Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What To Take In

The second time I thought about giving up writing, I was 16 years old. I had been thinking of myself as a writer for half my life, ever since the third grade, when I was in my first writing workshop. I carried that sense of self long after I left the writer’s workshop program in my elementary school. Until I took a summer writing workshop.

My fiction writing style at 16 was spare, short vignettes that packed a punch and were mostly dialogue. It may not surprise you that they were mostly about sex. Openly, clearly, about teenage girls having sex outside of romantic relationships. Often casual sex, with strangers, or in the context of connections that were purely sexual. They were not erotica, and they didn’t describe sex in detail, they just referred to casual sex as if it were a regular part of teenage life, and depicted the ways that sexual dynamics worked.

Of course, they made adults uncomfortable. In particular, they made my fiction writing teacher in that summer workshop uncomfortable. I can still see his face, when we met about the first story I turned in. It was about 3 pages double spaced, almost completely dialogue, depicting the negotiation of a sex date over the phone between a teenage girl and an older teenage boy. Any description was focused on illuminating the ambivalence of the girl during the negotiation.

My teacher very earnestly asked me to expand the story. He said that when reading it, he didn’t understand the choices that the characters were making, and wanted the story to show more of what was going on inside their heads. It sounds like a reasonable critique, doesn’t it? A request for deeper characterization, more illumination of the internal, those are all good things, right?

I spent the next 6 weeks rewriting that story for him, adding more and more and more. It never was enough. (How could it be?) By the end of that summer writing program, I had a draft of the story that was twenty pages long, and felt like I was a horrible writer. Those twenty pages, that he said were in the right direction but still hadn’t gotten there, didn’t feel like my writing. In my own judgment (what I had left of it after trying to internalize his for weeks), I couldn’t see how they were better than my original draft. The additions felt like they’d ruined the story, over-explained everything to death.

I was lucky enough to have relationships with writers, and later that summer, gathered my courage to show both versions of this story to a brilliant short story writer who was a good friend of my mother’s. She saw what was going on, almost immediately. She helped me to see that there is a power in not explaining things. It does something important. It can be a hugely valuable component to your story.

She helped me to understand that my teacher had been wrong. There was nothing deeply wrong with my original story (though of course it could use a bit of polishing and tightening, as most do). In fact, she thought it was actually pretty damn good, and the spareness of it was one of the beautiful things about it. What had been wrong, this whole time, was that the story made him uncomfortable.

The problem he had with my story wasn’t about the need for more characterization, or for deepening the reader’s insight into the context of this moment of negotiation. The problem was with the content of the story. In the late 80s perhaps in particular, it was scary to contemplate a teenage girl writing stories about teenagers having purely sexual relationships and casual sex with strangers, where love wasn’t in the picture. The content of the story freaked him out. But when he offered editing feedback, it came in this seemingly reasonable request: to explain.

Recently, I’ve had a lot more editing feedback than usual, from a range of sources. I’ve taken a couple writing workshops this year, gotten beta reader feedback on a short story collection and a novel in progress, and gone through an editing process for a collection that came out this month. There have been a number of moments when I’ve recalled this early experience. Because to receive editing feedback is to consider: What do I take in? What do I use?

One of my red flags in editing feedback is a request for more information, for explanation. While that summer writing workshop was my first experience with this sort of feedback, it was not the last. And I’ve found that often that request says more about the reader and their discomfort with the text, than it does about the actual text in question.

Let me give you some context. My queer kink erotica and erotic romance stories often center trans and genderqueer characters. They often center trauma survivors claiming their desire. My work is deeply influenced by my long history as a fat activist and frequently centers fat characters. My more recent work has been focused on centering disabled and sick characters. Moreover, my work is written specifically for queer kinky readers who are trans, genderqueer, fat, disabled, sick, and/or survivors.

These are insider stories, focused on bringing folks that are often marginalized, to the center of the story, as character, as framework, and as intended audience. Insider stories don’t often explain themselves, not about the basic everyday parts of life. Because they are written for folks who know those sorts of things already.

Reading insider stories can be deeply uncomfortable, if you are not on the inside. You don’t understand some of what is going on. The language being used by both characters and author may be unfamiliar or seem to have meanings that you don’t know. Folks like you may be perceived or discussed in ways that feel judgmental or incorrect. It may be difficult to picture the people or what they are doing, to see the places in your mind, or hear the voices. You don’t understand why the characters are making the choices they are making, their choices or thoughts or feelings don’t seem to make sense.

All of this difficulty parsing the story may be really disconcerting, especially if you are used to reading stories that center folks like you. It’s hard work, to read the stories, and you might assume that reading fiction shouldn’t feel like work, so therefore the writer must be doing something wrong. Accepting that you (and your knowledge, cultural context and framework) are not at the intended center of a story can be a pretty intense experience, especially if it is unfamiliar. The discomfort that it brings can often lead to a deep desire for more information, more explanation, more language that explains this to you, and centers your reading experience so that you understand.

In short, sometimes when we read insider stories, we want to change them so that we are the intended audience, because it’s too uncomfortable not to be.

