I first knew Lidia Yuknavitch (author of The Chronology of Water and, most recently, Dora: A Headcase) would be my sex writing soulmate when I heard her speak on the subject at last fall’s Wordstock Literary Festival, where she sat on a panel with other writers who discussed sex’s place in writing. She was the champion for straightforward sex–in writing and in talking about it. Her rally cry was to liberate the “sex story.” When we sat down to discuss these same issues, it made me want to join in her rally.
Is sex writing scary?
No. From the start, it was the first mode that came out of me. I was trying to tell the truth. This was my experience, and I was trying to use precise language. It got a little scarier once I started getting published because now there were readers and I had to deal with the reactions. Though it wasn’t scary, I did at a certain point have to develop a responsibility and get smarter. That meant stuff like going to graduate school and reading my ass off. And stopping the idea that I knew anything about it. There’s a history to women’s sexuality in literature and life and you need to educate yourself.
Have you ever stopped and found you were censoring your sex writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think? Your husband? Your son?
I’ve had zero self-censorship, even with my son. He’s been coming to mommy’s readings since he was two. I do stop myself if I’m not writing my own story and start to write about others in a way that could hurt them or cause injury. If it would cause injury, I re-route the story. In The Chronology of Water, I sent the pieces I wrote about other people to those people. A couple of people asked me to change names, which I did. There was one person who didn’t want to appear in the story, so I cut that.
I don’t think there are any places a writer shouldn’t go, but that gets me in trouble sometimes.
What is the best response you’ve received from your audience?
This sounds dorky, but sometimes I get thanked. What I think is beneath that small, beautiful thank you is years of repression. I hope they will give themselves permission to let some of it out. It breaks my heart that we live in a culture where we’re some of the most repressed, suffering, not-following-joy people on the planet. We still have that Puritanical legacy, as over-sexed as our culture is, when it comes to telling the truth about sexuality. This is sad and hard for me.
What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sex?
There are different categories: Writing sex. Sexual writing. Erotica. Sex writing. Writing about sexuality. There are all these ways to write about it and we should try all of them and not make it one thing. Writing a sex scene is light years away from writing sexuality. Until you understand the difference between those two things, I don’t think you’re writing anything worthwhile.
I think a really good case study is to read 50 Shades of Grey and Little Birds together. Then you can see the difference between good and bad sex writing.
What does sex do for a story?
I come from such a weird angle because I think desire and sexuality are in language. My job is to find the writing path that will surface that idea. In a way, I’m a little bit against the inserted sex scene because I don’t think that it happens in our bodies and real life, so why should we do that in our writing? The Americanized, market-driven sex scene dislocates sex from our real experience.
I teach a workshop on sex, death, and memoir. The first couple weeks we talk about the sex writing that doesn’t go deep enough. One of the assignments I give in my workshop is to write sexually and explicitly about a non-sexual experience. That teaches a lot.
Do you think men get away with more when writing about sex than women?
Yeah. The constraints around what a woman can and can’t say in terms of the mainstream are quite narrow. Lolita is fine and considered high literature, but if a woman writer wrote a woman character who was a pedophile, how would the reception differ? A male character can be monstrous and still be sexy and heroic. I often write female characters who are “unlikable.” Even if she is unlikable, so what? Holden Caulfield was a whiny little bitch.
That’s our culture’s desire to have girls be a certain way. If you can go outside the mainstream, you are in wonderful territory.
Come back next month for a Girl on Girl interview with Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl and the upcoming The Stud Book.