Those of you who’ve met me in the flesh, so to speak, will be unsurprised by the following fact: I’ve never had a sports related injury.
I’ve had ‘pianist’s wrist’ (for which I blame Beethoven) and ‘trolley back’ (for which I blame Tesco) and lately, since switching from desktop computer to laptop, I’ve noticed a new affliction: ‘laptop leg’. To the joy of osteopaths across Norfolk, my primary writing pose is the Sofa Slump. And it doesn’t half make your legs ache after a while. Not to mention the molten heat emanating from Gwendolyn’s vents (yes, I have named my laptop) when I’m not so much writing as ‘writing’, i.e: when poor Gwendolyn has more open windows than a tower block in a heat wave, and the ratio of words written to candy crushed and cats cooed at and Buzzfeed quizzes completed shrinks ever lower.
A couple of days ago, in an effort to fight the twin demons of Laptop Leg and distraction, I joined my friend Mary in the local library for a writing session entirely free of cats being jerks or candy crushing. (Luckily, courtesy of another friend, Jon, this candy moratorium didn’t extend to amazing homemade cookies with fruit pastilles in them – yes, fruit pastilles. I know, right?). And we actually wrote. We wrote words and sentences (unless Mary was typing sjdkfjdnsbdnfbdafmsndfbxzpqeuwqoweiquasfofsuafsd to fool me), and two of the paragraphs I wrote were, well, you know, not good exactly, but they didn’t make me want to immediately claw out my eyes for having the audacity to call myself a writer. Just once, for ten seconds, I sneakily logged on to the library wi-fi (for the minor humiliation of having no notifications on Facebook, nor none on twitter neither) and somewhat to my surprise I found that my website (this very site that you’re reading right now) had been blocked by the library wifi for ‘pornographic content’. (Goodbye, at this point, to those of you who’ve immediately gone in search of said content.)
Well, this was news to me. I’ve occasionally had someone land on my home page by means of a weird phrase or two (‘tight-lacing governess stories’ is my favourite so far) but, hand on heart, there is nowt here whatsoever of a titillating nature.
It so happens I’m giving a reading next month for the Norwich Sound and Vision festival. And said reading so happens to be in a chilly and candlelit mediaeval church. (There’s a link to the event here if you’re ‘local people’. There are four fantastic readers – plus me – and as well as a Q&A session, in which I get to display my shining ignorance on the theme of gothic fiction, there is – more importantly – a showing of silent classic Nosferatu – remastered and with a live score, to boot.) I am hemming and hawing because the piece (in its current, unfinished format) that I’m planning to read contains the words knickers, bra, and (best – worst? – of all) willies. I once drove some unsuspecting writing students from a residential weekend in a convent by reading my short story, Amore (if Amore was a cocktail, it’d be Sex on the Beach), and although willies and knickers are (in my opinion) at the very tamest end of the sexual spectrum, the fact that I’m going to be standing in a pulpit proclaiming this stuff has given me pause for thought. It’s not so much God striking me down with a lightning bolt (which, come to think of it, would give my reading a bit of pizazz), I just hate making people uncomfortable. At least, when those people are sitting directly in front of me. Staring. Or possibly glaring.
As a teacher, I’m often asked how to deal with that thorny old chestnut of how to write something your mum/dad/brother/wife/churchgoing friend is going to read. First off, and most importantly, write the damn thing before you allow yourself the luxury of panicking that your neighbours will cross the street when they see you coming. (Let’s face it, the odds of publication are always against you.) Second of all, if you’re bashful enough to be asking that question, then maybe you ought to hold onto that bashfulness – as a quality, not a weakness – because, after all, there’s no need for a (sorry) blow by blow account, unless you’re intending to crack the erotic market (in which case, one word for ya: pseudonym): you can summarise all manner of sizzling action, or simply allude to it (‘When she fell into bed the following night, she could still smell James on her sheets’, for instance, or perhaps, ‘Susan was walking like John Wayne for the rest of the week’…). A scene can be sexy without any sex, if there’s plenty of tension (see Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud for a cinematic example, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian bring more electricity to a thwarted snog than a hundred knicker-less leg-crossing scenes in Hollywood movies).
On the other hand… the short, sharp, shock of a single anatomical detail can make a big impact in an otherwise sex-free zone, as it does in Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, where she renders a young woman’s, um, lady garden, in the starkest possible terms through the eyes of her male protagonist. And it’s a fantastic scene. And if writing means capturing the stoniness of a stone (as the Russian formalist Viktor Shlovsky asserted: ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony‘) then Tremain takes that stone and she makes it as stony as hell. And it wouldn’t be stony as hell if she’d used the word ‘lady garden’, or one of the million other euphemisms we’re all familiar with. As a writer you choose the appropriate word at all times – even if, in polite company, that word would be wholly inappropriate. We call a spade a spade. As a writer of fiction you’re only ever the conduit for your characters. Don’t put words in their mouths for the sake of shock value, but equally never deny them their god-given pricks and tits, above all in first person (but also in free indirect), where ‘I gave her a right good knobbing’ might be more honest and truthful than penetrating her lady garden.
Some questions to ask: do you want to arouse or repulse? Does the scene move the story along, reveal character? Have you resorted to cliché? (If anything’s heaving or throbbing, the answer is probably yes.) Have you got too engrossed with the oily mechanics of sex and forgotten that, ultimately, what’s most interesting is how it transforms the relationship between two characters (or three, or four… and a donkey…)? We’ve all got the internet if we just want the old ‘in-out’, so be certain there’s always a literary purpose in mind (and, a word to the wise: if you happen to be in a writing group, think carefully before sharing. You’re going to be up close and personal with these people, discussing your work. Do not underestimate the shrivelling effect of an elderly lady’s face when perusing the fruits of your diseased mind).
I’m the first to admit I’ve gone way overboard in the past, in my efforts to make a stone stony. But here, from my aforementioned story Amore, I offer my own example of what I’ll call NR: Necessary Rudeness. My unnamed narrator, a sixteen year old virgin, has gone on holiday – not by mistake, as Withnail would have it, but hoping to lose her virginity. As she lies on the beach, she indulges herself in a fantasy of how sex will be:
In his apartment the blinds will be down, and the rooms will be stripy with sunshine. They’ll sit on his single bed and they’ll suck at the cold tops of their beer bottles. What will he taste of? Hops. When he takes off his trunks, he will smell of the sea, and the tan lines framing his crotch will look like underpants and will seem to preserve his dignity. His thing will be smooth as an actual sausage; white, and shy-looking. Like a magic trick it will vanish inside her. What then? Bliss, and the seed coming out of him: like wee, she supposes.
And here, rather sadly, is the rude awakening of reality:
He tugs at the waist of his trunks and the purple stump that comes bounding out of them must be his penis, she thinks, because that’s where men keep them. A purple stump of veins and hair with a swollen wet end like an arrowhead.
I hope you’ll agree I couldn’t have made my point without reaching for a little Necessary Rudeness.
And you know what I’ve just realised? All these years later and I’m still bloody writing about willies.