In Which We Have The Talk You Were Supposed To Have With Your Parents (or Your Creative Writing Teacher)

December 15th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Yes, it’s that talk. The one that makes you squirm and look for an exit. The one where you defiantly announce that you don’t need our help — you’re doing just fine on your own. The one where you say, “That’s not my style. Besides, if Tom Wolfe failed at it, what hope is there for me?”

Writers are, by nature, observers. Sex is, by nature, participatory. As evidenced by his rather bizarre language, Wolfe approached his sex scenes from the former perspective. That never works. There are few human experiences that cover the breadth of emotions that sex does: violence, love, anger, passion, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, loneliness, and the list goes on. Writing about sex is writing about emotion — this in uncomfortable territory for many authors. What you say about intercourse or foreplay or any other aspect of the act reveals a lot about you personally (even if you pretend it’s all the character). That’s a scary thing to put on the page.

We once took the Fifth on sex in a book. We closed the door. Jill about killed us — here was something really important in the world of character development, and we avoided it. Now, we’ll maintain to our dying breath that this was the right approach for that story, that character, but privately, we might concede she was right. The sex scene was a turning point and we didn’t do a good job of it.

We don’t worry about the mother reading our work and wondering what sort of pervert she raised. We don’t worry about our friends. Okay, we worry somewhat about our friends, but, honestly, if they’re not having and enjoying sex in all of its awkward glory, that’s their problem, not ours (defensive? of course not). Actually, we worry a lot about what other people think. We’re getting help for this problem, but the truth is, Americans are weird about sex. We pretend to have a very sophisticated culture, but mostly the subject is greeted with giggles and blushes*.

It is this type of reaction that makes authors uncomfortable. It’s like, “Omigod, she said penis.” Meanwhile, we’re quite sure they’re thinking worse in the back of their minds. What if your characters engage in a sexual act that you would never, in a million years, try at home? Or maybe it’s something you’ve tried and enjoyed, but isn’t quite part of the mainstream. After all, shouldn’t this stuff stay in the bedroom? It’s the characters doing this, not you (even if you’ve done it yourself…hello neverending loop).

But moreso than murder (we hope), sex is an essential part of the human experience. It plays into every aspect of our being (that would be the result of conception…even if you started out with a test tube). How you write about sex offers more insight into characters than you can imagine. It also offers more insight into your willingness to be honest in your work than you can imagine (see previous re: our failure to do this and continued litany of excuses). Writing bad sex is a function of not being honest, avoiding the emotional component, overthinking the act, describing body parts when feelings are better, and using really bad metaphors. Especially that last one. Avoid the metaphors — they’re confusing and usually hilarious. And probably not in a good way.

(Hmm, as it turns out, Sarah Weinman has been thinking about the same subject — check out her take on the whole thing, especially her thoughts on maintaining a writerly distance)

* – Unless it’s a Girls’ Night Out — then you skip the giggles and get downright in-depth. So to speak. Men, if you value your dignity, do not listen to women when they talk about sex, especially if it’s sex and you.

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