A long long time ago, when my first book came out, a friend said to me, "Doesn't it embarrass you to let everyone know you think this stuff? I wouldn't dare!"
I was bemused for two reasons. First, because she was a pierced-and-tattooed Alt Grrl whom I'd thought epitomised the kind of confident person who is not ashamed of standing out. And secondly, because I could imagine dozens of things I would be mortified to reveal about my thoughts and attitudes and feelings - but very very few of them had to do with sexual fantasies. There are things I am ashamed of about myself. There are things I know that I should not say, or think, or do.
But sex fantasy? That's just fantasy. It's on another plane of impossibility. It's just stories. and you can write stories about anything without it saying a jot about you except that you have a wild imagination.
Of course, that's not the entire truth. The big picture is, as always, complicated. But on the whole I think erotica is not a genre that lends itself to searching questions about human nature or to soul-baring. We write primarily to turn people on. Erotic-romance authors (who exist in a genre with even more restrictive rules and expectations) write to turn people on ... and simultaneously give them a pat on the head and a big hug.
Maybe we should stretch ourselves a bit further though. Maybe we should try not to be so cosy. Remittance Girl is one author I admire intensely because she fights so hard against the honey-trap of giving the reader an easy predictable production-line product that will sell well.
All this is on my mind because I've read a couple of things recently that made me quake at their raw honesty.
Madeline Moore has been writing about her bereavement across her social network. Her words fill me with terror and sorrow, and just incredible wonder at the human ability to shape words to articulate the worst and best of a life. Read Fallen.
Garrison Keillor wrote an essay called "No Place Like Home" for the National Geographic. It's about his personal geography of Minneapolis. Here's a passage that made me go "Shiiiiiiiit, yes!" and want to kiss the hands that wrote it:
"A boy named Frankie Renko drowned in the river one spring at the sandy bank where we boys hung out. I was eating supper when the fire truck went by, and I wanted to go see, but Mother said, "There's no point in a bunch of rubberneckers standing around gawking." She said it was unseemly to look upon the sufferings of others if you were powerless to help. Years later, a photographer at the St Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked on the copydesk, writing obits, showed me his collection of pictures of dead people, drowned or shot or crushed in cars, but I did not look at them long. (I wanted to, but I didn't want him to think I was the sort of person who did.)Those simple words made me squirm with recognition. This is not about technique - it is about speaking to human experience. It's about writing something that makes you utterly vulnerable. Baring your shameful soul to the world. Can we take this sort of thing and do it in erotica, I wonder? Even more important - can we do it without being miserablist and sex-negative and nihilistic?
For days after Frankie drowned, I visited the death scene, trying to imagine what happened. He was paddling a boat near the shore, and it capsized, and he drowned. I imagined this over and over, imagined myself saving him, imagined the vast gratitude of his family. I don't recall discussing this with other boys. We were more interested in what lay ahead in seventh grade, where (we had heard) you had to take showers after gym. Naked. With no clothes on. Which turned out to be true."
Sometimes all I want to do is write dirty. But sometime I want to write something that makes me shiver inside, not out of disgust or shock, but because it says something true that no one else has said in that way. Something I shouldn't dare to say.