I literally know. My passion is in writing people. My characters are individuals with lots of different experiences because I want to dig into how those experiences effect their emotional, sexual and psychological lives. I want to understand something beyond myself. The last thing I want is for my characters to be little carbon copies of me living little carbon copies of my life. How freaking boring would that be?

So, what does that mean? It means that I resist the impulse to scrap a story because I’ve never been a trans girl forced to stop HRT six months in. I’d just better get a really good grip on what that actually means in a medical, biological and experiential sense before I try to write the character.

This is part of why drafting the novel I’m working on is such slow work.  There are tons of things I can’t practically know about what it was like to be a woman (or a man) frustrated by social and class limitations in the 1880’s, so I have to familiarize myself with my characters’ contexts in order to understand their motivations and behavior. Then I can let that inform what I already know, which is what it’s like to be powerless in a game you don’t understand; what it’s like to want more than you’re allowed; and what it’s like for your needs to be resisted. Those are the things that I know, and those are the things I have to write. That’s where empathy helps me connect. I just have to make sure that my empathy is correctly informed.

Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with Twitter with kink educator Corey Alexander, who writes under the name, Xan West (@TGStonebutch). Xan is an incredibly gifted and generous writer and has written several posts and resource lists about writing characters who fall outside the realm of socially normative experiences. I’m including a few of the links below. If you’re at all interested, I hope you’ll check them out.

Resources on “Writing The Other”

Imagining Disabled Characters in Erotica

Round -up of Erotica Featuring Characters with Mental Health Issues

Also, if you liked the image for this post, you can see more of Matou Malin‘s work HERE.

Fiction as a Mirror, or Why I Won’t Write Responsibly

Sepia toned photograph of woman reflected in 3 way mirror.

Vanessa in the Mirror by Marc Lagrange

Last week, my friend and colleague, Tamsin Flowers, wrote a post on a topic she has explored eloquently from several angles – that of condom use, disclaimers and censorship in erotica. The debate over whether or not erotica writers have a responsibility to portray sex as safe, protected and clearly consensual has surfaced several times in recent months, so much so that Rachel Kramer Bussel wrote a piece on it for Salon. I’ve watched the discussion with a great deal of interest, but I haven’t weighed in because my feelings, as both a reader and and writer, were already represented, not just by Tamsin, but by Remittance Girl, who touched on a different angle in one of her posts on the same topic.

While I can see why people might feel that eroticists have a responsibility to edify through fiction, I’m afraid that I can’t and won’t sign on for that duty. Granted, there is no reason why an author shouldn’t use fiction to educate. To that end, I highly recommend checking out Ella Dawson’s explanation for why her characters care about safe sex. While it may not concern every reader, she makes a compelling argument for why it’s critical to her fiction.

And that’s what it comes down to – what is critical in your fiction. People write erotica for any number of different reasons. Some write to explore and promote sex in a way that educates. This is commendable as far as authorial purposes go, so long as the author doesn’t sacrifice the story for the message, in which case nonfiction would probably be a better genre for the subject.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are writers feel passionate about telling a good, sexy story that pulls the reader into a fantasy. This end goal is equally worthy of respect. For these writers, it’s about placing the emphasis on the story itself. Would the characters have unprotected sex? Cheat? Behave badly? Is lying, cheating or manipulation integral to the plot? If the answer is yes, then that’s where the writer should be free to let the story go. To crow bar in a disclaimer or censor that work for not promoting safe sex is as inappropriate as condemning a writer who writes murder mysteries for glamorizing death. We all write to a different purpose and should be free to do so.

Reading Tamsin’s post last week made me think about my purpose in writing erotica. It isn’t to educate, nor is it purely to entertain, though I do enjoy weaving fantasies. Ultimately, I write to explore and reflect experiences. I like digging beneath a constructed, social surface to get at an emotional reality, which is why I personally will not bend to the pressure to write sex “responsibly”.

The reality is that people do not always behave responsibly. If they did, they wouldn’t be human, and for a misanthropic introvert, I’m very interested in humans. Life is full of complication and conflict. From a narrative perspective, conflict drives plot, as Tamsin said, but it also drives human experience. Disappointment, anger, heartbreak, love, misunderstanding…they form a sort of experiential common ground. Our emotions reflect the spaces we occupy in any given situation. They are the lens through which we perceive ourselves, each other and our relationships. They determine dynamics, and in doing so, they affect our behavior.

