Writing About Sex in Novels


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.

Dennis Cooper:

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!

May 12, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 22

Our Wedding, Eight Months Later







A few weeks ago, our wonderful wedding photographer, Inna, reached out to me asking if a local wedding website, Delancey & Penn, could feature our wedding. I said yes without hesitation, and sent her a little write up about the day, which was fun to revisit from the perspective of six+ months out. Their post went live this week, and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to share some more photos with you from the day that I hadn’t yet. You can read all about it, and see even more photos, here.

Thank you, Delancey & Penn, for featuring us, and thank you Inna, seriously, for being the best photographer we ever could’ve asked for.

May 7, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 17

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

More Italy planning! We have one night between Florence and Siena that we’d set aside specifically to stay in the countryside somewhere. Super specific and not vague at all, I know. Imagine the amount of options that gave us, as there are about a thousand tiny towns and Tuscan estates-turned-b&bs in Italy, and each one is more gorgeous and picturesque than the last. Somehow, don’t ask me how, we narrowed down our selection to the commune of Vicchio, about an hour’s drive outside of Florence, and the Villa Campestri, which bills itself as an ‘olive oil resort,’ which really might just be code for ‘heaven on earth.’ Look at it. The have acres of their own olive vineyards, from which they make their own olive oil, and for which I’ve left half my suitcase empty so I can bring home a year’s supply. The resort offers olive oil massages, olive tree planting (and naming!), beekeeping, truffle hunting, olive oil tasting, bike rides through their sprawling grounds, or a cooking class with the chef. They even offer four and eight day painting and drawing tours, led by an artist specialized in fourteenth-century drawing and painting, which would be very Lady Mary of me to do one day. We might not do any of those things on this trip (but the olive oil tasting sounds too good to pass up!) and we are still guaranteed to have perhaps the most memorable experience of the trip. One night seemed like enough time as we were sketching out our itinerary for this trip a few months ago, but after landing on Villa Campestri, we’re realizing the flaw in our logic. We’re already talking about going back and staying for longer, and we haven’t even gotten there yet! Swoon.

11 days!

May 5, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 8

One Year Ago Today

From the top of the Arc

Rue Caulaincourt

In today’s “WTF, No Way” news: it was one year ago today that I embarked on my two month solo journey to Paris. I recognize the cliché inherent in saying, “It couldn’t have been a full year already,” and, “It feels like it’s maybe been a few months, at most,” but in this case those empty platitudes are so appropriate. How has it been a full year? How could 365 days have passed, when I can still feel the bite of the early morning cold on my cheeks as I made my way down Rue Blanche to the city center, when I can still hear the repetitive rumble of children’s scooters on the cobblestone street out of my apartment windows, can still smell the dusty, closed-in stairwell, as if these memories were from just last week. How? I remember things about those days more vividly than what I wore to work yesterday or ate for dinner on Monday, can recall the specific sound the thick white butcher paper made as the girl at the fromagerie folded it around my order every few days, can still conjure the scent of the wet concrete in the late-afternoon rain showers, am still comforted by the dizzy, exultant feeling I got from seeing the Eiffel Tower pop up around corners, above buildings, always asserting herself in my periphery, how it never got old being surprised by it. How can I still feel so close to those eight weeks, when they started a year ago today? It’s almost as if I absorbed them into my being, took them with me in my suitcases, wrapped the sounds and the smells and light into my clothes and brought it all home.

I remember oddly not crying on my last day, not feeling immediately nostalgic and wistful, but understanding in a truer sense than I was capable of before, that it wasn’t really goodbye.

I remember that, one year ago today, I was sitting in the airport, alone, and I’d called my brother to say goodbye, and I remember how soft his voice was when he said to me, “Pop would have been so proud of you,” and I remember the tightening in my throat, the pressure at the corners of my eyes.


Île Saint-Louis

I can’t pinpoint when my obsession with Paris started, but I know it was fed and stoked by my father’s death, as a way to keep him alive, to cling to something he loved. Did I make him proud by going? I’ll never know, but if my own sense of (surely vaulted and perhaps undeserved) self-pride is any indication, then I like to think that it would have. My fixation on Paris is genetic, unshakeable, and maybe that’s why I’ve kept those two months so vividly in the forefront of my mind.

Those sixty-one days were some of the most transformative, beautiful days of my entire life to date. I’m grateful for them beyond words, grateful for the opportunity to spend every day writing, grateful for being able to soak up as much inspiration and magic as the city could offer. I’m grateful I’m going back in a few weeks. And in many ways, I haven’t had any closure on that time, haven’t been able to move on from it, because I don’t want to. (Can you blame me?) I still have countless (hundreds) of photos I haven’t edited or shared with anyone yet. These are just a few.

