I often get the question, "What do you write about?" After which I begin almost imperceptibly hopping from one foot to the other, scratching my head, rubbing my index finger across my upper lip, and hemming and hawing. I haven't quite mastered the art of the boldfaced lie, though I've decided truth-telling isn't always the polite or right thing to do. Depending on how well I know you, you may get my sanitized answer: "Well, a bunch of different things. I've got a memoir going about how stupidly hard it was to conceive my son. I have a blog, although that's mostly so my mother won't feel like I've fallen off the face of the earth. Oh, and I'm writing some, [cough, throat clearing], short stories." If I know you better, if you're even remotely close to menopause, have been married or partnered for more than ten years, or look as though you appreciate an odd sense of humor, I'll tell you the truth: "I write stories about mid-life crises, lust and irrational behavior. I write about marriage and sex and wrinkly, sagging skin."
This current focus got me involved recently with putting together a writing workshop with the indomitable Julie Mahew, novelist, radio drama writer, mentor, cool Mama and creator of The Berko Writers, a supportive group of new and experienced writers, running weekly workshops and masterclasses. A few months ago Julie and I were participating in the short story workshop series led by the writer Adam Marek. Adam is superb at sharing stories by writers he feels have a strong sense of craft for the short story. He'd play New Yorker podcasts and we'd sit transfixed and anxious, awed by the words of a master storyteller and terrified that we would never be able to construct a sentence that even came close to as good.
I felt less terrified the day Adam emailed the short story, "Scheherazade" by Haruki Murakami to the class. Murakami is better known for his novels, but he'll write short stories between massive fits of more lengthy creative genius. When I saw Julie at the next class, we both rolled our eyes over "Scheherazade."
"What's with the sex? How pointless was that?" We complained to Adam, who rather bashfully shrugged his shoulders and said, "I suppose sex isn't Murakami's strong point."
Not a week later, Haruki Murakami was nominated for the 'Bad Sex in Fiction Award,' a dubious honor given by the Literary Review each year "for the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction." Julie and I pounced. To Adam she wrote,"What did I say? What did I say! Cut the sex talk, Murakami, and get on with the story."
Murakami didn't ultimately win the award, but it did lead Adam to challenge Julie to create a workshop on how to write good literary sex. "I'm all over that like a dog on your leg!" I wrote back. "Fancy curating, Karin?" Julie replied. Uh, OK...
Last Tuesday was the culmination of weeks of anxious trolling over the internet for the best and worst of literary sex. I ordered Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill: Memoir of a Woman of Pleasure; Fear of Flying, and found a thirty-cent copy of Scruples by Judith Krantz, the 1978 mass market best-seller that got passed around and dog-eared by my fifteen year-old friends and where I first read about the clitoris (and hence, discovered my own). I also put together a guide to writing good sex, based on a book I found on Amazon called, The Joy of Writing Sex, by Elizabeth Benedict. Through this book it became more clear why the stories I liked best were about people who had awkward, ambivalent, less than perfect sex, and my own characters weren't, in fact, doing it wrong. They were doing what's real. Where sex in books goes wrong is in characters like Christian and Ana in Fifty Shades of Gray who every single time they have sex, or even just look at each other, they have ecstatic, shattering, near-simultaneous orgasms. Why don't they put that damn book in the Fantasy section? After the third episode of unbridled passion by the only recently deflowered Ana, I wanted to throw the book across the room. Except I was reading it on my iPad so didn't want my fury turning into an expensive mistake.
The workshop, called "Turn Me On: A night of good (and very bad) literary sex" was a success; fun, funny, illuminating, and varied in perspective. With us on the panel was Will Rycroft, a brilliant book review vlogger and the new face of social media at Vintage Books in London. He's also an actor with an amazing voice, so every passage he read aloud that night sounded as though it was the best sex ever, even if we were all laughing. From the evening I discovered I needed to finally start reading Philip Roth, that Judi Blume does adolescent girls a disservice by NOT mentioning the magical clitoris (and why, if her boys can name their penises, don't her girls get equal play time with the switch of their own arousal). I learned that Alice Monroe can write about a young woman being molested by a stranger on a train as a sensual and seductive coming-of-age journey through the Canadian countryside.
Best of all, I learned that I have a new tribe here in England; writers and lovers of writing, not just sex writing. I've known this for awhile through the Wattling Street Writers in St. Albans. But something about being up front in my fishnet stockings and little black dress, reading descriptions of people doing the thing that makes them most fragile, vulnerable and ecstatic, made me feel I was finally involved in something I really loved, not simply dipping my toes in the water or hanging out in the background. At the end of the night I hugged Julie and Will and my enthusiasm and two glasses of wine led me to exclaim that we needed to take our show on the road! Maybe. Maybe some day I will take it on the road myself, refine the selection, make it a performance piece (no, not that way, you silly reader). I'll keep banging away at the keyboard, following my mid-life characters through their hormonal transformations, their lust and their lack thereof, their regrets and their dreams yet to come. I've got a title for this collection, but I'll wait until a publisher wants to take a chance on my imperfect characters and their imperfect sex lives before I tell you what it is.