An Analogy (Column by M.A. Mohanraj)

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An Analogy

I promise you sex — but be patient for a paragraph or two,
okay?

I’d like to talk a little about writing. It’s an odd job, being a
writer. You keep strange hours (I get up around 5 to write) and you talk
to yourself (‘now, should the alien have three legs or five?). You starve
a little (‘ah, ramen for dinner again. how lovely.’) and you steal from
your friends’ joy and pain (‘Aunty’s son, shot in his bed in a Tamil
guerrilla raid — how terrible for her! — and how can I use that in a
story?’).

Writers are ghouls. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I know
I search desperately for any material or techniques I can use. I
cannibalize the lives of myself and my friends and I steal unabashedly
from books. Of course, even if I weren’t stealing from them, I’d be
reading them anyway — most writers are voracious readers. It’s a joy and
a pleasure and a refuge — but reading is also something that starts
subtly changing after you start getting serious about your writing.

By serious, I mean that you start examining your writing. In
detail. Which, I admit, makes it difficult to not examine every book you
read in detail. Which leads to some interesting categories, at least in
my mind. There are the bad books — the pick them up and within a
paragraph know you’re not going to bother books. Then there are the
mediocre books, and those hurt. Those are the ones where you want to take
the author and say, ‘If you just read a little more and thought a little
more and were a little more careful, this would be a lot more readable.’
They make you depressed when you finish them, if you finish them.

Then there are the good books. The good books are your mainstay,
as they always were — but after you start thinking about the writing,
they change. Sure, you love the characters, the plot is deliciously
tangled, the style is lean and mean or lush and rich or something else
altogether. But you can’t quite turn off the internal editor — the one
saying, ‘ah, point of view problem here’ or ‘awkward phrasing there’ or
‘are these characters really believable?’ The good books are still good
— they’re nice to have around, and they still provide a refuge — they’re
comforting. For example, I’ve read Diane Duane’s Star Trek books several
times over — they’re good. But they’re not great. When you’ve learned
to be this critical, it’s only the truly great books that can completely
carry you away — and they may still have all those problems that some of
the good books have. They’re just so great that you don’t care.

Sex is sort of like that. One of the questions I often get asked
is whether writing about sex has hurt my sex life — has it made me too
clinical, too detached, to judgemental and aware of my lover’s
inadequacies? Well, I’m not about to discuss my lover’s inadequacies
here, or even my own. But I will tell you that writing about sex does
have somewhat of the same effect on having sex that writing books
generally has on reading them.

Specifically, bad sex is still bad sex. You can smell it from a
mile away — from the first kiss that’s way too gloppy and sloppy and
tells you this is not someone you want gasping and sweating in your bed.
And mediocre sex — well, it makes you a little sad. You think ‘Eh. I
could have written a better scene than that.’ And it’s frustrating,
because of course part of it’s your fault — so it’s like writing a
mediocre book. Depressing.

On the other hand, good sex is still good sex — most of the time
you don’t analyze it at all, or if you do, it’s just a little comment here
or there, which you can choose to either keep to yourself or share. It’s
still a pleasure and a joy and a comfort. It can still make your brain
buzz. I know some of my favorite books aren’t great — but I still cry
every time I read the tragic love scene in Chapter 12. You love them as
they are, faults and all. Maybe even a little because of the faults. As
for great sex — well, I don’t know about you, but my conscious brain’s
not usually too active during really great sex. The little editor’s
taking a nap. And that’s just fine by me.

– Mary Anne Mohanraj
July 16, 1997


If you have ideas for future columns — issues you want addressed,
questions you think I might be able to answer, drop me a line at
maryanne@mamohanraj.com.

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