Sex and Truth in Story
The most freeing experience for me as a writer was when I wrote my first sex scene. Oh, I’m not talking about the ones I imagined, or the ones I might have scribbled on a page in a notebook only to rip them out and tear them into shreds before I tossed them, wanting to make certain no one ever saw what filth came from my mind. I’m talking about the first sex scene I wrote for publication.
The actual including of graphic sex in a story I’d written was both terrifying and freeing. It was terrifying in that it was a very difficult letting go. I’ve never had trouble actually writing sex. The writing has always come easily, but I doubt very much if there’s a writer out there who hasn’t written a sex scene and wondered if her readers would see her in it and think that she had either done what her characters were doing. Or perhaps they would wonder what kind of a filthy mind would dream up such smut. Of course now that I’ve written more than my share of sex scenes and done lots of promoting, I know that it does happen. We all get asked if we’ve done the things we write about. We all get the giggling responses from people who aren’t quite sure how to handle sex uncovered, aren’t quite sure how to handle someone actually saying, ‘yup! I write it. Yup, I’m proud of it.’
Other people’s opinions aside, there’s a much more personal connection that one feels when writing a sex scene than when writing almost anything else. I think it’s the vulnerability, the letting ones guard down and the becoming honest with our characters. That also means becoming honest with ourselves as writers – knowing when to leave the bedroom doors open, knowing when sex matters to the reader and when it only slows the story down. But all of those technical aspects of story, all of the finessing of sex in a scene can only happen when a writer is brave enough to put sex on the page for everyone to see and do so realizing that while the reader may question how much said sex scene speaks of the writer, if the writer chooses to leave it out, she will be cheating her reader out of a better view of her characters or an important movement in the story. By the same token, gratuitous sex diminishes both the character and the story. If the writer chooses to put sex in when it’s not necessary, she’s cheating the reader with lazy writing by using sex to titillate instead of good writing and gripping story to keep the reader engaged.
It took ages before I could let the characters speak to me through their sex lives because I was so afraid anyone who read those sex scenes would associate them with me personally. Imagine my fear and trepidation when I released The Initiation of Ms Holly out into the world! Imagine my feeling of exposure. For months before the book came out, I feared that connection, that visceral connection, that I as a writer would be viewed as the sum total of the sex scenes I’d written, in spite of the plot that was moved by the sex, in spite of the characters said sex revealed.
One of the major battles young writers face, in my opinion, is becoming comfortable with writing sex and with being able to separate themselves from what their characters need to do in order for the story to unfold, in order for the reader to be fully engaged. That battle is a double-edged sword in that basic psychology would say everything we write is, on some level, the unfolding of our own story, the way we deal with our personal journey. Let’s face it; writing can be great therapy, if it’s not totally messing you up in the process.
Still, there’s a level of unselfconsciousness that each writer must reach in order to tell the truth. Truth in story carries much more weight than truth in the real world because it’s a multifaceted mirror, not only for the writer, but when done right, for the reader as well. Truth in story is archetypal and touches nerves that anything less real could not. In fiction, denial drops away and the naked truths of the characters and their story become larger than life reality checks that bring us up short and cause us to reflect on our own realities. If the writer can’t be honest, in sex as well as in every other aspect of story, then the reader will know, and if the reader doesn’t trust the writer, then she won’t read what’s been written.
Sex can and should be one of the most honest, most vulnerable places in which the reader encounters character and plot. It can also be the cheapest possible way to bullshit a reader into reading something with no substance. Once the writer is brave enough to let the characters have sex out in the open before god and the reader and everyone, then the writer must also be very sure that it’s the characters and the plot that the sex drives and not a cop-out for lazy, dishonest writing.
Twelve novels and multiple novellas and short stories later, and I still feel vulnerable every time I write sex. Every time I write sex, I find myself in a position of mutual respect. I have to respect my characters and the story that they need to tell, including the sex acts that involves enough to be honest, and I have to respect the intelligence of my readers, who are on the journey with the characters. Sex is a powerful tool. Sex is the true magic of the biological world, and if anything it’s even more powerful magic in the world of story. But like any powerful tool, it can and often is abused to the detriment of the writer and the readers.