Thursday, January 15, 2015

How I Got Angry

by Annabeth Leong

About halfway through writing Untouched, I realized that my hero, Eli, had become my villain. I don't mean villain in the cutesy antihero sense, where he's still the appealing center of the story. I mean he had become the obstacle to my protagonist's happiness and I hated him for it.

When I planned the book, I knew I didn't want a happily ever after ending for Eli and Celia (my protagonist). I wanted to explore the sort of relationship that needs to come to an end but teaches both people a lot in the process—the sort of relationship that a person talks about later with a wistful sigh, followed by a shudder of relief.

But at first I had an idealized vision of Eli. When I imagined the goodbye at the end, I thought Celia would tearfully admit that she just couldn't give him what he needed. I pictured her slinking off in hopes that she might someday learn to love, feeling grateful for the little bit she'd experienced with Eli.

I'm really glad that's not the book I ended up writing. About a third of the way through, I got in touch with Celia's anger—and therefore my own.

The thing is, Eli and Celia have a deal. They're both looking for a relationship outside the mainstream, and up front they agree to certain terms. Eli says he wants a companion and voyeur, a woman who wants to savor his conquests alongside him. He wants to be free to fuck as many women as he wants, and he's certain that monogamy isn't for him. Celia wants to express herself sexually with a companion with no pressure to touch or be touched. She wants to masturbate with an audience, and she's happy about the idea of watching him with other people.

I remember the day I wrote the scene where they make that deal. That sweet, exhilarating feeling of falling in love coursed through my veins and rubbed off on me by association. I went for a walk and sun poured down on me. I remember cherry blossoms floating through the air, though I'm pretty sure that didn't really happen.

But you probably see where this is going. The center of Untouched is the archetype of the doomed deal. The moment Celia thinks she's found happiness is the moment Eli changes the terms. He tells her that he needs to touch her after all. And Celia gets angry:
She flailed for more words, afraid now that if she let him speak he would say the unthinkable. But it was impossible that falling in love with her could make him want to say that. He fucking knew better.

Celia said, "I know my limitations, so it's never made sense to be possessive. I don't want to doom you to celibacy, Eli. I like that I'm part of what you want—maybe even the most important part, that's sort of nice—but I don't have to be everything. I don't have to try to do things that I can't do."

"Celia..." Eli broke off and hid his face in the comforter. "Celia..."

She felt a pang of deep regret. "Eli, please. Don't fucking say it."

"I have to."

She wrenched herself out of bed. The world was shattering around her. "God damn it, Eli. This is the center of fucking everything. You can't ask me for..."

He lifted his head. His eyes were as wide and frightened as a small child's. In that moment, the smooth, self-possessed man that she had known and fallen for seemed to have disappeared. His jaw trembled, and she sensed he was near tears. "Celia, I need to touch you. Please. Even a little. Even on the tips of your fingertips or your knee or anywhere that you can take it. Can you give that to me? Please."

She crossed her arms under her breasts. Tears glittered in her eyes, but they felt hard. She wanted to throw them at him like so many daggers. "Fuck you, Eli. Fuck you."

Before I actually wrote Untouched, I described Eli with a lot of sympathy. Celia's very patient lover was trying to explore how to help her tolerate touch.

Then the book woke me into a different reality. Why should Eli be the one to set the terms and change them when he wants? Celia was perfectly clear up front about what she could and couldn't do. Who the hell did he think he was? He thought love gave him a right to make these demands of her? How could that sort of violation possibly be the fruit of love?

The more I wrote, the angrier I got. Because it was damned uncomfortable as a writer to deny this man. Celia eventually holds the line (though she spends a while trying to bend herself to his wishes), and I was scared to death of letting her. I was sure my publisher would force me to change my ending (but Sweetmeats Press is fabulous, and Joe did not). I pictured reviewers complaining about Celia being an unreasonable bitch to this charismatic man who loves her and just wants a little touch. Celia had plenty of conflict, and she shared it with me—more truly than for anything else I've written, I struggled alongside her.

I'm ashamed to admit how hard it was for me to see my own main character's point of view—one that claims ownership of her own body and sexuality. As I started to understand her, I got mad at Eli, mad at myself, mad at the people in my life who've made me feel like my own needs and desires are things I should get over. And there have been so very many people who prodded and coerced and insisted and belittled. Or outright abused me and my trust. Many people have talked about the intensity of Untouched, but that's because Celia's sexuality is under siege. As I wrote that, I realized that this sprang from my own sense of being besieged.

