Issue #71, Let's Talk About Sex
The Eroticism of Essaying
Writer at Work
The Eroticism of Essaying
Setting the Mood
When I was younger, I wrote at my desk, a gracious Mexican affair bought in a first-sight passion. The seat was hardwood, ambitious. Many an essay has this desk to thank for its existence, as does my son; it’s where I measured out my fertility drugs into a hopeful series of syringes, before resting my weight on its kindly bulk to stick myself—a useful metaphor, perhaps, for the writing life. These days, I write most often with legs stretched out atop the indulgently accommodating mattress my husband and I bought after a lengthy battle with mold spores and marauding dust mites, those naughty squatters drawn to our ancient pocket-springs by the relics of connubial activity (skin, sweat, etc.) and the feeding of our resultant offspring (breast milk, Cheerios mush, drool).1 Which tells you most of what you need to know about the current state of my erotic and creative life. The bed offers prolonged support, along with a more complex and satisfying perspective. Semi-prone, I can look out, over my laptop, to the outrageous display of azaleas and other blowsy Southern efflorescence outside the window, shaming me with the perennial “come hither” morphology of the flowers, and thence up into the leafy, austral vista and the great unknown. It’s a fine place, in any case, to rest between long days of standing before students, promoting the benefits of taking, in their own compositions, the long view.
This is all to say that where there’s comfort and unencumbered feeling and a glimpse of the infinite––of nature’s determined will to “get it on” in the face of storm and drought––there is, too, the potential for story. As writers, we need our room-with-a-view to be both reflective retreat and motivating, sustaining base camp, from whence we can strike out and return to restoke the fire, or what Rick Bass calls our “lust” for the work––the energy that brings us back to the keyboard. Deep writing of the kind necessary for creative nonfiction requires a space in which we can go floating off into the big empty of the subconscious, where the mundane, must-do zones of the brain can go quiet and allow the hippocampus, that galaxy of memories and creative connection, to snap on: Hel-lo! Things need to get hot and jiggly in there before the juices can flow. This is that state of quiet arousal in which we ignore the phone, our bladder, the pan burning dry on the stove. Everything and everyone gets the same treatment: we’re not available, not in, in the expected sense. Oh, but we are: deep in that inner space where we step out into the dope of the weightless atmosphere, ready to drown. How deliciously new and vast and welcoming it is in there, all that undiscovered territory; how readily each frontier opens up to us and the psychic, memory-studded cosmos reveals itself, vision upon vision.
When we’re writing memoir, in particular, we have to be prepared to fall fully into the black hole of the past, to be sucked beyond the “event horizon” of the particular story we’re working on, no turning back. Risky, sometimes painful, but often tantalizing stuff. Moreover, if we let ourselves keep our eyes open and gaze fully into that material, even—and especially—when it feels most uncomfortable, that’s when we connect on an increasingly meaningful level with both that material and our imagined reader. It might seem odd to equate writing and coital practice, but this is precisely what Jessica Graham does in her guide to mindful mating, Good Sex. Acceptance and curiosity, she argues, are essential in helping us achieve a fully “embodied experience” in the bedroom, where we most want to connect in an “outrageously intimate” way with our partner (think, reader) and access our most deeply buried material. And, as Graham notes, time flies when we’re having this kind of Tantric, hyperconscious fun.
Here I am now, gazing into my computer screen, and Mac, this fancy bad-boy with his oh-so-responsive keys and pixelated glow, stares back, open to anything and everything I have to say. In Mac’s eyes, I can do no wrong; I can be my most marvelous, un-pin-down-able, unedited self, free to explore without the outside world’s tight-lipped disapproval. Mac is sexy because he lets me say it like it is; he doesn’t stop me or fret about what the neighbors might say if I make a lot of noise.2 And just like that, a whole morning has gone by!