For example, if you show me respect, love and kindness, I will naturally be compelled to engage you similarly. If you treat me with indifference, I will likely remain indifferent. If you treat me poorly, I will struggle to not reciprocate an eye for an eye, but I’ll be honest – it’ll be hard.

Most of us are wired to reflect the manner in which we are treated. For me, that reflective quality extends into my fiction – a lot of my fiction exists to reflect and explore an emotional reality. It’s that emotional reality, rooted in a character that is as human as I can possibly make her, that drives the story.

I’m a curious person and, like I said, I’m interested in people. I grew up feeling far more comfortable observing than participating. I like trying to understand why people do what they do. It’s why everything I write is essentially character driven, even if the character has no name. I write to understand and reflect an individual reality and, if I’m lucky, make it resonate for people who have never experienced it. If I happen to entertain or educate along the way, that’s great, but that isn’t why I write.

Let me bring it back to condom usage. I’ve written characters who fucked impulsively without protection. I’ve also written characters who consciously chose not to use protection. In both cases, the skin on skin contact was a profoundly affecting, whether the effect was destabilizing or meaningfully intimate depended on the characters and their contexts. If I’d forced condom usage into either of these stories, they would have ceased to exist. While I’m more interested in people taking emotional risks rather than physical ones, sometimes sex that is unapologetically unprotected is an effective way to reflect a character’s emotional experience.

Fiction doesn’t need to reflect anything – it can get you off, help you escape, support you through troubles or teach you about life, love and sex. But it can also reflect the human condition in all its individual, specific forms. It can explore the cause and effects that drive our lives and form our emotional realities. For me, that’s what fiction does and worrying about writing “responsibly” would mean that I couldn’t do that at all. Not until we, as humans, behave responsibly in all things. As safe and ideal as that sounds, I can’t help but think what a sanitized, muted experience that would be.

Hollow Places

Photo by Maria Robledo

Photo by Maria Robledo

This post is a bit off the cuff – I had something else planned for later in the week, but this side-tracked me completely so I’m running with it. Apologies in advance – this may get a little navel-gazey.

Last night, I watched The English Patient. It’s one of my favorite movies, based on one of my favorite books, but I haven’t re-watched in a while. One of the things I love about watching this film (or re-reading the book) is that, over the years, different things have resonated with me at different points in my life. I always cry, but never in the same places. Now, when I watch it, I’m in the interesting position of not only seeing it as I am now, but through the additional lenses of my eighteen year old, twenty-five year old and thirty year old selves. It’s an oddly nostalgic experience.

For those of you who have neither seen the movie, nor read the book, you can read a quick synopsis here. All you really need to know for the purposes of this post is that the one of the main narrative threads is a disastrous love affair between a woman named Katherine and the eponymous English patient – a Hungarian cartographer named Almasy.

Their love affair has always touched me. When I was younger, it was purely romantic. Inexperienced as I was, I thought tragedy was glamorous. Now, I have plenty of scars and enough experience to know that being shattered is not the beautiful adventure young romantics think it is (though I have also come to understand that, if nothing else, it means your heart is alive, even if you want to cut it out).

The things that touch me about this story have changed, as well. At first it was the tragic love story. Then, when I was bit older, it was Juliette Binoche’s grieving, shell-shocked nurse, or Willem Defoe’s thief.  This time, the Katherine / Almasy love story struck me again. Or rather, one of their love scenes finally got my attention beyond the fact that I’ve always thought it was incredibly hot.

EnglishPatientSexScene

From The English Patient

Almasy and Katherine steal a moment during a Christmas party and have the most restrained unrestrained sex I’ve ever seen on film. Here’s a clip of the scene – it’s better in the context of the movie, but this is the relevant part.

While I’ve always loved that scene, it wasn’t until last night that I realized how formative it was. There’s so much about it that has stayed with me – the deliberate, continuous eye contact; the way he maps her skin with his fingertips and unzips her dress so he can slip his hand over the small of her back…those tiny moments formed the foundation for my tastes both aesthetically (it’s a beautifully shot scene) and sexually.

Someone once asked me where I like to be kissed, and I answered “in the hollow places” without thinking. As I was watching the film last night, I realized that that has always been the case. My neck and shoulders, the soft skin beneath the ridge of my hips…I love it when a partner kisses those places, and it’s because of the way Almasy kisses the hollow of Katherine’s throat (and his subsequent fascination with that part of her body).