Passage Landrieu

La Tour

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

April 30, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 18

Our Apartments in Rome, Florence, & Siena

In a little over two weeks, Jamal and I will board a plane to Italy (!!!!), and, true to form, I am already packed. Well, with the exception of underwear and toiletries which I, you know, need to use between then and now, but don’t worry, I have a super detailed checklist to ensure I don’t forget anything. (Ever since I forgot to pack underwear on a weekend trip to DC four years ago and another weekend trip to Jamal’s parents’ house, I am convinced I will forever forget to pack them. Have I said underwear enough times yet in this post?)

Anyway, since our departure date is fast approaching, I figured it was time to share where we’ll be staying in each city. Our itinerary has us flying into Rome on May 17th, taking the train to Florence on the 20th, spending the 23rd in the Tuscan countryside at a b&b, driving to Siena on the 24th, and heading back to Rome for one night before our flight to Paris (you’ve already seen our Paris apartment). Like most of our European adventures, we’re renting apartments through AirBnB. We used them in Belgium in 2012, Paris in 2013 and 2014, when I lived there for two months, and Athens for our honeymoon. Invariably, renting an apartment is cheaper than a hotel room, and you get to cook meals and live like a local. Thanks to Jamal’s tireless list-making (a trait we share!) we found some really great apartments in Italy, if you’d like to see.

This post is not sponsored by AirBnB in any way, we just really love them.


Rome Apartment

Continue reading

April 28, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 9

Voluntary Orthodontia as An Adult (Alternate Title: I’m 28 with Braces)

Let’s talk about teeth! (Because I can’t only talk about Paris all the time, right?)


I had braces –the old, horrible metal kind– as a kid for about a year and a half. When they came off, my bottom teeth weren’t entirely straight. My orthodontist retired immediately after removing my braces (I think he was already halfway out the door as I was fumbling over the surprising sliminess of my naked teeth), and in the years since, I’ve been nursing the suspicion that he took them off specifically so he could retire, not because my teeth were ready. My bottom teeth have been crowding little by little over the last 16 years, so slowly it hadn’t bothered me, until about four years ago when one tooth went totally rogue, bidding “GIRL BYE” to its neighbors, and jumped the line. I found it quirky and kind of adorable, personally. My dentist disagreed, and kept urging me to get it fixed, but let’s be real: voluntary orthodontia as an adult was just not on my list of priorities, or my list of planned expenses. Do you know how many flights to Paris I could buy for the same price?

But at my last cleaning in February, the dentist said either I get my teeth straightened or he’d have no choice but to eventually extract that one, sassy tooth, and because of the crowding there wouldn’t be enough room to insert a bridge. Faced with the choice of shelling out several thousand dollars or having a gaping hole dead center at the bottom of my mouth, even the grumbling skinflint inside of me couldn’t argue. Merde.

And so began the process of finding an orthodontist and electing to inflict pain and embarrassment upon myself. (I’d made up my mind that I’d be going with Invisalign, clear, plastic, laser-cut molded trays you swap out every two weeks, because if I have to be 28 and in braces, they had better be goddamn invisible.)


The whole experience was very “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The first orthodontist was all but mute, and sat in his chair staring at me (literally) without offering any information. The price was $5950. If you were going to flinch at that number, save it, because the second orthodontist I saw –which had plush white carpeting, Diptyque candles, complimentary champagne and truffles, Downton Abbey playing in the lobby– quoted me $8800. Where the first doctor was uselessly withholding of information, the second office was so communicative. They took photos of my teeth and blew them up on a flat screen in the exam room (which, while helpful, was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, because omfg gross), and the orthodontist explained every single detail of his treatment plan. Both doctors had said it would be about a 12-15 month experience. The second office might have said more, but I can’t be sure because I blacked out from shock at the sticker price. Nine grand!! Again: DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY FLIGHTS TO PARIS I COULD BUY FOR THAT PRICE??

And then there was the third orthodontist. When I went in for my consultation, they were playing New Kids on the Block (you guys know how I feel about NKOTB). I would have signed on the dotted line just based on their musical tastes alone, but it only got better. The staff is incredible, kind and down-to-earth (free bottled water and chapstick instead of champagne), the orthodontist is young and nice and volunteers at an organization that offers orthodontic work to low-income kids, and it truly was a “just right” feeling from the moment I walked in. They took x-rays and the orthodontist encouraged me to ask questions. The best part? It is the most affordable option by far, which I realize is all relative; the office manager started writing down the price, and when I saw it started with the number ‘4’ I all but threw my credit card at her. The BESTEST part? It will only take five or six months, not 15.

