Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Fantasy versus reality. This is a recurring theme in our author discussions and blogs. As authors of erotica, do we have a responsibility to paint a somewhat realistic picture of the complexities of human desire? Or is our role to create engaging fictional worlds and people them with characters who have more and better sex than most of us actually experience? Should our BDSM stories portray the actual practices of the kink community, complete with negotiation and limits? Or should we allow ourselves to descend into dark fantasies of acts that might be risky, even physically impossible, because that's what pushes our buttons?
I don't intend to reopen this debate right now. Even if you're firmly in the “realism” camp, however, I'm sure you'll admit to consciously constructing your stories to enhance their emotional impact. You introduce elements of suspense. You gradually intensify conflict. Ultimately, you provide enough of a resolution to give readers a sense of closure. This is, after all, the job of the storyteller – to build a coherent whole out of an assortment of people, actions and events, a tale that will linger in the readers' (or listeners') minds and perhaps, change them.
We do this, often quite deliberately, when we write fiction. But what about autobiography or memoir?
I'm currently reading, for a review, an anthology of “true sex stories”. Each author has written about some crucial erotic experience in her life, some encounter or relationship that had particular significance. I'm perhaps halfway through the book right now, and enjoying it quite a bit. The authors' accounts are well-crafted, diverse, and frequently hot. However, they're more or less indistinguishable from the fictional erotic tales that appear in so many collections from this same publisher. There's nothing about them that labels them as “true” or “real”. They have been subjected to the storyteller's craft, smoothed, tailored, refined – turned into works of art.
Please understand, this is merely an observation, not a criticism. As I contemplate the so-called true stories in this book, though, I wonder whether the phrase is an oxymoron, whether “story” and “truth” (in the sense of actual experience) can ever coexist. “Story” by its very nature implies an intervention to turn raw phenomena into narration.
Of course, many erotic authors – myself included - mine their own histories as material for their fiction. Much of my work is to a greater or lesser extent autobiographical. A few tales (I won't say which ones) are nearly literal accounts. In every case, though, I've applied my storyteller's lens to the details of my real world erotic encounters – bringing some aspects into sharper focus while blurring others. Some alterations are intentional misdirections to protect the so-called innocent, but most have to do with whipping the tales into a more literary shape, transforming them from anecdotes to stories.
As I contemplated the phenomenon of the“true” collection described above, however, I realized that I do the same thing with supposedly accurate descriptions of my “real” life. Between ERWA, Oh Get a Grip, my personal blog Beyond Romance,my publishers' blogs, and my frequent guest posts, I produce quite a lot of material about myself and my past. I know I'm writing for an audience, and, without really meaning to, I adapt my life story to fit my perceptions about what they'll find intriguing. At this point, it's practically second nature to tweak a detail here, neaten up an ending there, to heighten the effect.
I'm a bit disturbed to note that in some cases, the stories I've told you are now the stories I remember. I am not sure I recall what actually happened, only what I've told you happened. In fact, some of my fictional tales, even the ones not intended to be “true”, feel just as real.
As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, direct experience is fleeting. Memory is an act of creation – or re-creation – an effort to enforce some order on the fragmentary impressions left by our senses. There's no guarantee that our recollections are accurate. Research has shown that memories can be systematically manipulated by changing our foci of attention.
There are two ways to react to these findings. We can panic, as the supposedly solid ground of remembered experience turns to perilous quicksand. If we can't be sure about our own life histories, is there any certainty at all?
On the other hand, we can embrace our storytelling genius, our genetic predisposition to rearrange and restructure the world into some shape that makes sense, as a gift. We all tell ourselves stories and create realities – whether we call them fiction or not. That may be unsettling. But it's also a kind of magic.