Why write erotica?
I've written in other places -- including the afterword to my book "Too Beautiful" -- about how I moved from writing self-conscious "erotica" that imitated Anais Nin to writing transgressive stories set in a post-modern world of desire and alienation. I went through various stages on the way from using euphemisms to calling things by their own names, and how liberating the process was. But I've never really addressed the question of why a person would want to write so extensively about sex.
Perhaps the biggest reason I wrote so much about sex for the last fifteen or twenty years has to do with motivation. I've generally been a very undisciplined, and mostly untutored, writer. I didn't get a degree in creative writing, never attended a writing program at a university, and have been to only one writers' conference. Aside from a close friend who generously took it upon herself to encourage me -- journalist Sara Miles -- I've had little exposure to real writers and nobody demanding I do anything. For a long time I wrote in my journal and made fitfull starts at stories, and wondered if I was a real writer or just a dilettante.
The one thing I found I could write, and finish, were stories about sex. No doubt the arousing power of sex was one of the things to make it possible for me to actually work on and finish stories. And then writing many such stories over time permitted me to improve my craft as a writer. Working within a genre allows a writer to forget about some things in order to polish others. With sex writing, you can basically assume the characters you introduce in the beginning are going to wind up doing it; you play within that sandbox. Eventually you become expert enough to play with the conventions of the genre so that, for example, you don't have to have the characters wind up in bed together. You can have them start out in bed, then fall apart, as I did in "Trick" (published in "How I Adore You"). Or you can have them aspire to do something sexual but frustrate that desire, as in "Amateur" (published in "Too Beautiful"). It's still writing about sex.
So the genre allows me to expand my skills as a writer. It's not lucrative, though -- not the way I do it. I suppose I could churn out stuff for Penthouse Forum and make money. Somebody does it. But it's just not what I'm trying to do with writing.
I don't want to create an impression that sex writing is just a way for me to polish my skills, though. I do it because it's fun and arousing and surprising. In the last few years, though, I have been doing stuff that isn't about sex, including several short stories and a novel.
Advice for would-be erotica writers
- It's okay to
start out by imitating writers you like. If you want to write erotica like
Anais Nin or William Burroughs or Kathy Acker, by all means go ahead, if
it gets you started. But don't fool yourself into thinking no one can tell
that you're imitating someone. Imitation is just to prove to yourself you
can write a story at all.
- It's also okay to write badly.
I don't mean using "bad words" (although that is, of course,
okay when you're writing about sex) but writing without worrying about
whether it's any good or not. In fact, it can be very liberating to write
deliberately badly, with awkward phrasing and poor sentence structure.
Give youself permission to write what
Anne Lamott calls "shitty
first drafts." On the other hand, if you're starting out writing and
are convinced what you're writing is wonderful without doubt, then you
probably need to go to some classes and learn the rules before you start
- Once you're ready to start hacking out your own territory, be honest
and unafraid. It'll be hard for you to write about sex if you don't write
about what turns you on. And you can't do that until you're honest with
yourself about what does turn you on. You may never have admitted to anyone
else your homosexual fantasy; putting it down on paper may seem risky,
but you don't have to show it to anyone else.
- Of course, just because it turns you on doesn't mean it's good writing.
But it'll get you going.