Thursday, September 22, 2011

Risky Business

When Harry met Sally in a support group for people with eating disorders, they felt an instant spark of attraction. Harry encouraged Sally to write about her inner demons, and expand her journal entries into short stories. Harry and Sally moved in together, and cheered each other on as they both lost weight and gained muscle tone due to exercise and healthy eating.

Sally got a few stories published on websites and print anthologies. She thought the story of her relationship with Harry was the most powerful one she had ever written. She thought of changing enough details that no reader would recognize her or Harry (assuming the thing would ever get published). When she tried revising it, some of the power leaked out.

Sally decided to stick with the truth, and to expand her story into a novel. She sent it to several publishers, and on the fourth try, her book was accepted for publication. The editor assigned to work with her said that inspirational stories like hers were very big that year. Sally and Harry celebrated with champagne.

Sally was invited to appear on talk shows. Hollywood agents approached her about movie rights.

Total strangers stopped Harry in the street to ask if he was really the guy who once weighed 300 pounds, and if he really grew up in a slum. They asked why he wasn’t more assertive when he was bullied in grade school. Strangers told him that all his problems stemmed from being the “forgotten child” in his family, or from that awful episode at summer camp, when he was inappropriately touched by an older boy.

Harry found a photo of himself at age eighteen on the website of a former classmate. That had been the year he dropped out of all his first-year university courses. A friend of a friend found the unlisted telephone number of Harry and Sally, and told Harry that his eating disorder was really a symptom of unresolved sexual issues. The caller advised Harry to admit to himself that he was gay.

Harry became sexually turned off. Whenever he and Sally were alone in their bedroom, he felt as if he were being watched through a webcam. He could only come when he was alone.

Harry asked Sally to stop blogging and to turn down all requests to promote her book in public. She accused him of trying to sabotage her writing career as well as his own recovery. She said she was concerned about him, and advised him to go back to the support group. He didn’t bother to tell her why he couldn’t.

Harry moved out. A close friend recommended a lawyer who might agree to help Harry sue Sally in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds if he won.

This worst-case fantasy isn’t any more drastic than some cautionary tales from real life. The messy triangle of D.H. Lawrence, his wife Frieda (who left her first husband to live with him and be his Muse) and the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell is part of literary history, even though they have all been dead for years. Read Women in Love or watch the movie version if you’re interested in a thinly-disguised version of real-life events.

The rants of David Lawrence (as he was known in life) on numerous topics are still easy to find in published form. So are contemporary accounts of his fights with Frieda, written by other writers who knew them.

You want know the dirt about the writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin? It’s all there in their books, as well as the movie versions.

As an English major in university, I learned about Bad Romance and its long-term literary consequences before any of my own writing was published. Eep.

Of course, I wrote about my own experience, which included the people I knew in real life. Some of them would probably dispute my version of things if they knew what I had written. Conflict is dramatic, and relationships that don’t end well are interesting to read about, but does the whole world need to know why my high school boyfriend broke up with me? I think not. (Actually, I wrote about that in a piece for my column, Sex Is All Metaphors, which ran on the Erotic Readers and Writers Association site from July 2008 to November 2010. Oops.)

I began writing erotic stories in the 1980s, before I met (or remet, since we were acquainted before) my Significant Other. If I hadn’t met her in the real world, I would be tempted to make her up. She became a political refugee in the 1970s because she had the courage to oppose a military dictatorship. After being sent to the windswept Canadian prairie (not her first choice of destinations) with her husband and child, she became fluent in English by watching TV soap operas. She became a community organizer. She was already a talented musician on a variety of instruments. Her singing voice is warm and soft, but capable of filling a room without amplification. She could probably survive being shipwrecked on a desert island.

My erotic writing didn’t become an issue in our relationship until we acquired a computer, I read some calls-for-submissions and started writing my sex fantasies again. I can’t imagine a Significant Other who could be perfectly calm about the possible public spilling of every bean by a lover who writes.

“Just don’t write about me,” she said. “Please don’t.” It seemed like a reasonable request, especially since I wasn’t willing to stop writing about sex altogether. This plea from a woman who wouldn’t beg for mercy from armed men reminded me of the power of every creative writer. We can ruin lives, including our own.

I’m sure some traces of everyone I have ever known (including Significant Other) have seeped into my writing, especially my erotic stories. Tempting as it is to describe her physical characteristics (and my amazement at how sexy she still is in her early 60s), I resist temptation as far as possible. None of my characters look much like her, and few come from her home country. (I wrote one story about sex on a beach there – between two men.)

I’m sure the details of my life wouldn’t be hard for a determined snoop to discover. (But who wants to?) For better and worse, my life overlaps with those of several other people. As inspiring as they are, I don’t have the right to speak for them.

So there it is. I could claim that in some deep Jungian sense, all my characters are me, and also not-me. Where they come from is no one else’s business.


  1. "This plea from a woman who wouldn’t beg for mercy from armed men reminded me of the power of every creative writer. We can ruin lives, including our own."

    Powerful statement, Jean. We're nto so clever at hiding our tracks as we think we are.

  2. That comment (the one posted above) brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes you read something that you know in your heart is the truth of the world -- that was one of those sentences.

    Thank you.


  3. I agree with what you say that our characters are us and not us. And yet its kind of funny that people afround us are afraid we'll write about them. I never do either. Except here of course, as do you.


  4. Jean,

    Thank you for a wise and insightful post. This comment particularly struck me, though:

    "When she tried revising it, some of the power leaked out."

    I sometimes feel that the further I move from my own experiences, the more intensity I lose.

    The writing in RAW SILK is not nearly as polished as my current work. Yet it remains my most popular book, because, I think, it's the most thinly veiled.

    Definitely a cautionary tale, though. And I hope that some day I'll get to meet your spouse - who sounds like an amazing character.


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