Let’s Talk About Sex

True confession: I spent the last 48 hours trying frantically to write about my sex life.

You heard me. In a burst of bravado I pitched some ideas to a women’s magazine. To my horror, the editor asked me to write one. I was at REI, queuing to buy socks for Chris, when her email arrived. I went hot and cold, then dizzy. Was buying his favourite socks going to be enough to make up for dishing personal information in a public forum?

“Is your husband comfortable with you being this open about your sex life?” the editor asked.

Good question.

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That night, after a couple glasses of wine, I took the plunge: “So, how would you feel about me writing about our sex life?”

To my relief, he was good with it, as long as he got a preview.

That, it transpired, was the least of my concerns.

Travelling from Oregon to London to Ibiza to Manchester in the space of a week left me short on creative time. I finally sat down to write in Manchester. Perched on an uncomfortable hotel chair, in my pants, I tried to render in words the elusive emotions of an intimate encounter. Quelle surprise, words went belly up on the page like fish in a dynamite pond. It wasn’t moving, it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t even coherent.

Thankfully Chris got back from work so I could quit for the night.

My Wednesday deadline was poised like the sword of Damocles. Saturday night I caught a train to London while my husband got on a plane to Denmark. It made perfect sense to spend 10 hours on a slow-mo Hackney bar crawl with Ruth, rounded out with another bottle of wine at her flat.

I was wide awake at five o’clock Monday morning, heart pounding, anxiety’s fingers wrapped around my throat. Too dizzy to read or sit upright, I lay on the sofa chanting, “All is well” in the vain hope it might be true. Needless to say, the essay went untouched.

Tuesday I flew to Spain. Rather, I caught traversed taxi-plane-bus-train-taxi transport sequence that got me from Finsbury Park, north London to Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz (best known for its sherry and horses). En route I had plenty of time to think about the ways this personal essay was not working. In a burst of desperation/inspiration I emails to a couple of Portland (OR) based sex therapists. They both responded and, thanks to the nine-hour time difference, I found myself with an 11PM and 2AM interview.

The first one was easy enough. It is light in Jerez till after 10PM so another hour wasn’t a stretch. I set two alarms: 1:40 and 1:45. The fidgety timekeeper in my brain booted me awake at 1:37. Chris was wide awake in Helsinki so we texted till five to two. Then I hit the call button on Skype and snapped into chipper journalist mode.

On the evidence of the interviews sex therapists are a delightful bunch. Both women sounded like people I want to be friends with. This gave me hope. Maybe their wisdom would bleed into my writing. Maybe their sensibleness would make sense of my nonsense.

After chatting to Chris I fell asleep around 3AM, slept through my alarm, and woke beneath a cloud. Must write personal essay. Must find a place to live. Must… must… must…

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Crawling back into the surprisingly comfortable twin bed, plugging my ears and waiting for the world to go away never looked so good. Behind all this, the nagging thought that I could have asked for an extension on the essay. Hitting deadline is one of my sacred principles though, the freelancer’s code. I didn’t want to look like a flake on my first outing. Nor did I want to send something that would shame me as a writer.

Midday came and went. Two more drafts begun. A plate of rice and beans eaten on the terrace. Phone calls to an estate agent to arrange a 5PM viewing of a flat 4km away. That’s a 50 minute walk according to Google, which dispensed no wisdom on public transport. I mentally blocked out the afternoon: write till 4. Walk, view, walk back. Then I had till 10PM to send the piece, based on a 5PM finish in the magazine’s New York office.

By the time I set out I’d hatched a new strategy. Ditch the narrative essay. Focus on the key message: How this experience helped me overcome my relationship fears. Write it one-two-three-four. There was a conclusion tacked onto an earlier draft that I could live with.

“If I can write the essay to fit that conclusion, it’ll be okay,” I said to Chris.

He took my panicking over writing about our sex life better than I would. It’s unlikely the tables will ever turn, but if they do it is going to take an effort of will to sit back and let him be frank.

Jerez Norte is a dead zone during siesta. Avenues, parks and office buildings uniformly deserted. I walked along, past HiperAsia, Lidl, Mercadona, mounting pieces of evidence that my destination isn’t where I want to be.

Enrique was in his car, smoking and texting. Tufts of nasal hair, like Meyer Wolfsheim. We stood in the shade next to a bar and he told me this was the best zone of the city. It looked like Marina Botafoc without the yachts: soulless blocks of flats with high gates and artificially turquoise pools. We looked at one of the flats. Sterile, ugly, with a tiny oblong that passes for a terrace in this town. The walk back was, mercifully, quicker for being familiar.

wallaceHome, straight to the laptop. Write. Write. Write. As I hacked away, the thought kept repeating: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. David Foster Wallace’s essay of that title is turgid and self-important beyond belief (it encapsulates the experience of reading his work) but it is a great title. And captured my precise feelings about writing the damn essay. It should have been fun. A yomp. I was just asked to write about my experience. What could be easier? Pulling teeth, for one.