I started writing erotica because I was interested in talking honestly about sex. How embarrassing that after five years of thinking I was doing that, after being featured in Best [Insert Sex Act Here] who knows how many times, this book showed me how closed off I've been to the true things about myself.

I've written here before that I think women are taught to perform sex, not to claim it and experience it for themselves. For so much of my life, I saw sex acts from the other person's perspective—how was I making them feel? I saw my whole sexual imagination and consciousness from outside, too, as a thing to be judged and controlled. Over the last several years, I've confronted a lot of my own taboos and explored in my life and in my writing what I actually like.

It was only by writing Celia, though, that I really got out of the passenger seat and into the driver's seat. It was that character that made me really see what it's like to be at the center of one's own sex life, and writing her was an act of defiance.

And now that my anger has been unleashed, I'm not the same writer or person.

It's hard for me to talk about Untouched, because the things I had to say were best said in the book, but writing it had a major effect on my actual sex life and I'm still dealing with the fallout. I found out a lot of truth, and I discovered a lot of rage, and I can't go on as I was before.

As a writer, I flailed a lot after finishing this book. I've always included subversive elements in my work, but I want to find a way to stop apologizing for what I have to say. And I'm angry at the distortions caused by common expectations in the industry. I was never a fan of straight rich white "alpha males," but oh my god now I really want to burn that down.

I don't want our corner of the literary world to be defanged and fitted neatly into the mainstream. I remember Best American Erotica 1996, which I wrote about in my first post for the Grip, and how shocking and uncomfortable—and vital—it was. I don't want to be reduced to toothless blog tours in which I'm counseled not to alienate readers by saying controversial things. Marketing and I have always been uncomfortable bedfellows, but now I'm feeling especially concerned about letting market values infect and corrupt my work.

So, this is what anger is for. It makes it impossible for me to put up with what I'm supposed to put up with and gives me the strength to step into uncomfortable territory. I've had a tough six months, but I'm damned proud of Untouched, and I think I owe it to myself and my readers to continue pursuing authenticity, without compromise and without retreat.


16 comments:

  1. Annabeth:
    I'm only a few chapters into "Untouched", now with your commentary here, I'm hooked. Powerful, provocative video. It made me sad to watch it though, the darkness seems to be consuming us with the delusion of the power of anger.

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    1. Thanks for giving Untouched a read, Spencer. I really appreciate it.

      As far as the video, my Grip-writing process has evolved so that I have to find a song that expresses my tone before I can figure out what I want to say. I wanted to find a song by a female artist that was unapologetically angry. I have an extensive music library, and it's interesting to me how difficult it was to find one that fit the bill and felt right. (Runners-up: "Fuck you" by Avengers, "The Killing Type" by Amanda Palmer, "Angry Johnny" by Poe, "Use Once and Destroy" by Hole, and "Professional Widow" by Tori Amos.)

      What makes me sad is resignation, and that's where I've gone when I've tried to hamstring my anger. Anger is a normal, healthy process and doesn't have to lead to destructive behavior. I really think it needs to run its course, and I think it does provide needed energy and power. It's a survival instinct. It says, "I matter" and "this matters" and "this is wrong."

      Charli XCX opened her second album with this song, and I think it's a powerful statement of artistic integrity and punk sensibilities. I see a female artist trying to own her work, which is what I'm concerned with in my post.

      Some people do treasure and nurse their anger to an unhealthy degree, but I think a lot of people need permission to feel it. I want to defend that right, and I appreciate Charli's song for what I think is its necessary aggression.

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    2. As a guy who suffered long from misplaced anger issues (it was all about father wounds that most of us men have) I can only say that anger is the nitro fuel of human motivation. It burns hot and fast, dramatically increasing horsepower. However long term use ruins valves and pistons and results in dramatically shortened engine life. Use sparingly.

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    3. I think most bits of psychiatric advice are balancing, or should be. Someone with too much focus on anger is taught to pull back from it. Ideally, someone with too little should be taught to listen to what it's telling them.

      I'm the daughter of an angry, violent man. I'm intimately familiar with the dangers of anger, and grew up largely unable to feel it consciously at all, like a limb grown numb from nerve damage. I certainly know what you're talking about, based on observations of my dad.