That scene formed my love of stolen moments and deeply intense attractions that are emotional and mental as well as sexual. It made me aware of my collarbones, the inside of my wrist and the small of my back…. In a very real way, that scene welded my internal connection between the sexual and the aesthetic and, as a result, I have always thought of consensual sex as basically beautiful, even when it isn’t.

I suspect that’s because there’s a profundity to the sex in that scene. Movies and pornography are full of sex that’s way more graphic or overtly hot or just plain filthy in the best sense, but for me, that scene spikes right off the charts of eroticism  because of the sheer intensity of their connection. That sort of sexual charge is rare – it doesn’t happen with every partner, or even every love. I suspect that’s one of the reasons attractions like Almasy’s and Katherine’s feature so heavily in fiction. That intensity is something that I have always chased, both in life and in my writing.

Which brings me to fiction. I also realized as I was watching that scene, that there are aspects of sex that can’t be distilled into words. Sex is, by nature, experiential. As a writer, the best I can do is to evoke an experience – the moment before a kiss, the restlessness of having someone deep under your skin, the sadness of unrequited love and the joy of affinity.

These details, far more than where he fucked her or how her wet her cunt was, make for sex that resonates. It’s so tempting, as a writer, to try to control the reader’s experience by supplying the mechanical minutia. It takes a much larger leap of faith to select your details carefully and leave room for the writing to evoke a memory or a feeling, rather than tell the reader what she should feel, or mechanically turn him on….

Not that there’s anything wrong with turning your reader on. I love hearing that a story got someone off, but if I want to touch someone, that’s a slightly different game. The wonderful thing about erotica is that you can provoke a visceral sexual response paired with an equally visceral emotional one. It’s only when you leave space for the reader’s experiences that you connect at that deeper level.

As I was watching that scene last night, I realized that very often (though not always) when I write a sex scene, I am trying to connect with my reader in the same way that the scene connected with me – at eighteen, and twenty five and thirty and now thirty-seven. When I first saw that film in 1996 as a lonely undergrad on my own for the first time in New York, I longed for experiences. I desperately wanted to transcend the perceived limitations of my youth and inexperience.  I was such a little girl… I didn’t even know that I had hollow places, let alone where they were or how I loved to be touched.

I’m very aware of my hollow places now – both sexually and emotionally – and that there are more of them than I ever could have imagined. I’m not sure I’d have been able to see that progression without the film to act as a sort of personal timeline. I’m curious to see what will touch me the next time that I watch it in however many years.

#DraftingIsHell

Last week, I tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 4.40.15 PM

I know a lot of writers love drafting – the excitement, the exploration, the sheer creativity of it. I don’t. I hate drafting. In fact, writing first drafts is something I do because I need something to revise and edit. It doesn’t even matter than I outlined this book before I began to draft (for better or worse, I’m a planner). I’m just not happy until I have a mess to clean up.

My comfort is in brevity – flash fiction, short stories, articles and essays. As a writer, I like tight arcs and tiny details. I like snapshots in time, and little human moments that betray universal truths. I’m not good at being thrilling or even entertaining. I have no confidence in my ability to hold a reader’s attention past 5,000 words, which makes longer form fiction territory I need to explore. I have five novels simmering on the back burner, all unrelated, some erotic, some not. Every one of them is a demon I need to address, because I’m tired of being cowed by a word count.

But let’s go back to that whole, I hate drafting thing. This novel that I’m working on, tentatively called The Briary, is the simplest of the bunch, or so I thought. It was meant to be a fun, erotic romp through a Victorian manor house, but it’s turned out to be something else. The problem is that I’m not sure what the something else is, and that uncertainty froze me up.

The wise thing to do would be to keep drafting and not worry about it. Explore. See what happens. But I’m a control freak and that’s easier said than done. Drafting is difficult for me, regardless of length – 500 or 50k, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like finding out how a story ends. I like knowing so I can  figure out how deep it goes.

Pygmalian and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome ca. 1890. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pygmalian and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome ca. 1890. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was an undergraduate, I took a handful of courses in the classics, and read a lot of Aristotle along the way. In addition to the Poetics, which I think every writer should read if only to understand the foundations of narrative structure, the thing that has most affected my writing was his philosophy of causality and the example commonly used illustrate it – that of a sculptor working in bronze or marble.

