By Ana George (Broker)
Writers’ block is a fact of life. There are a great many reasons for it, and the remedies are as varied as the causes. Stay tuned for some words about a remedy that often works for me: Smutwriting.
Now sex is a part of life for real people. It informs who they are in subtle ways. On the other hand, many fictional characters are flat, cardboard creations, caricatures of people, who appear, play their role, and disappear without a further thought from reader or writer.
In a novel with many incidental characters, most of them might be forgettable. But as Michael Cunningham once remarked at a reading, each of those people is the main character in his or her own novel. He also said that his fiction is autobiographical in the sense that he tries to be true to each character, her own needs, and fictional life course, even if he only tells a small part of the story of that character.
And sex is a part of that, for many people. And not, for others, but that’s also taleworthy. Perhaps even more so.
Let me be clear: I’m not (or at least not necessarily) saying all writing should be smutty or even contain romance or overt sexuality. Backstory, what happens to the characters off stage, the part of the story you don’t put in the book, is also important. It helps the author get to know the characters, so they behave more like real people, so you as the writer are not surprised by their motivations. Hemingway pointed this out in his Iceberg Theory.
So you’re stuck, trying to figure out where the story should go from wherever you left it. You have an idea for another plot element, but getting from there to there is not something you can see from where you’re standing.
Follow the characters home. Write everyday details of their lives. She comes home, wonders why her partner’s car in the driveway inspires such dread. She fixes supper, but one of the kids won’t eat it. Familiar, well-worn arguments, advanced incrementally, because, after all, you’re only writing one Tuesday night. And maybe she’s randy come bedtime and he’s not. Next morning when she reports to work in your novel, she’s grumpy and tired but for no reason she’s going to tell you, because it might end up in the book.
Or there was this guy she saw on her lunch break that had that certain dreamy hurt puppy look in his eyes that always made her knees weak, but that she’s ignored for years in an effort to keep her life together. Does she miss the feeling? Or is she grateful for being delivered from the need to pay attention to it?
In a way it’s like writing fan fiction (or even slash fiction) about your own universe. I suppose fan fiction is an examination of (usually someone else’s) a canonical text, asking what-if questions, what happened before this, what happens next. These two characters are so luscious, I want them together, dammit, and I’ll write the story myself if I have to. The resulting stories are in no way part of the canon: the actual story that’s in the book, on the screen, whatever. And yet, for the fanficcer, the existence of these backstories (erotic or otherwise) enriches the experience of the canonical story.
Sex is also a way people in real life express rebelliousness. It might be a way for fictional characters to do that, as well. You have this nice life all plotted out for them, a nice plot arc, and then in chapter twelve, they break the fourth wall, walk out of the book and into the writer’s studio, sit down, and say, “No, I’m not doing that for those reasons.” Is that rebellion because of some facet of their lives you haven’t written (or even thought) about? What would a teenager do in this situation? For another take on this, see Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the Carnival and grotesque realism.
It is perhaps a truism that disappointment and regret are great sources of story ideas. If nobody does anything regrettable or disappointing, the story is the poorer for the lack. And, for many people, sexuality is rife with disappointments and regrets. Again, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to write about it explicitly (or if you do, to include it in the book) to reflect on the lifelong regret caused by an off-stage broken romance.
I recall being told as a young writer that sex scenes in stories must always advance the action, and significantly change a character. I set out to break this rule, if only because it’s not true of real-life people. Why is sex different from other biological needs and wants, such as eating or sleeping? Sex is something people do, some of them fairly often, and having life-changing experiences every time is just not in the cards. It may be true that the reader only wants to be in the bedroom on those rare occasions when something like that does happen, but the characters are there whether it does or not. Perhaps it’s our job as writers to convey this aspect of our characters’ personalities. For example, their familiarity (or lack thereof) with each other could convey a lot of information to the reader. I’m not convinced I’ve written a sexy scene that’s not transformative that is also worth keeping. So maybe the rule is a good one, but it’s a boundary and writers exist to push at the boundaries.
This past year has been a difficult one for me, largely because of events in my personal life. Sometimes I feel like writing, and sometimes I really don’t. Sometimes writing is therapeutic, or cathartic, and sometimes it’s just fingers moving, putting symbols in little rows on a computer screen.
Recently I found an erotic picture on the internet that was very engaging, for a variety of reasons. Certainly one of those was that the woman in the picture was strongly reminiscent of the way I imagine one of the characters in an ongoing saga-in-progress. Her body was mostly hidden behind her partner’s, and it was clear she was taking charge of the encounter.
And I found I had to write the story of a time my character did just that with her partner, whatever the larger context might have been. How did she feel about it beforehand? Was the experience memorable enough that she thought about it the next day? Was it wonderful? A disappointment? Forgettable? What about his feelings? Are they the same as hers (surely not entirely?) and if different, are the differences important? And which two scenes should I set this encounter between? How does it fit into their lives as they move through the story?
And so now it makes sense that she snaps at another character the next morning, that she seems distracted, that her eyes keep straying to her cell phone, wondering if she should wait for a call, or call her partner, and wondering what she’d say if they did talk. I’m sorry, what was that you said?
Backstory is important, and people’s (and characters’) sex lives are part of the backstory that forms their personalities. Characters will ring true if their authors think about who they are, beyond what appears in the story. When in doubt, write smut!