I had my digital impressions taken in late February –happily, new technology means I didn’t have to suffer those awful plaster molds– and received my first set of Invisalign trays mid-March. They took some getting used to, and while the dental assistants assured me I would be able to pop the trays in an out with ease soon enough, the first few days found me near tears with both hands in my mouth, trying to will the things off my teeth, saliva pooling everywhere. Attractive, I know. They were right, and it only takes me a few seconds now.


I’m on set 3 of 10, and now that I’m five weeks in I thought I’d share how things are going.

The Good:
• Mostly invisible! Almost all Invisalign treatments require tooth-colored enamel attachments on your actual teeth, matched to corresponding divots in the trays, to help move the teeth more effectively. The attachments don’t bother me even when the trays are out, though I did lose two or three off within a week of getting them, oy.
• I can take them out while eating!
• I haven’t had much pain! There’s some definite tooth sensitivity, which is actually comforting because it means it’s all working as it should, but I’ve only taken Motrin once or twice, usually the day after I switch trays and things are a bit tighter.
• I brush my teeth more frequently!
• I’ve stopped biting my nails!
• I can’t snack throughout the day! This has made me so much more aware of all the mindless face-stuffing I was doing, purely out of boredom, not hunger.
• My teeth will be straight!
• I love my orthodontist!

The Not-So-Good:
• Optimal wear” is 22 hours per day. When you factor in that you have to wait 30 minutes after each to brush your teeth (and you have to brush your teeth before putting them back in to prevent cavities), I pretty much only get three 10-minute meals per day. I’m nervous about our upcoming Italy trip, and I know I will be limited in the amount of gelato I’ll be able to inhale.
• You can only drink water while wearing the trays. I don’t drink coffee or soda, so this wasn’t a huge adjustment for me, but man do I miss tea.
• I’ll need a retainer at night for the rest of my life. Unless, that is, I want my teeth to shift back in another 16 years and to have to do this all over again. (Spoiler: I do not.)
• Brushing your teeth three times a day means I have to carry around a travel toothbrush and toothpaste. Upside: I found a cute pouch for them!

So there you go. I’m 28 with braces. That’s what’s been going on around these parts! My super expert advice is to listen to your dentist and also WEAR YOUR RETAINER. A big thank you to my darling friend Sabina for sharing her Invisalign experience with me and for answering all my (many, crazy) questions before I took the plunge. And a big thank you to everyone else who read 1000 words about my teeth.

April 21, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 30

These April Sunsets

Sunset in Les Tuileries

Sunset over the Seine


Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in his fingers while she talks.
‘Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands’;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
‘You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
‘Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.’

T.S. Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady”

April 17, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 16

Upcoming Reads

I recently rediscovered the magic that is the Free Library. It happened a few weeks ago, on the way back to work from lunch with some friends. The conversation went something like this:

All: I love books! (Me too!) (I love books too!)
Lynn: Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to get free books? As many as you wanted?
Me: There is. It’s called…the library.
Herbie & Chris: [lol]
Lynn: Okay, fuck you guys.

I recognize now in the retelling that my response comes off as super sarcastic, but I promise it wasn’t (I am apparently only capable of sounding sarcastic, as anyone who knows me in real life will attest to). Lynn’s inquiry had honestly sparked a realization, though; something so simple and obvious, given my growing book collection and dwindling B&N gift cards, that I can’t believe it took me an unintentionally sassy, Phở-brained comment to remind me: the Free Library is amazing. When I was a kid, my library card got a serious work out, and the joy of visiting the main branch each week and coming home with a stack of new, exciting, hard-backed adventures to dive into –accompanied by the gloriously familiar crinkle of the plastic book covers– remains a highlight of my childhood. Why hadn’t I carried that into adulthood?

Well, I finally did. I renewed my library card and have been singing its praises ever since. And while the intervening years have seen some changes to the way the library operates (I can place holds on any title online, for pick up at my local branch; they don’t use rubber stamps or check-out cards anymore) the overwhelming enchantment hasn’t faded in the slightest.

