Writing about writing sex
Yesterday morning I wrote an email to a friend in my writing group in which I wrote thoughts about how to write a sex scene, and I’ve heard no response, which, should I have sent it? Or maybe I should have sat with it for another day?
I’m stranded this morning with this fear that I have once again offended someone with my words. Made myself out to be an asshole, a person who thinks he’s smarter and more thoughtful and better read than anybody else.
I’ve spent the last twenty or so hours revising my position, elaborating, speaking more universally and less pointedly about his writing and the scene he wrote. Trying to be helpful and instructive without sounding like a dick.
This whole dialogue happening in my head.
A few days ago my friend submitted his story to our writing group and several people in the group balked at the sex part, not terribly, but pointedly: The sex he’d written didn’t help elevate his scene by revealing character and relationship, but seemed to confuse the character’s motivations, and really her very humanity. And it was relatively graphic and so it stood out from the rest of the story, bringing attention to itself without serving an exact and knowable purpose. And this confused the readers. Aka: Us.
As a group we talked about how it didn’t work and we weren’t sure what it was pointing to in the character, and then we moved on and talked about the rest of the piece of writing. But I didn’t feel like we had really worked through what might have happened with this sex scene, and how he might have treated it differently, to better affect.
This is what inspired my considering writing about sex, and how difficult it can be to do it well, and how do we go about it, as writers, in a way that’s effective and purposeful? It’s tricky, because by themselves words point at specific things, and they only find nuance in the way they’re stung together, which is relationship in language. And sex, at least in this country, is so fraught with emotional complexity, and has everything to do with relationship, even if it’s only how one relates to oneself (you jerk off!), so that, how does one write explicitly about sex without pissing people off or offending them or, more practically, from a crafty writerly perspective, how does one use sex in writing to move the scene forward rather than taking away or diverting from it?
So I wrote this email to my writer friend and said, among other things, that when writing sex in literary fiction or memoir that I guessed that the graphic and explicit language could mostly be left out.
As an example, if you look at Lolita, the way sex is written about, the actual words on the page are in themselves totally inert. No dick, no pussy, no tits or ass, no raw sweaty squishy animal humping; Nada. Again, it’s all about the relationship, and sex is not an elephant trampling any of the scenes. And yet, I think it speaks of the mastery of Nabakov that the story dances all around sex, but that it’s not about sex, which means that he can write it essentially without including it. It’s weird, and cool to think about.
And I suggested that maybe my friend try writing a sex scene with all the graphic sex-related language, and then re-write the same scene and substitute all those words for other decidedly un-sexy words and massage the story as needed so it makes sense and see if the same work couldn’t be accomplished. You know, just as an exercise.
Of course there is a place for graphic sex at certain times and in certain stories, but I’d guess as a craftsperson you’ve got to look closely at what your story wants compared to what you want, and remember your story wasn’t ever better for you forcing your will upon it.
So anyway I wrote this email and now, over twenty-four hours later I have heard nothing back from my friend and I’m like “Oh, shit, what have I done?” His lack of response has my brain reeling in insecurity, my internal hecklers are having a heyday:
“Did I say something wrong? Did I come across like a lecturer who pretends to know more than anybody about how to write? Is my friend so angry and offended that he’s unable to say anything?”
For some reason it’s this last question I keep bumping up against, and it makes me want to laugh at myself, and is proof of how small, petty, niggling my internal critic can be.
My friend is a fully formed adult human. If, really, he finds me so insensitive and thoughtless in my writing about how to write about sex and he finds offense to it, then I’m sure he’ll come and hunt me down with his group of meat-head friends and beat the crap out of me and leave me bleeding in the gutter. Because that’s how we work, as writers, right?
It’s an awesome and ridiculous exercise in self negation, wasting energy and time, and I love that I’m human and I get to do this to myself sometimes. It’s not so much that I am a jackass as it is that I have such great potential.
Although, even in that, I probably think of myself as more formidable than I am.
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