It’s different, writing…

It's different, writing about sex in your 40s than your 20s. Different for me, anyway, and difficult.

When I decided to try ebooks, I spent some time looking around to see what I had available to work with. There's a few follow-up stories to Bodies in Motion, some children's stories, some SF/F. (That's all coming, as I have time to do the conversion (2-3 hrs / book), and money to pay the cover artist.) But there are also some smutty stories that I wrote for a now-defunct porn magazine back in 1997.

In that year, I was twenty-six years old. I supported myself for much of a year writing those stories and some accompanying letters for the front of the magazine. They paid me $1000 for a story, and $300 each for a letter -- a twenty-six-year-old can live on $1600 monthly, even after taxes (which I did have to pay), if she's willing to keep her books in crates and on cinder blocks, have a few roommates, skip eating out. It was a crazy year -- I was in the first year of my MFA program, and I did Clarion that summer -- I funded a lot of my MFA and Clarion with the smut money, and was happy to do it. I did write those stories under a pseudonym, not because I was particularly ashamed of them at the time, but because I was young, and wanting a literary career, and I wasn't sure if it would hurt my chances any if people (editors, academics) knew I also wrote porn.

In 1997, fifteen years ago, we were just starting to see the surge in erotica publishing. When I started writing erotica a few years earlier, you couldn't buy it in regular bookstores (except perhaps for Anais Nin and a few other literary greats). You had to go to those skanky men's stores, which frankly scared me. When I told people I wrote erotica, they were often shocked. One journalist told me I must be a nymphomaniac, that I needed professional medical help. From the viewpoint of the world we live in now, where 50 Shades of Grey is a mad bestseller and people read their copies in public, on the bus, it's hard to even remember how different the world was, fifteen years ago.

But what's funny to me is that while the world has gotten much more open about sex (at least the American world I mostly live in), my own life has gotten much more closed. Oh, I might occasionally write a poem about sex after having kids, but my writing these days tends to be more centered on culture clashes, parent-child difficulties, the war in Sri Lanka. Right now, I am finishing a memoir about love and nationalism and a trip taken to Sri Lanka in 2005 with my ex-girlfriend, and I really do want to give you some sense of our relationships, perhaps in flashbacks to a few of the sexy bits. But I'm having trouble writing them, exposing that material. Worse -- when I decided to do a fun Kickstarter project, and came up with the idea for an erotic SF novel-in-stories, I thought it would be easy to marry sex and SF, two of my own great loves. But while the SF is coming easily (aliens! genetic engineering! spaceships! and yes, culture clashes!), the sex isn't. I can write it, but now I have to push hard against a strong current of inner resistance.

Reading over those smutty tales, prior to release, I was a little shocked. In part because they're so explicit (I was apparently shameless back then!), but more because are some elements there that I wouldn't write the same now -- in particular, in two of the stories, the villains do all kinds of bad things, including having sex with kids. I'm not sure I could write that now, and even if I managed it, I'd have to push myself to do it. But back then, I wrote it casually, almost as a throwaway -- of course the villains were pedophiles! And on to the next scene! I don't think the idea of the children's pain was real to me back then. Now that I have my own children, it's different.

And of course, having your own children means that you know other children, and while those children are still very young in my case, and won't be reading any stories I put out on the internet (they're at the dog-cat-book stage now), you also get to know their parents, at least a little. There are parents from my kids' preschool who read me on Facebook, for example, and while they probably know by now that I'm a liberal poly sometime-erotica-writer weirdo, that somehow feels different from plastering up a story of scene-by-scene sex (a lot of it queer and/or kinky) and telling people to buy it. I feel like I should hide the stories away. The magazine they were published in is now defunct; if I don't let them out into the world again, they'll probably disappear forever, and I'll never have to face these people at the school picnic with the knowledge of what I've written, what they've read, blazoned on their faces.

