Friday, June 19, 2009

Erotica and Her Sisters

I’m pasting below a letter I received today from the only genuine writer of erotica I know, who graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program the same semester as her pal, the estimable Susan Lilley. I asked her in my note to help us find the path to real literary erotica and away from Ms. McNaughty. I hit paydirt, as you will see. Here’s the reply of Ann Rosenquist Fee:

OH PHIL, what timing!! I’m at the Minneapolis airport with a few hours to spare, waiting for a fellow Stonecoast grad to arrive from New York so we can teach, tomorrow at the Loft Literary Center, a one-day workshop called Sex on the Page. The class is a product of our final Stonecoast presentation, in which I presented Ann’s Theory of Erotic Truth (an original blend of theories from French philosopher Georges Bataille and erotica writer/editor Susie Bright), and then my co-presenter, Ellen Neuborne, and I used that as a lens to help students judge what works and what doesn’t in their own and others’ erotic scenes, and then showed how to use that lens to create the most powerful, efficient and relevant erotic scenes possible in service to story. In short, our theory mandates that in order for erotic art to succeed, it needs two things: 1) an element of transgression, either in content or form (and we mean REAL transgression, smart transgression, not purportedly naughty sex, which doesn't surprise us at all, really -- transgression as in a conventional narrative that suddenly becomes a panting list of phrases and fragments when a kiss is described, because such a break in form embodies and shows-versus-tells how the character experiences this moment differently than, say, walking down the street) and 2) a fecundity, a transcendence, a fertility to the scene that both slams the reader into his/her own body and also sends them to an entirely other place, which, in sum, should be more/different than what porn achieves, and always in service to the larger story.

Here ere are some suggestions straight from the outline I’m prepping right now.

Texts that get at the theory…
Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality
Susie Bright, Full Exposure: Opening Up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression
Susie Bright, The Sexual State of the Union
Jean Paulhan’s foreword to Story of O
Diana Widmaier Picasso, Picasso: Art Can Only Be Erotic

Examples of powerful and artful erotic writing…
Best American Erotica collections edited by Susie Bright (especially 2006 with “Talk About Sex: An Orientation” by Jamie Cat Callan)
Any Cleis Press erotica collection edited by Alison Tyler
Judy Blume, Forever
Cris Mazza, “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet” from Normal: Fiction Collective Two (1998)
Anais Nin, House of Incest
Pauline Reage, Story of O
Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles
Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

And here's the link to the Loft class description...;

…in case you decide Rollins or some other entity needs Sex on the Page. Ellen and I are pitching it to conferences around the country – we were thrilled to have the Loft as our first taker.

Hello to superstar Susan, please, and to Paul next time you’re in touch. Writerly vibes to you all…


Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Finishing

I was talking with some people last night at the great Bloomsday celebration at yours and my favorite indy bookstore, Urban Think, in Thornton Park, and someone was saying that he knew a writer who writes first drafts on a typewriter, then puts them on the computer as a second draft. Why haven't I ever thought of that? I'm so much more friendly to the keyboard than my own legendarily bad handwriting. One reason I have never thought of that is that first drafts usually go in my notebook which one would think is a place for handwriting, but sometimes I do a first draft on the computer, print it out, edit it by hand, and tape the edited copy into my notebook. So already it, the notebook, isn't a place solely for handwriting. I paste, tape, and post many different things in there. Typed drafts would be fine.

I should go on ebay or craigslist and see if I can find an Olympia portable in great condition. It would be a real adjustment, reintroducing into the household the steady click clack ding zing bang. When I was growing up in the big house (shown here), I had a desk in my room that instead of setting on the floor like an ordinary desk was bolted to the vertical oak studs behind the plaster wall, the easier to clean beneath it. From sixth grade, I was up there in my room typing, and I had my grandfather's serious Royal upright, battleship gray and weighing in at four hundred and twenty two pounds. When I would throw the carriage (sorry to the young pups -- you had to be there), the whole house would shake. You've heard of teenagers playing music too loud in their rooms. My parents would have given anything if I'd preferred Gracie Slick and the Beatles on the hi-fi instead.