Around that same time, I spent many afternoons at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, journaling in the sculpture garden, so this notion of the creative  process being a tangible series of causes and effects wove itself into my subconscious and became fundamental to the way I work. Here are the Four Causes applied to my writing process:

1. Material Cause: Out of what has a thing come?

What’s the germ of the idea? In the case of The Briary, I had originally thought it was just my love of Victorian literature and threesomes (because threesomes are great), but once I began digging into it, I realized that the foundation of this book is a relationship I once had, and my need to work through unfinished business.

2. Formal Cause: What is it?

Could I tell this story, this germ of an idea, as a short? A novella? Fuck me, no. It has to be a novel. Time to get over that fear of running the writing marathon then.

3. Efficient Cause: Who makes it? Who causes the change?

The writer. The artist. The sculptor. As applied to any art, it’s the creator who molds the idea into its proper form. Sculptors have a block of stone to start with, but writers have to create the material they are going to change. Which means drafting. A lot. Fuck me, again.

4. Final Cause: Why? To What purpose?

Why do you create what you create? For writers, this is authorial intent, which is usually a form of communication – the subconscious dialogue between you and whoever receives your work. Do you want to make people think? Feel? Do you want to turn them on? The answer is unique to the writer and the story, but for most writers (though there are exceptions) the writing is, at least in part, done in service to the affect she hopes her work will have.

The Final Cause is what I love most about writing. It’s what drives me happily through multiple edits, because that’s where I uncover what the story wants to say. Many writers are able to find this in drafting, but for some reason I’m not. For some reason, my process is to coax the story open later, once it’s no longer a figurative block of stone.

This is where the sculpting metaphor comes in handy. I can’t sculpt the story out of nothing, so I need an idea, a foundation and a ton of material – what I call narrative clay, for lack of a better word. Writing the initial draft is where the clay comes from. For me, it’s lumpy, messy, chaotic, and yes, full of promise, but also in desperate need of refinement. I get impatient to dig in – I want to find the form hidden inside the lump.

Once I have that great lump of clay, I slough off the mess and slowly uncover the story underneath. This is where I feel like a writer, (whatever that means). This is where I hit my dreamy, natural stride, chiseling away like an archeologist on 12 square inches of Roman wall. Once I can see the thing for what it is, I edit for style, which is totally satisfying in a different way. And when I’m finally done, I have the final cause  – a finished story that will hopefully connect with its reader.

This novel, The Briary, got off to a difficult start. I began it last year, but put it aside several times because of deadlines, work and other obligations. In that time, it became a bogeyman, the symbol of a marathon I didn’t feel I could run. But I am running it now, very slowly, chapter by chapter (because I’m a sprinter so I have to trick myself 5k at a time).

I’m about a third of the way in now and beginning to hit my stride. I still don’t know what this book is going to be, but I need to learn to suck that up like I do with shorter works. I’ll uncover it revisions. Right now, I have to focus on making the clay.

The Semantics of Sex

Last year, I wrote a post called Of Cocks & Cunts: The Language of Erotica. I was pretty happy with it so, until very recently, I haven’t felt the impulse to revisit the subject of word choice in erotic writing.

Then, a few weeks ago, Jade A. Waters and I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey. Afterwards, we recorded a review in which we discussed the movie as objectively as we could. We had a lot of fun, but something kept tugging at my coat, despite the fact that we made a point to cover it. It was this line:

“I don’t make love. I fuck…hard.”

When I hear that line in the theater, I cackled for a couple of reasons. The first was pretty obvious – Jamie Dornan delivered it like a 6 year old trying to be his dad, which was especially funny given the hard-ass, bad-boy sentiment behind it.

The other reason required introspection because I was laughing at myself. The truth is that I actually do feel more comfortable referring to sex as “fucking” rather than “making love.” In fact, I once jokingly said, “I don’t make love. I fuck” (years before Christian Grey, thanks) to a friend whose idea of dirty talk involved words like “reverent” and “darling.”

MakeLoveDrunk_YourCardIt seems pretty widely acknowledged that, as a society, we reflexively make a distinction – making love is one thing, while fucking is another, even though they are, mechanically speaking, the same act. Why would I feel more comfortable with the more commonly pejorative, less openly sentimental of the two?

I’m not entirely sure. On the surface, making love implies particular things to me—pink lighting, chocolates and maybe a feather drifting over someone’s skin. Is this an objectively accurate association to have? Not really. Making love can look like the roughest combative sex if that’s what making love looks like to the people involved. Intellectually speaking, I know that making love implies a connection to your partner that I am wholeheartedly a fan of. I’m just a fan of it under the label of fucking. The label is the sticking point for me, not the connection.