Rising Action, Falling Action
The author of creative nonfiction, diving for core truths, must engage in the writing process with this special kind of all-in ecstatic energy, and it’s this libidinous relationship of the writer to her work, I think––our lust for the fully lived and examined life, as explored and made manifest on the page––that informs, too, what falls out there, the shape and substance of the work. The arc of rising desire and ultimate fulfillment is the same force that drives the creation of the classic dramatic arc, this stimulation and energy and fearless concentration that help us arrive at a satisfying narrative and rhetorical climax: the union of the lived story and its purpose or ultimate meaning.3 Hard to argue that Freytag’s pyramid, that whole teasing package of exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution (or, perhaps, some more feminine version of that graphic, a slow-building, crashing wave of intensity) doesn’t mimic almost exactly the sex act: the self-same pattern of arousal, orgasm, and comedown.4
Isn’t this what we feel when we’re in the full flow of our writing? The rising of the creative sap, the slow building and unclenching of tightly packed inner tensions, a kind of interior Women in Love-style naked brawl,5 followed, if we’re lucky, by sustained, explosive release (the high point of the scene, or epiphany, finally detonating), then the high-density aftershocks, our wild, spent energy draining away, leaving us breathless and meditative, thrilled with (and sometimes a little embarrassed by) what we’ve risked: with what’s been liberated out into the world in that moment of radical, audacious revelation.6
In personal narrative, our writing practice mirrors a specially concentrated version of this high-energy arc. During the rising action and at the high point of releasing our own story onto the page, we connect with both our self and our imagined reader in a rare and profoundly personal way; we share who we are at an almost cellular level, leading, if we get it right, to a sense of mutually achieved unity. Like Sendak’s mischievous Mickey cavorting naked in his hungry, treat-filled night kitchen, when we get it right, we are in the story, and the story is in us.
Hitting the Spot
I suspect each writer’s libido functions differently: we are shy or like things on the feral side; we like a ménage à trois (or more!) or self-imposed restrictions; we like artificial stimulation, deep commitment, laughter, toys. I take weeks over a single story, loving it, rejecting it, undressing it over and over, getting tangled and hot and hungry in the process; I talk (tenderly, occasionally dirtily) to my pages; I like my notebooks a particular way, sleek and hardworking; I get disappointed when things don’t work the way I hoped. Others, perhaps, are aficionados of the quickie or can see their way blindfolded. Maybe you are in that wonderful first flush when the desire to write seems never to run dry. In which case, stay in that bed and roll in it!
Regardless, this art requires energy that gets sapped from us in great surges and requires replenishment. Writing is exercise, a dynamic workout, and we need to rest well when we’re spent, to stop and feed ourselves. It’s all too easy to forget this and end up incapable, unwashed, unhappy, our blood sugar dipping dangerously; sustaining the effort requires us to develop a practice akin to Tantra, that hyperconscious, hyper-embodied, mindful expansion and slow release of energy that brings about intense satisfaction: a chakra-cleansing awakening that won’t drain or actually kill us. In short, the same things that make us good lovers make us good writers. To succeed at either endeavor, we must open ourselves to adventure, to new experiences, to kink, if you will, and be willing to shrug off anxieties and previous identities. To connect with our reader, we must also nurture a sense of patience and generosity—a consideration of our reader’s presence and needs as much as our own. Does our storytelling come, ultimately, from a place of narcissism or of love? Is there a place in our work for the tease, and if there is, is that teasing ethical? Are we connecting honestly with ourselves and our reader? Can our writing, in fact, be love? Writing may or may not be sex, but it’s the journey, shared or otherwise, as well as the tenderness we bring to the endeavor, that gives it meaning.
We have to take the enterprise seriously; ourselves, not so much. Writing this, I am excited, buzzed; the effort is both lovely and fully exhausting. I want you to be roused by the sweep of my words and go away satisfied, but my life shouldn’t depend on it. If I focus on your pleasure, on how you might respond, in the end, I’m rewarded with a sense of outward release. I’ve said what I think, and it’s enough: over, now, to you.
Harnessing the Energy of Fear
We engage our story and stimulate this release, in part, by bringing together our reading and notetaking with the swelling up of our courage each time we sit down to write (this essay, for example: freaky, scary stuff), and in this way, I think, we are both more indebted to our fear and more in control of our own inspiration than we might imagine. A writing session might come at us out of the blue, or we might prepare for it for years; you have to take your opportunities where they arise. I do not subscribe to the notion that you are not somehow “a real writer” if you don’t (or can’t) write every day. But if it’s fear that holds us back––of failure or some revelation of hard truths––it’s worth remembering that the part of the brain that processes both intense memories and fear is the same part that processes lust. Science suggests there’s a complex interplay between our early sense of comfort and fear that guides our reactions to erotic stimuli—what are known as “sexual arousal cues”—and that these experiences condition how we get turned on later in life (think: thrill of the unknown, the “I dare you” glance, the appeal of strong hands, the lure of the unattainable.) I don’t want to pretend to understand these complexities, or to sound in any way glib,7 but it seems reasonable that in denying ourselves the opportunity to embrace fear—importantly, one we choose, not fear that’s imposed on us by outside forces—we can also deny ourselves the possibilities of pleasure and connection available to us in our writing. As in life, we have to be open to being open.
