Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Lisabet Sarai

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.


  1. This is a great post, Lisabet. I think the level of realism necessary to a good story is very contextual. And it is going to depend very heavily on your readers and how willing they are to suspend disbelief. Most of us, I think, tend to compress time a lot in stories, and within reason, no one seems much bothered by this.

    Also, how much fantasy one can get away with depends on how well the writer has lured the reader into the storyworld. So a bit of total fantasy at the beginning of a story might not wash, but once a convincing 'world' has been built and the event/action/reaction seems right within the context, then you can take people practically anywhere.

    I tend to stand in the realism camp where it applies to human behavior, because for me, eroticism is an entirely human thing. If I don't buy the way the characters are acting, there's no way the story is going to pull me in, or arouse me.

    1. Hi, RG,

      Over in Writers, we've been having a discussion about amnesia. Someone received a comment from an editor saying that amnesia didn't really exist, that it was just a literary device and should be removed. The author then went on to explain that she herself had experienced amnesia...

      It may not be possible to distinguish fantasy from reality - or memory.

      In a true account, though, one expects gaps, illogical or extraneous details, and most certainly endings that aren't 100% satisfactory to everyone concerned. In fiction, we are encouraged to smooth the rough edges, eliminate elements not connected with the core narrative, and tie things up, in some sense, so as not to leave the reader with a sense of incompleteness.

      When I think about how many love affairs I had that simply petered out... not good story material. But I could turn them into acceptable fiction, with a bit of tweaking.

  2. Did I post on the wrong day again?

  3. Oh darn, darn, darn! No, Garce, you're not wrong. This post wasn't supposed to go live until the 21st! That's what I get for trying to stay on top of my commitments for the future!

    However, now that the cat is out of the bag, I can't really force it back. I suppose readers will just have to deal with it ;^)

  4. Lisabet, you've posted on a fascinating subject. I was invited to contribute to an antho of "true" lesbian sex stories (not sure if this is the one you're reviewing - it's recently-published). I had 2 previously-pub'd stories handy, but the editor said she wanted original stories. Sorry, I said -- I won't write any more stories like that because it's too unfair to the other people involved, who prob. don't remember things the same way & might not like their (naked) portraits in print. (My spouse & I have an agreement about that.) And as you point out, there is no clear line between unreliable memory & invention. I've had interesting discussions with students about what should & should not be included in autobiography or memoirs -- everyone who thinks about this seems to reach the conclusion that much editing & composing goes into even the most "truthful" writing.

    1. I've rarely read any autobiographical work by erotica authors that struck me as "true". The one exception is Marilyn Jaye Lewis' anthology ENTANGLED LIVES

      The book authors are incredibly honest and unvarnished in the tales they tell, which don't necessarily show them in the best light and certainly, unlike the stories in the anthology I am reviewing, don't all end with sexual satisfaction.

  5. Great post! I think everyone is converting "truth" or "reality" into stories pretty much all the time as we try to make sense of experience. Making sense or meaning involves applying form, motif, significance, all the things we must do to write a good story. I'd also hazard to say that in "real" sex especially there are two parallel narratives--the physical facts of what's happening with the bodies of the lovers and the mental engagement they bring which draws upon memories, fantasies, and all sorts of unrealistic images and desires. Sometimes it is that story we tell with erotica, and it's no less "true." I have to say, though, that it is a bit disappointing that the "true" stories sounded just like regular old erotic fiction. There's something especially brave about speaking honestly about sex, and that's doubtless what the readers are seeking.

    1. I think that raw honesty was what this editor was seeking. So far, I at least haven't found much of it.

  6. I'm a bit disturbed to note that in some cases, the stories I've told you are now the stories I remember.

    This is so very true. I've written some of my exploits so many times I'm sure the reality was much tamer (mostly)

    1. Exactly.

      More than thirty years ago I married a man whom I love, but who is not my Master. Since then I've written dozens of stories in which the protagonist (very similar to me) took a different path, where she chose a stable and long-standing D/s relationship with her Dom (similar in at least some ways to him). At this point, I have so many memories of those tales, I almost feel as though I've played out that alternative life, on a different plane of existence.


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