I have a litmus test with most everything I publish online, a way to keep me (and my mouth) in check, something seemingly easy to lose hold over in this digital era when instant communication to broadcast even the most mundane of thoughts is right at our fingertips. Before I post anything, I ask myself, “Is this something I’d be okay with Jamal’s mom reading?” If I’m even a little bit in doubt, I don’t post it. (I’ve saved myself from some pretty curse-laden, reactionary tweets about everything from The Real Housewives franchises to people on my morning commute this way.) My own mother’s favorite piece of advice has always been, “When in doubt, don’t.” And while it applies to all manner of things –the suggestion to not do anything until you’re confident in your decision has served me well in relationships, work, finances, etc.– it’s equally as relevant to resisting the urge to post absolutely every unfiltered thought.
This has been a helpful self-imposed rule for my blog/twitter feed/various social media accounts, but the same standard, when applied to writing my book (though with a different relative) has been somewhat…restrictive? I’ll back up a bit. There are two characters in my novel for whom a romantic involvement is an ineluctable outcome. It seems weird to suggest that I have no control over fictional people I’ve created, I know, but I’ve written and re-written different plotlines countless times, reworked things in my head, and the end result is always the same: these two characters have to have a dalliance. You’ve read a bit about them before, about these two walking up the stairs to her apartment, his hand on her shoulder, the door closing behind them. I’ve been on the other side of that door for months, unable to write about what goes on when they stumble into her bed. Because…because what if my brother reads it? My older brother! (That’s obviously not the only thing keeping from writing about sex in my novel, but it doesn’t help the cause any, either.)
So I did some digging, and it turns out, plenty of authors struggle with writing sex into their novels. It’s hard! (That is not a euphemism.) How do you articulate it adequately? What words do you use? Does it seem gratuitous to include it, or a cheap cop-out to have a ‘fade to black’ moment? Here are a bunch of authors on writing about sex:
Lorin Stein, in The Paris Review:
Not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed…It strikes me that fiction and poetry are especially good at dealing with sex—are in some ways designed for handling subjects that are private or shameful or deeply subjective—and that sex is inherently interesting (maybe especially to readers of fiction?)
Alexander Chee, also in The Paris Review:
Too much writing about sex tries to either make it prettier or more serious, sexier or funnier or shocking, or anything, really, except what it is. On its own terms, sex is information…When my teacher told me to read James Salter, what she meant was that this kind of sex writing…describes sex so that it tells you something about the story and the characters and yourself, all at once.
Sex is such a confusing situation that your ability to communicate what you’re thinking and feeling in the moment is severely hampered. If you try to articulate your thoughts and feelings in words, you’re reduced to saying the quickest and easiest epithets you can come up with—porn language, essentially…That’s why, when writers attempt to describe sex accurately, the scenes all tend to sound the same, no matter what the writers’ individual styles may be. I think most writers just want their sex scenes to be realistically sexy.
Adam Thirwell, in an interview in Salon with author Gary Shteyngart:
I think for me it’s always interesting to write about extreme experience, or experience that’s not really meant to be written about, that’s on the edge of the linguistic: where it merges with, I don’t know, brute noise.
Steve Almond, in the Utne Reader, lays out 13 guidelines for writing about sex, and they are wildly funny and insightful. Number 12 is my favorite:
If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t. By this, I mean writing about sex as it actually exists, in the real world, as an ecstatic, terrifying, and, above all, deeply emotional process. Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so utterly vulnerable. We are all, when the time comes to get naked, terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn’t abandon your lovers in their time of need. You mustn’t make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human business. Because we’ve already got a name for sex without the emotional content: It’s called pornography.
And finally, author Rachel Kushner, in an interview with the NY Times, being very smug about the whole thing:
I don’t think of sex as any more difficult to write about than any other human behavior. Writers fail or soar at anything. Everyone thinks about sex, engages in it. It’s the secret we all share. Just acknowledging its constant presence in people’s thoughts is a good direction for a novelist.
Fellow fiction writers and readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts!