Friday, August 24, 2012

The Slippery Truth

by Jean Roberta

When I first started writing stories, they came in two completely different packages: 1) adventure stories that resembled fairy tales, which evolved out of bedtime stories I used to tell my younger sisters, and 2) stories based on my life, because realism seemed to allow for more grownup writing techniques (mostly smirking irony, which came naturally to my teenage self). For an example of Category #2, check out “Storyteller’s Tale,” here:

Then I discovered erotica and started writing about sex. Even though I had experienced some good times, the reasons for not writing my sexual memoirs seemed obvious. My relatives would die of shame! No one would want to know me! (except in the Biblical sense.) My ex-lovers would sue me! (I had visions of a class-action suit.)

So I wrote sexual fantasies, and writing them was almost a physical pleasure. Whew – an imaginary kind of female Robin Hood who plots revolution in snug leggings and a leather jerkin would not object to being described on the page, and neither would the bodacious princess who chooses to join her. Neither would a studly but sensitive man.

Then I began to see calls-for-submissions for “true stories” from women about their sex lives. I wondered why. I read several of these anthologies, and several of the stories made me suspicious. The multiple-body, simultaneous community orgasms seemed too good to be true. Other stories had the flavour of real life, but what kind of friend/lover/spouse would be perfectly willing to be a character in someone else’s story?

I considered the down side of truth-telling, or speculating about someone else’s truth. It’s called gossip, and even if it originates in honest curiosity, it can have drastic results. I’ve encountered (and heard about) self-defined heterosexuals who ask stunningly nosy and tactless questions about sex between two men or two women, about BDSM, or about the lives of those who identify as transgendered. Many people, it seems, have a voyeur’s curiosity about the “perverts” who live on the other side of the tracks or the red-light district, without wanting to know the personal consequences of public soul-baring.

If the readers of “true” sex stories are all sniggering peep-freaks, I thought, I’m not willing to give them the satisfaction.

Yet writing is a way of talking to oneself. When I write something about my own life and read what I’ve written, I can see it from a different angle than I did at the time. So, after a long argument with myself, I wrote about my first experience of sex with a woman, and the story was published in a print anthology. Nothing terrible happened to me. So I wrote another story which was more-or-less based on a real relationship, and it too was published.

When I saw yet another call-for-submissions for true lesbian sex stories, I contacted the editor (whom I’ve met in person) to offer her the above two stories. She said she was not looking for reprints, but would love to see something new and interesting from me.

There was the catch. The editor’s description of what she wanted sounded much like fiction to me: an engaging story with narrative momentum, which reaches a climax, an epiphany, and possibly a happy ending. Real life tends to be messier than that. How far could I stretch an actual encounter or relationship and still call it factual? (I should probably mention here that I’ve been with the same partner since 1989, and I’ve promised not to write about her.)

I realized that I just couldn’t cook up a fantasy and swear that it actually happened, down to the last detail, or rack my memories for an episode that might better be left in the past. So I didn’t send anything new to the editor, who has since collected enough stories to launch the book. Good for her and her contributors, I say, but I’ve already said what I had to say about my own experience.

From now on, I plan to write about emotional (and glandular) “truth” in imaginary contexts. Fictional plots seem unlimited.

Here is a conversation between novelists Grace O’Connell and Steven Heighton about truth-telling in fiction:


  1. I've written several true-life stories (I generally change the names) but you're quite right - real life doesn't have the neat story arc and HEA bow.

  2. Hi, Jean,

    I've never been the least bit tempted to respond to any of those "true sex stories" calls for submissions. I know that if I tried, I'd end up wandering away from the so-called facts into fantasy, no matter how hard I tried. And then I'd be too moral to send the story, because it wouldn't be the unvarnished truth.

    A female Robin Hood, though - that's a world I could use...!

  3. Fictional plots are unlimited. We learn I think much more by observing. I've noticed that the best short story writers are those who observe the little details about their characters, how a woman holds her drink at arms length when someone kisses her and so on. But we get those clues from experience too. Not the whole experience, but the little pieces of it.

    Also I suspect those true confessions are going to be mostly fictional anyway, since as you say, real life is much messier and less conclusive.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.