Even with the wise, candid sex therapist input the essay veered like a rudderless sail boat. There’s a Spanish saying: va viento en popa means to go extremely well, to be on a roll. My roll was more kid-backwards-downhill-on-skates (waiting for a crash). I scrabbled for my best writing teacher advice: Break it down, tackle small sections, don’t edit, keep writing.

I meant to pour a glass of wine to aid the creative process but couldn’t bring myself to leave the desk for that long. Sentence by clunky sentence I inched towards the conclusion. That kept changing too, but it was low on my worry list.

Around half-eight I plunked the last words in. It wasn’t good, but there was an introduction, four main sections and a brief conclusion. It was 1037 words. I spell-checked and proofread, consulted their website for the therapists full names and titles. After it was done, I read it again.

Chris was messaging from the gig in Helsinki. “Have you sent it?” he asked, 20 minutes after I told him I was finished.

“Just now,” I said, opening an email window.

The editor replied not long after: “Thanks, I’ll send notes tomorrow.”

Dread oozed back into my bubble of relief. It is without doubt one of the worst things I’ve ever written. Easily beyond repair. So far, nothing from New York today. I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.

George Orwell remarked that writing a book is like a long bout of a painful illness –and he was a man with ample knowledge of both those things. Writing a personal essay to order is acute, like projectile vomiting in public. The topic of my essay was a huge confidence boost, writing about it smashed that confidence to fragments.

Win some. Lose some.

If you must write about sex (or anything) get help

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Writing Books: Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s marvelous Bird by Bird is aptly subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life and, truth be told, I lean on it more for life than writing.

Wise & warm

Or so I thought until I realised the way her words and ideas, embedded by repeated reading, goad me to greater effort and courage. One-inch frames, KFKD, calling around. I don’t want to spoil the delights of reading her for the first time, but I can’t resist giving a little taster.

Lamott is a Christian (I hope she’s okay with being described like that. A devout Baptist recently chided me for using the word. Apparently it has been “devalued” and the preferred nomenclature is “Christ-follower”. Not knowing Ms Lamott’s preference I’ve opted for the traditional designation.) Thus two of my top books-about-writing were written by people with an active religious belief. Writing is an act of faith, I guess.

Here’s a sample of her astute, quotable, compassionate wisdom on writing and life.

Short Assignments

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop. First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly…. I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. pp. 17-18

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Sunset, Ibiza

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). p. 28

The Moral Point of View

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on. Even someone as grim and unsentimental as Samuel Beckett, with his lunatics in garbage cans or up to their necks in sand, whose lives consist of pawing through the contents of their purses, stopping to marvel at each item, gives us great insight into what is true, into what helps. He gets it right — that we’re born astride the grave and that this planet can feel as cold and uninhabitable as the moon — and he knows how to make it funny. He smiles an oblique and private smile at us, the most delicious smile of all, and this changes how we look at life. A few small things seem suddenly clear, things to which we can cling, and this makes us feel like part of the solution. p. 107

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Es Cavallet, Ibiza

Radio Station KFKD

If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and know and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. p. 116

Jealousy

My therapist said that jealousy is a secondary emotion, that it is born out of feeling excluded and deprived, and that if I worked on those age-old feelings, I would probably break through the jealousy. I tried to get her to give me a prescription for Prozac, but she said that this other writer was in my life to help me heal my past. She said this writer had helped bring up a lifetime’s worth of feeling that other families were happier than ours, that other families had some owner’s manual to go by. She said it was once again that business of comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. She said to go ahead and feel the feelings. I did. They felt like shit. p. 126

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Sunset, San Carlos, Ibiza

Writer’s Block

The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given — that you are not in a productive creative period — you free yourself to begin filling up again. I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let things go at that. p. 178

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Writer’s friend

Finding Your Voice

The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own. Sometimes wearing someone else’s style is very comforting, warm and pretty and bright, and it can loosen you up, tune you into the joys of language and rhythm and concern. But what you say wil lbe an abstraction because it will not have sprung from direct experience: when you try to capture the truth of your experience in some other person’s voice or on that person’s terms, you are removing yourself one step further from what you have seen and what you know.

…You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We dont have uch truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in — then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.    pp. 199-201

Buy Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life on Amazon