Herewith, some upcoming reads:


1 // Ajax Penumbra 1969, Robin Sloan
I was so smitten with Sloan’s “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” that I can’t believe I didn’t know until recently there was a second (prequel?) book in the same story. All I can tell you about the first one, if you haven’t read it  already(why haven’t you read it already??), is that it is set in a bookstore in San Francisco, involves a secret organization of book lovers (where do I pledge my allegiance?), and that the cover glows in the dark. It was one of the best books I’ve ever read, hands down, and I am beyond thrilled there’s another one in the same vein.
2 // The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
I recently checked this out from the library, with the intention of waiting to finish Donna Tartt’s “The Little Friend” first, but there was no way I could restrain myself. I’m already 100 pages into “The Painted Girls,” and it has everything I love: Paris in the 1880s, ballet, Degas, did I mention Paris? The story focuses on three young, impoverished sisters, one of whom becomes a figure model for the famous artist’s series of Danseuses. The narrative flips between the older two sisters, and I am so far loving all of the historical details.
3 // Red Joan, Jennie Rooney
I actually received this book for free from Europa Editions, a wonderful and welcome surprise in my mailbox one afternoon. I’d joined their mailing list and was rewarded with this hefty historical fiction (I’m sensing a pattern), about the KGB’s longest serving British spy, thus making it the first time joining a mailing list has ever benefited anyone, ever. I love Europa Editions, from their selection of authors to the binding and paper choice of their books, and had recently finished their edition of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” when “Red Joan” showed up. This may be getting ahead of myself, but I’ve been toying with submitting my manuscript to them when the time comes.
4 // Gilded Youth, Kate Cambor
This book had been in my Amazon cart for months, as I’ve been intrigued by the plot since I first came across it: a coming of age story set in the early 20th century of the scions of three of France’s biggest cultural influencers, including writers Victor Hugo and Alphonse Daudet. Cambor’s book captures the “hopes and disillusionments of those who were destined to see the golden world of their childhood disappear.” You know how I feel about late 19th/early 20th century Paris, so this seems like an obvious book to place on my “to-read” shelf.

What are you guys reading these days? Any recommendations?

April 14, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 22

The Nicest Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

An Apartment in Paris

We can all stop searching, I’ve found the nicest apartment in Paris. Quite the bold statement, I know, but of all the apartments in Paris I’ve posted over the years, this one is by far my favorite. It doesn’t even have views of the Eiffel Tower, or a wrap around balcony overlooking the Seine, and it’s not even located in an arrondissement I’d consider in my top five. But! But out of all of those apartments, this one is the nicest I’ve ever seen. Something about it –the muted tones, the collection of plants, the blue bathroom door, the intentionally peeling wall in the bedroom– just speaks to me on an entirely different register. It feels the most authentically Parisian, despite its lack of classically Parisian views. This apartment is all about the interior, and it is like something out of a dream. I know, I know: there is no geographical cure for unhappiness, but tell me you wouldn’t feel instantly perked waking up in that bed? At a cool €735,000 ($800k), it better come furnished, especially because I don’t think I’d ever be able to decorate it better than the current owners have. Mon dieu.

I want to thank you each so much for your kind words of support on this post, kiddos. You can’t know how much it means to me to have such a rallying group in my corner. Thank you for letting me vent honestly, too; I know blogs are “supposed” to be light and cheery all time, but that would be disingenuous. The fog is starting to thin out a bit for me, and I feel buoyed by your thoughtfulness. Merci beaucoup, mes amies.

April 9, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 10

A Little Pick-Me-Up

Roses Costes

What do you do when you’re feeling low? I’m asking for a friend, we’ll call her Merin. Merin has been feeling particularly down recently, really worn out and stifled creatively, ground down from the tedium of her day job, directionless and all around in a funk. Merin has tried all sorts of remedies which previously worked so well: visiting museums, buying fresh flowers, burying herself in books as a distraction, wandering Paris in Google Earth, chopping off all her hair, eating a 9×13 sheet pan of cake by herself, making lists of the most simple tasks so she can feel, just for a second, a satisfying sense of accomplishment. She would normally sit down and write it out, as writing has been Merin’s chief form of therapy since she was a kid, but thanks in large part to the brain-atrophying futility of her daily work, she can’t summon the creative power needed to do something that once came so easily, so joyfully to her. Words don’t come, everything she’s written to this point seems banal, awful, embarrassing, she should just delete all 185 pages. Merin is worried, truly concerned, because she can feel herself turning bitter, hears herself making snappy remarks to her doting, kind husband (we’ll call him Kamal), for things completely unrelated to him, things that are not his fault, nor really within his power to fix. Kamal only wants Merin to be happy, after all. Kamal is kind of a saint and also a major babe and Merin is really, really sorry she has been hounding him about the goddamn dripping kitchen sink, because who cares about the kitchen sink, it’s a sink, it drips, it isn’t Kamal’s fault and it isn’t even about the sink, honestly, it’s about Merin being the grumpiest of grumpy cats and she’s really, truly sorry, Kamal. She’s trying.

So my Merin’s question to you, kiddos, is this: what do you do when you need a not-so-little pick-me-up? What works for you? Short of jetting off to Paris to ameliorate this situation (which is happening in oh, 40 days anyway), do you have any advice?

April 7, 2015 / Uncategorized / LEAVE A COMMENT / 47