I read Updike one time saying that when he first started writing, he just liked to see all those words of his on a page, and a lot of what he was doing in his stories had to do with filling the page up, and he said he was always supremely satisfied to roll a page out of the typewriter that was completely filled with his words. In fact, it was always a little disconcerting to him to take a page out that was not "finished." To him, “finished” meant filling the available space. When he was young, that is -- later, finished to Updike had the meaning it has to the rest of us -- finding the end of our story, completing the writing of it so that the draft has a beginning, middle, and an end.

I might look around for a typewriter, or oil up the old family Hermes, that we used to use for addressing envelopes before we learned how to do that on the printer. The Olympia was a great typewriter, not talking about the electric. I remember buying my first Olympia in Champaign, '66. I had a second one, '71.

In my mind, there is some connection I haven’t understood yet between typing on the typewriter and finishing. Somehow the levels of effort for typing accurately to avoid excessive retyping and for squaring away the content in a story were one thing. On the computer keyboard, the writing is supremely easy, revision so easy it is sometimes too easy, and the arc and heart of a story become the main concentration which, separated from the process of writing, seems to come along slower. Who’d have thunk it?

My experience with this may not be the common experience. To comment on this precise thing, you’d have to have done plenty of time doing creative writing on a typewriter, and with that understanding I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about finishing. Over the past five years, I’ve seemed to have developed a habit of robust starts that come to not very much. A story idea that comes along goes into a partial first draft satisfactorily, but I don’t give it the time, or lose the enthusiasm, and the next thing you know it’s on the back burner or abandoned entirely. This habit came along without my spotting it as a pattern until recently.

I know enough about me and writing to know how to address this. In writing, word by word, line by line, story by story, there is always a balance between the application of discipline and logic and the “go with the flow” surge of instinct and impulse. Both angles on the text are needed, discipline and instinct. The author is in charge. Therefore, as the author, if I notice I’m not finishing a lot of stuff and it concerns me, the fix is to break the habit by finishing no matter what. Well, I’ll tell myself, it may not be worth finishing. Well, MAKE it worth finishing, I’ll reply. I’m trying to make this a practical, workable observation on finishing, so I’ll take the ideal out of it. Everything can’t be finished or made worth finishing. To which I think to myself, yeah, but let’s improve the average.

I know that can be done, because I do keep a lot of my unfinished drafts, and years later I’ll take a look and miserably observe that the draft had a lot going for it and I should have finished it. Sometimes it is hard to get one’s self back in some bygone mode to finish an old start. It should be tried when one arrives on the idea that he has to begin finishing more. But the lesson in looking back on the junk pile of starts that were worthy but given up on is mainly to reaffirm something the typewriter years taught us, that writing is work, that the good stuff is hard to do which is why the few rewards for the good, finished work are so sweet.

No magic. I’ve got a 6,000 word story troubled by unresolved autobiography and some other torments, and word back from my trusty first readers isn’t good. As usual, they’ve seen into the piece perfectly, spelling out its issues (which far outweigh it). Finishing is far off. It will involve pushing. It will involve reading the piece over and over until I understand my own motives and edit out the crap and spot strands that aren’t being pulled through. And press on—I’m in a covered wagon, westward ho the long trek. My horses and ox are being hoisted up Scott’s Bluff, in Nebraska, which looks like a big obstacle. The ferryman has my wagons on the river. I’m hoping to get to the ocean. I don’t know it, but between me and finishing, there’s the Grand Tetons.

On another burner I’ve got a big story, culminating piece of an otherwise pretty successful book manuscript. I know the problems. First readers have helped, but I knew the problems all along. The piece, at the conceptual level, was risky, but that’s what I wanted and every time I reread it it’s still what I want. Onward. It’s summer.

There’s probably a science to finishing a story. Maybe a seven step process. Or a twelve step process to address the habit of not finishing. Nevermind. We know what to do. Lean into it. Read it again for all its possibilities. Don’t be afraid. Get a little joy. Work in the morning earlier, well before the sun is up. Leave the radio off. Take the coffee black. Work to finish. Retype the goddamn thing! Let it be messy—not every piece we write will be a masterwork, but the process of finishing grows us in the art, make no mistake—takes us to the next level where the good work is.