Tamara Faith Berger writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. She is the author of Lie With Me (2001) and The Way of the Whore (2004) which were republished together by Coach House Books as Little Cat in 2013, Maidenhead (2012) which won The Believer Book Award, and Kuntalini (2016). Her fifth book, Queen Solomon, was published by Coach House Books in October 2018 and it was nominated for a Trillium Book Award. Her work has been published in Apology Magazine, Canadian Art, Taddle Creek and Canadian Notes and Queries. She has a BFA in Studio Art from Concordia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She lives and works in Toronto where she co-runs the literary speaking series Smutburger.
Messing with the Pipes: Writing Sex with Meaning
The main points I tend to speak about around writing sex are: 1) employing the first-person point-of-view, the “I,” which I find is really instructive in order to get close to what a character is experiencing and 2) the possibility of threading in thinking to our sex scenes, which can be vital, and sort of liberating for people who want to include sex in their work, whether its poetry, fiction or non-fiction.
I think we have to shift focus away from psychology when we are thinking about writing sex scenes as a part of our work. The question is not really why any of us want to write about or include sex, it is more so (and there is a lot of meaning in) how we chose to do it. How do we create something bubbling underneath or threaded through our sex scenes? How can we write in an effective way about sex?
The answer is likely going to be different with every person, but employing the I to narrate a sex scene immediately gets you, your narrator and your reader close, sometimes uncomfortably close. I call this the sexually active point of view. Very generally, the sexually active POV is about telling us something that happened, perhaps even as it is happening in a tone that works for your piece. Stripped down, the I says: I did this (or I’m doing this.) I saw this. I smelled this. I sucked that. I felt it. I was there. That was me.
This “I”functions as a harbinger that the private will be made public. I have a secret, but it’s not a secret anymore.
I think that sex scenes, in general, and no matter the genre, sort of volley between a kind of high art and low art vibe. You can call this: erotica versus porn or you can think of it as a meshing of a literary or narrative urge with a more body-based, anal-oral-genital urge. Mixing the high and low, using the sexually active POV seems to work. It accesses the age-old technique of the confessional, which is a well-worn way in literature to access sympathy, arousal, feeling. In a more contemporary way of thinking about things, the “I” gets us into a kind of radical subjectivity. And with sexual subject matter, this can be political. Ultimately, the personal is political in this “I”: radical subjectivity about erotic experience. Especially erotic experience we may not have heard from so often before.
The second craft piece that I want to talk about is thinking. That old chestnut: the mind/body split. How can we thread thinking into our sex scenes, which might feel very much either locked in the body or the mind? I think it’s important, even if you’re writing Romance or Erotica, where the story is about emotional justice, i.e., a happy ending, to admit or include that negative, boring, traumatic, uncomfortable or fearful sexual experiences and thoughts are a fact of life. Sometimes, bad sex experiences and/or banal thoughts function as the shadow side of joy, pleasure, ecstasy, connection.
One way I’ve found to think about writing sex is to think about how or where your character finds themselves in the unstable lines between fantasy and reality in a scene. For example, in my past work, I have been really interested in my character’s experiences between horror and arousal: between the worst thing happening and the best thing happening, between being in pain and being in pleasure. Put another way, between what a character wants to happen to her and what is actually happening. I have found that writing on the continuum between fantasy and reality, or to put it very simply, between good sex and bad sex, has overall, really deepened my experience of representing sex. Writing sex where there is always something else happening for the narrator than just what is going on in front of them, i.e., there is something in the body and something in the mind. Sometimes these ‘somethings’ merge in text, which is ideal.
So, this is my how, how I approach sex writing. I approach it as an unstable scene. Unfixed. Things move and feelings change. Ultimately, I think that writing (and reading sex) is about a willingness to enter the murkiness of our desires, to explore the shadows of desire, to get a feel for the chaos inside us. To stay there, too. To take a look around. To enter the disjunction, the contradiction.
I think literature is really a great place to experience this.
I think that writers should also feel really free to mess around with language when working with a sex scene. What happens to language in sex? I feel like this is a kind of an underground, ‘messing with the pipes’ kind of practice. It’s also, quite often, about having a female eye in sacred or closed male spaces. In my case, writing sex has been an urge to participate in traditionally male spaces like pornography and religion. Sometimes, the only way to enter forbidden spaces is to be stealthy, fiddle around with the pipes, and leave a mess.