      That said, it's been totally vital for me to learn to regrow those nerves and see that they have important information for me. I spent many years involved with a community of people who believed that anger is always bad, and the result was that I became suicidal and unable to answer simple questions about what I want or prefer. If I seem very vehement on this point, it's because discovering my ability to feel anger and being unapologetic about it was literally essential to my survival. I'm not talking about then taking that out on people by abusing or attacking them. I'm talking about knowing that the feeling is there and finding healthy ways of expressing it (going to the gym, listening to loud music, etc).

      I really respond to suggestions that something is better or more spiritual or what have you, so the general culture around anger that I encounter continues to make it difficult for me to get those nerves back. I have to protest sort of hard, or I'll sink back into crippling myself. Incidentally, that's another thing I like about Charli's song. I take her to be fighting back against a sleazy producer, and I think she's at the volume she needed in order to refuse his influence/coercion.

      I know I get sort of heavy in my posts fairly often, but believe it or not I try to pull back. But I can't really explain this without getting at least a bit heavy.

      Not being able to feel anger at all leads to a terrible type of resignation and lack of ability to value oneself. "Oh, this guy wants to fuck me even though I told him I don't want to? I guess it's not worth fighting. I'll just wait until it's over." "Oh, am I getting paid half what my male colleague is making with the same job title? I guess that's just how the world works?" "Am I miserable in my marriage every day of my life? What would make me think I should expect better?" And on and on and on. My first instinct when something bad happens to me is to shrug and say it's not worth fighting it. I know people tell angry people that something isn't worth it to calm them down, but I really need the opposite. The things I mentioned are worth it (and they're all real examples from my life, not hypothetical). I need anger to be able to say so.

      And one more note on that. There's so much pressure on women particularly to see anger as ugly and uncalled for, and to always suppress it. But in some cases, doing so can really hurt one's efforts to protect oneself. Not only has it caused me not to fight or protest in situations where I should have, but it's harmed my ability to seek redress later. When you tell someone you were raped, everyone wants to know why you didn't "punch him on the nose." It probably wasn't rape if you didn't do that. If you say you were sexually harassed at work, they want to know why you didn't slap the guy across the face. If you didn't do that, you were fine with it, right? I can't honestly see myself ever slapping anyone across the face. But responding to things like that with a dead affect leads to people not believing that anything bad even happened. Anger is a survival instinct, and one I've often lacked the ability to feel at vital moments.

      My dad saw slights everywhere, and used them as justification to attack innocent people. I saw slights nowhere, and offered myself up as a sacrificial martyr on a daily basis.

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  2. Wow, what an extraordinarily transformative journey. Through the act of fiction writing! Wow. Thank you, as always, for sharing your personal story with such intellectual and emotional depth and clarity.

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    1. Thanks so much, Jeremy. You've become one of the people who comes into my mind when I'm thinking of pulling back from being honest or otherwise compromising myself. Thanks for supporting and inspiring these efforts, and of course for your own work as well.

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  3. "Celia was so appealing that I rooted for her to get exactly what she wanted, even while I couldn’t suppress a feeling that it wouldn’t really be good for her. Her story is pretty clearly intended to be symbolic of anyone’s divergence from the norms enforced by our culture, the pain they feel at being despised, and their longing to be able to go their own way without pressure to change."

    (Quoted from my review on Erotica Revealed)

    That was an oversimplification, I know; Celia's strength in her sureness of her own desires and right to express them without challenge should be seen as more than a symbol of the right to diverge from the norm.

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    1. Sacchi, I mentioned on Twitter how much I appreciate your review, but ironically I think most of the people from Erotica Revealed aren't on there, so here it is again. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and respond.

      Sometime I should tell you the story about female gaze in that book, since you called attention to it in your first paragraph.

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    2. I'd really like to hear that story, Annabeth. Maybe we'll have another get-together with Jeremy whenI can make it there.

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  4. I've got to read this book.

    Congratulations on resisting the pressure. I suspect that the process, uncomfortable as it has been, has already made you stronger. And a better writer.

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    1. Thanks so much, Lisabet. I've been really excited to see some of your new directions. Best of luck in finding a wide audience that appreciates your unique mix of erotica and romance. I hope we all find what we need to keep doing what we do and not get too down.

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    2. You're much braver than I am, Annabeth.

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    3. Well, I don't know about all that... Whatever the case, XOXO to you.

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  5. "I don't want to be reduced to toothless blog tours in which I'm counseled not to alienate readers by saying controversial things. Marketing and I have always been uncomfortable bedfellows, but now I'm feeling especially concerned about letting market values infect and corrupt my work."

    Yup. ALL this.

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