Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What I Learned In a Sex Writing Class -- and Why Every Writer Should Take One

On a Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before I had to be at work, I found myself climbing the narrow stairs leading up to belly dancing studio. I was about to take a sex writing class. Specifically, I was about to take a class called “How to Write About Sex for Fun and Profit.”

Kali Meister's promo for the workshop. She didn't actually wear this outfit, but the board made an appearance.



While the choice of venue was probably due mostly to the logistics of finding empty studio space on a Saturday afternoon, the decor in our room was almost alarmingly literal for our purposes. The smell of incense had worked its way into the wood. There were soft cushions flung about, something that might be a pair of adult-sized wings in a corner, and a lit candle flickering on a low table. It was impossible for me to ignore the unintentional symbolism of a red lantern. I moved a guitar out of the way and settled in on a plush love seat.


I had no idea what to expect. I had spent an hour debating about what to even wear. (“What do you wear to a sex writing class?” I asked my Facebook friends. “Emily Post is strangely silent on the matter.”)


There were two reasons I decided to take this workshop, and one of them is Kali Meister. She’s an actress, a writer, a teacher, a filmmaker, and about a dozen other things. She’s hilarious and smart. My effusiveness is going to make it sound like I’m doing a plug for a pal, so I’ll be clear about the fact that I’ve only met her twice, but I definitely keep up with what she’s doing --which seems to be everything. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she can also rebuild carburetors or can play classical music on wine glasses. I do know this: if she wanted to do either of those things, she would. And she’d be damned good at them, too.


The other reason is that, while I don’t feel like I have a problem writing about sex … I have a problem writing about sex. I have a short story that has stalled because I feel like something’s missing, and a novel project with a crucial sex scene that I’ve managed to write completely around. I’ve been telling myself that I’m saving it for last because it won’t be difficult, when in all honesty, I’m saving it for last because I don’t want to actually have to write it.


I went into the workshop looking for the fast fix. I was hoping for a list of tips, like the writer’s equivalent of an article in Cosmo -- something I could scan, pick and choose from, finding the ones that are right for me in the midst of all the goofy stuff. A part of me was also hoping for a magic formula. The setting sure seemed right for it, with the heady smells and the Oriental rugs. I half expected Kali to crook a finger, move us in more closely, and begin in a whispery voice: “Here’s what you do ….”


Spoiler alert: I wasn’t given a magic formula. And, while I did glean some useful tips, they weren’t in the form of a checklist called “100 Brand New Tricks for Super-Hot Sex Scenes You Can Write This Weekend.”


Though focused on sex writing in particular, the class wasn’t specifically about erotica, and it certainly wasn’t about writing the next 50 Shades of Grey. Kali was quick to point out the sexual content in all kinds of literature, reading excerpts from Bastard Out of Carolina and The Bell Jar. Neither were scenes meant to titillate, especially in the Dorothy Allison reading, which dealt with child abuse. It’s a disturbing bit of writing with a distinct literary voice. It’s haunting. But, most importantly for the purposes of the class, it’s also sexual. Sex is not just about what is sexy alone, we were told, and the book excerpts made that clear. Its not even just about the act itself. “You can have a sexual experience eating a cupcake,” Kali laughed.


She also talked about the fact that every person is a sexual being -- something to remember when developing characters. “Even virgins can write good erotica,” Kali said. In case we doubted the fact, she asked us to remember what it was like to be one, and the kinds of thoughts and fantasies we had. Point taken. Who else is capable of writing good sex scenes? Really bad lovers. Sex scenes don’t have to be about perfect experiences any more than sex itself is always a good experience. Kali asked us as a group, “Every time you have sex, is it a great experience?” Everyone shook their heads (with one woman alarmingly quick to shout “Noooooooooooo!”).


I won’t detail everything covered, partly because I feel like the content of an instructor’s workshop ought to belong to her, it’s her work, but I also know that each writer gleans something different in a class. What was important for me to learn may not have been what the other people in the class took with them. I do hope that everyone took Kali’s advice to try to write what shames you. “Write it,” she said, practically begging us. “Write it, write it, write it!”


What I ultimately learned is useful for any kind of writing. Between the readings and the discussions and the free-writing exercises, I took copious notes, but if I were to reduce them all to their essence, it comes down to two things.


1) Break down your boundaries.
2) Be authentic.


Fast fixes don’t work for writing good scenes any better than Cosmo lists can give you a fulfilling sex life. I made some steps toward breaking down some boundaries by going to the workshop in the first place, and I’m now armed with some ideas for next steps. Take a sex writing class, if you can find one in your area. As Kali might say: Take it, take it, take it!


Check out Kali Meister’s website, or find her on Facebook, where she dispenses wisdom and wit useful to writers, filmmakers, and interesting humans of all kinds. If you live in the Knoxville area, keep an eye out for one of Kali’s workshops.

3 comments:

  1. As you know, I live in Knoxville. I've tried to think of an occasion I'd want to write about sex, and I can't. In my younger days when I tried writing short stories, I read sex scenes in James Baldwin's novels and stories and tried imitating him. Big failure.

    I think of sex writing as two kinds: erotica and pornography--the first strives to be literary; the second simple titillates.

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  2. Louis, you need to take my workshop...

    That is the issue with writing about sex because people believe they have to define sex. Sex is just sex, but sex is a VAST amount of activity, emotion, game, and thought. And all of it titillates on some level. Someone can sexually undo another person just by gazing at them in a lustful way, while it may take something more physical for other people to experience sexual feeling.

    The sex scene in The Godfather is hotter than anything I have ever read in Playboy or Hustler. It's just semantics.

    The secret to writing good sex is just a matter of wrapping your brain around the idea that you have created your own boundaries that have limited your language and intent. The trick is to just be honest to you as a writer and be genuine in showing the sexual aspects of a well-rounded story. I Start small. Write a hot kissing scene and then go "deeper" if you feel the need to. A lot of folks like it deep.

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