On the surface, it has something do to with that rosy picture “making love” conjures. (I’m not really a feathers and chocolates kind of girl). But beneath that, there is a certain vulnerability implied by the phrase that is absent in the word fucking, and I’m afraid that vulnerability makes me instinctively edgy. I’ve already written several pieces on vulnerability, but it was only when I started considering the semantics of how we talk about sex that I realized how deep my discomfort with vulnerability runs.

In many ways, the things that make me feel vulnerable (as well as strong, ironically) – my emotions, my needs and my history – are associated, in my head, with my femininity. While “fuck” is a very versatile word – you can fuck romantically, or mechanically or lovingly or intensely— “making love” comes with it’s own attendant context, one associated with a feminine softness, and while I embrace my femininity, there are certain things that make me, personally, uncomfortable because they are laced so tightly in with lessons, both good and bad, that I’ve learned. Being open, needy or sentimental are high on this list, not because I don’t feel these things, but because I feel (or have felt) them to a massive degree at some point or other. My discomfort is a kind protective measure – one that makes me outwardly appear to be, as my brother once said, “kind of a dude,” while inwardly being all of those associatively feminine things.

There is nothing wrong with the softness I associate with “making love.” There is nothing wrong with sweetness and reverence and, to a limited degree, there is nothing wrong with neediness. I just have baggage that accompanies the rosy-tinted image conjured by that phrase, which means that, even if I spend the week-end having the sort of sex that most people would call “making love”, I will almost invariably think of it as fucking – just fucking in a connected, loving way.

The contextual limitations I perceive in the term “making love” got me thinking about semantics, (and who doesn’t love semantics?) Why is it that we do have two different phrases with such vastly different connotations to describe one act? Why is it that in mainstream media, making love is something that women say, while fucking is something men do?

It’s a matter of what’s operating beneath the implied meanings of each phrase. The words I prefer – cunt, cock, fuck – have a hard, unapologetic sound, very much at odds with the euphemisms of my youth. People didn’t have sex when I was growing up. They “made love” – but only when they “cared for each other very much.”

As I grew older, “making love” became the phrase used by the heroines in romance novels – a bold alternative to “take me” or “make me yours.” Somewhere along the line, I began to associate “making love” with an apology. Pleasure wasn’t enough—sex was wrong, unless you make love. Making love was sanctioned by the good people of the world, whereas fucking…not so much.

Fucking was dockworkers and whores did. There is no apology in the word fuck, just ownership – of your actions, your body, your needs and your pleasure. I wanted that ownership so badly; seeing no other way to claim it, I appropriated the word “fuck” and renamed sex for myself.

That’s why, in the end, “making love” embarrasses me in a way that “fucking” doesn’t—because sex used to be an embarrassing thing, all the more so because I wanted it so badly…or maybe it was the wanting that embarrassed me. Either way, there is nothing embarrassing about fucking. I can look at fucking straight on and want it in any number of ways. Fucking is an expression of my ability to own, without apology, myself and my desires.

I know that my shrinking from poetic language and softer words could easily imply a preference for colder, less emotional sex, but if anything, the opposite is true. There is almost no sex I prefer more than the kind of intensely connected, emotionally charged sex that happens when you’re with someone you’re truly connected to. I just prefer to use language that allows me to own that act and my sexuality, even when I’m at my softest and most vulnerable.

This thing is that the relationship I have to this lexical phenomena is extremely specific to me. My semantic understanding of these words is wholly informed by my youth, upbringing, experiences and slow, haphazard growth as a person. It’s informed by the fact that, for many years, I did not have my own vocabulary with which to talk about sex. That’s why, despite the fact that I do make love, I will always say that I fuck instead – unless I give the word a wry, winking twist, like Lauren Bacall, because when Lauren Bacall said, “make love,” the quirk in her mouth said something else entirely. But I digress..

Because my point of view is so particular to me, I’m curious about how it is for other people. Is there a difference for you? If so, what is it? Does gender or gender identity have anything to do with it for you? Does being kinky or mainstream or vanilla or straight or gay or bi affect what you call, or how you think about, sex? Is another phrase more powerful for you than either “fuck” or “make love”?

These are personal questions, I know, but if you feel so inclined, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to know.