Many of the writers I’ve admired most in recent years and looked to for inspiration happen to be queer practitioners, like Jeanette Winterson, Bernard Cooper, and Maggie Nelson, each of whom explores personal and erotic experience with a particularly intimate courage, digging deep to lay bare explosive truths and questions about identity. Works like Cooper’s Truth Serum, Nelson’s The Argonauts, and Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? explore the human relationship in all its facets, with descriptions of the physical and erotic acting as a sort of neurological pathway that leads toward an exploration of spiritual and existential truths. This body of work feels heroically boundaryless, open-hearted, and searching, as each writer stands before us, a unique version of “the thing itself,” inviting us to observe, admire, and inquire, without ever feeling promiscuous or causing a sense of embarrassment in the reader. They reveal not only the wrongness of any prejudice we harbor, but also what we are missing by failing to embrace the full expression of who we are and might be in our own lives and writing. In this sense, these works function like a Saint Hildegard or the Song of Solomon—the sacred becomes erotic; the erotic, sacred.
But What if It Hurts?
Since personal narrative comes from remembered experience and our reflections on it, we enter and inhabit our story in a peculiarly intimate way. This can be an emotionally trying, even painful, process, but there’s pleasure in putting yourself there in the moment, staring out at the words that articulate the very matter of your life. As so many have attested8, the writing space is ultimately a healing one, in which stuff that needs to come out gets out (the oft-maligned therapeutic aspect of the memoirist’s practice). Experience gets concretized so that we, and the reader, can look at a lived experience more objectively, even dispassionately. We nudge the traumatic memory out from where it sits, trapped in the amygdala, and send it over to the place or places in the brain where events can be more coolly interpreted and put into context; we restore the broken circuitry and connect the dots, and the result is flow: the release of our traumatic memory along with our narrative.9
The free-diving in and out of deep experience is central to the writing of memoir, since such composition is profoundly sensual, the writer coming at his or her experience from somatic experience, similar to what the best fictional imagining achieves.10 I think that’s the timeless attraction of the true story and why it thrives. Such stories are born from the writer dedicating herself to profoundly authentic, quality “alone time,” into whose hallowed space she graciously, courageously invites the reader. Moreover, a healthy or healing connection of the self to the body allows the expression of that experience to become a celebration rather than a lament: a full-throated, uninhibited Shagadelic, Baby! as we print out that final, shining, unashamedly sexy draft.
3 Perhaps this is why men, long encouraged to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, had, till recently, a monopoly over the literary world. It was only when both men and women in the modern era encouraged one another to discover and enjoy their bodies without shame, and modern thinkers began to question the ethics of dominating or possessing another individual’s body, her thinking, or manner of existence, that women and others who resisted traditional identities began to find success in publishing, to write. How we’ve flooded, lately, the scene, our output a reminder of the once-impeded, dammed-up expression of our libido, our gushing capacity for creative productivity released finally in a gushing, 21st-century Take this! torrent.
4 I’ve often found myself embarrassed when describing classic narrative structure to a bunch of lusty undergraduates: standing firmly at the whiteboard, marker gripped in hand, I watch the word CLIMAX appear at the top of my graphic hillock, and hope they aren’t thinking––who am I kidding?––what I’m thinking.
5 D. H. Lawrence has a lot to answer for and was my original inspiration. See his fiction and essays for both an examination of sex as life-energy and its practical application in driving forward a compelling narrative.
9 A therapist might begin her cure by taking us out of our body: ‘Name five shades of blue in the room,’ and you do and are thus able to turn away from the distractions of the past and return to the concrete moment.
10 I’ve written for Assay Journal about the uses of spiraling in and out of the difficult moment when writing about trauma.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
Nicola Waldron is a graduate of Cambridge and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been published in Post Road Magazine, Los... read more
From the Editor
Robert Atwan’s “Between the Lines” column in this issue begins with his observation that memoirs have typically attracted... read more