Worse, my kids' friends' parents aren't the only ones reading the stuff. There are my aunties, and my colleagues, and my students. Maybe they'll think worse of me for knowing I once wrote porn, especially if they can easily click through to read a free sample. I can live with them thinking worse of me (though it does give me a twinge); I care enough about my commitment to the important of free discussion of sexuality to bolster my decision to publish it here. More concerning is the thought that knowing I write porn, reading it, may change our relationship, especially if they're too embarrassed to look at me afterwards. (Students, I did warn you that if you Facebook-friend your professor, you may learn more than you want to about the rest of her life. You're all adults -- continue at your own risk. At the very least, you might want to skip clicking on that link until after the semester is over.)

Still, as I said, I think writing about sex is important. It was most of what I did with myself in my twenties, because I believed that a lot of damage comes from being unable to talk about sex. Damage in relationships, damage in society at large. I called myself a sex activist. And even if my concerns have shifted focus, even if I spend more time worrying about school politics and ethnic issues and, oh yes, the war, I still believe that talking about sex is important.

And even if I'm a little shocked at how shameless those early stories are, I have to support them too, politically-speaking. These stories don't have a lot of literary merit to excuse them -- they were written fast, and meant to be fun, and I had a strict word count and a required number of sex scenes to fit into those words, which didn't leave a lot of room for characterization, themes, etc. I did what I could, and I do think they have a bit more to them than most porn. (I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey myself, so I can't do a one-to-one comparison here.) I'm perhaps more embarrassed by the prose style than the sexual content, when it comes down to it -- but that was fifteen years ago, and I was a different person then. The stories reflect the skills I had at the time, and who I was.

I doubt I'll be writing a ton of porn now, or even promoting these very heavily. I'm re-releasing these stories partly as an experiment in digital publishing, direct from author-to-reader (I'm very curious to see how they sell, compared to the children's stories, the SF, the mainstream lit). Most of my time and energy these days is taken up with the children, and the teaching, and the writing of the two books I'm heavily invested in, both serious, in their own ways. (Also demanding time are the dishes and the laundry and the garden, which desperately needs weeding again.) But I do stand behind these stories, nonetheless.

I think it's important that a 40-something mom and teacher be allowed to think about sex, and even to talk about it, and write about it on the internet. (You're not required to read it, thank god.) The sexual politics of it are different than when I was twenty-six, when I was still struggling to define my own sexual identity, to claim my right to have sex when and with whom I chose. That battle is won now, hooray -- no one cares whom I sleep with anymore, which is funny, because it sometimes felt as if the whole world was trying to police those decisions back then.

So the main hesitation I feel isn't so much external anymore -- it's internal. It's the internal fear of social judgement. And y'know -- I've never let myself give in to that before. I don't think I can start now. Dorothy Allison, one of my very favorite writers, says that the best writing comes when you're terrified, and you write through the fear and put the story out there anyway. These stories are far from my best writing! But I think they have value -- they're entertaining, they're sometimes funny, they might even get somebody off, and really, where's the downside in bringing more orgasms into the world?

Mostly, I think releasing them again is valuable for me. I did enjoy writing these stories, and reading them over again; I'd be sad if they were lost to the world forever. (One of them does appear to be lost; I can't find either the digital or print copy, and I'm quite sad about that.) But more importantly -- I'd gotten comfortable, writing only what was socially acceptable. Time to shake things up a little. Likely, it will be good for my writing.

Likely, it will be good for me.

Interplanet Janet, on sale now for $1.99. No ebook reader needed; you can download it as a .doc or PDF. Read a free sample before deciding whether to buy. And if you're a little shocked by the callowness of the prose, be kind. I was very young.

1 thought on “It’s different, writing…”

  1. It’s the internal fear of social judgement

    “What do you care what other people think?”
    – Richard Feynman

    I spent most of my life worrying about that, until I realized they didn’t care what I thought of them. I still worry a bit, but it usually involves specific people whose opinion of me matters.

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