Nisi Shawl is well known for her brilliant work on writing the Other, writing about folks that are different from you or different from the dominant paradigm. (That’s how she defines the Other, in the book she co-wrote, Writing the Other.) When we read insider stories, and we are not on the inside, but are used to being on the inside, we are often reading the Other. In Shawl’s essay on reviewing the Other, she says: 
“Reading the Other is rewarding work. Yet it is work. A lack of engagement, a push into unknown territories that encounters no resistance, is most likely a clue not that something is missing, but that something is being missed.”  (emphasis added)

That’s why it’s important to consider what you are taking in, in terms of feedback like this. Because the feedback may be more a sign that a reader has missed something important in your work, than a sign that something is missing from your story.

When I receive feedback requesting more details, more explanation, these are some of the questions I consider:
  • Where is this request coming from? Is this person part of my intended audience?
  • Are the areas in which they are asking for more explanation or details ones where a character is different from them, or related to the character’s experiences of marginalization or oppression?
  • Do they seem to be asking me to explain everyday common experiences in great detail?
  • Does it seem like the feedback is trying to shift the audience of the story?
Let me give you a specific example. One of my stories has a group BDSM scene where a superfat femme trans guy bottom is tied to a sling that is rated for his size and a bunch of disabled fat tops of varying genders and sizes on mobility scooters are circling him, poking him with their canes. One of the pieces of editing feedback I received about the story was that a particular reader could not picture this moment in the scene, and wanted more description, more explanation. The reader wanted me to help them see the action more clearly, because they could not picture how the people would look as they were moving.

On its face, that feedback might be quite useful. The scene might not be drawn as clearly as it needed to be, the characters might not be described as clearly as they needed to be. Certainly group scenes are a challenge, and it’s completely possible that things get lost.

But. Here’s the thing. I have been part of queer fat activist community for over two decades. When you hang out with and date disabled fat folks, you often see mobility scooters, likely more than one in a group. Imagining how a group of fat folks move on scooters is not a challenge for me, because I’ve seen it, many times. This story is an insider story, for fat activist queers, particularly for disabled fat activist queers. It intentionally does not make a big deal about how people move on scooters, because it’s a regular part of life for the intended audience.

It makes sense that it might be hard to picture, if you didn’t have that experience. And this reader did not, wasn’t coming from an insider experience in their read of the story. I would think differently if they had been, because they would be part of the intended audience. Instead, after careful consideration, I concluded that this particular reader was treating these characters as Other, and likely attempting to re-center the audience of the story to folks like them.

One way to spot this is within the questions themselves. Outsider questions often hone in on aspects of difference and make them more Other, so that they require explanation. They sound like: 
  • “Can you explain what that looks like?” 
  • “I don’t get why anyone would do that. You need to show us why she made that choice, because it doesn’t make sense,” 
  • “How does x work exactly? The story doesn’t make it clear.” 

Or sometimes they will speak from an expert place about an experience that they don’t know personally, telling you how Other a detail of the story is, or how it is factually wrong, like 
  • “I mean, I’m familiar with x, but I don’t think your readers will be, so you might want to explain that a little more,” 
  • “I can’t imagine that x group would ever do y. My friends who belong to x group are always careful not to do that.”

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m saying that all feedback asking for more detail or for clarification should be dismissed. That kind of feedback can be incredibly useful. I just urge you to consider where the feedback is coming from, and not to automatically take it in. Especially when you are writing insider stories.

Insider requests for more details about that moment in my story could sound something like: 
  • “I tried to picture me and my friends circling him on our scooters, and I was confused as to why there wasn’t a logjam, or how they cleared enough space in the dungeon that folks didn’t cross their path. Could you maybe give that more context, or maybe add a fumbling moment to make it more realistic?” 
  • “I wanted to get more of a visual sense from the bottom’s perspective of what they looked like as they passed. I know there were a lot of them, and he was mesmerized by the sound of the scooters, but I imagine he might also be entranced by a look in someone’s eye, or the way someone’s hair moved. I think those moments of desire from the bottom are super important when you are writing disabled tops. Could you add a few more details like that?”

These questions are quite different, and very much worth considering. 


Part of the litmus test for including more details could be: What would those details add to the story, and for whom? What would leaving out those details add to the story, and for whom? And, then to follow up those answers by considering: What do I care about here? What is my project? Who am I writing this for?

7 comments:

  1. This is a really good post.

    It makes me think of the writings I've seen about privileged and how the privileged group is the default, and so often people in the privileged group have never been caused to try to look at the POV of the oppressed group(s), while people in the oppressed group have spent their lives being shown the privileged group's POV. And how, like in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's speech, this can cause them to default to that POV too, even as it's not theirs. And how we take for granted that people unfamiliar with privileged group things will have to do this kind of understanding-work, and don't even think about it, while as soon as its reversed people react.

    The best writing guide thing I have even had re criticism is that one type of criticism is 'I understand what you are doing/trying to do, and I think you could do it better than you are' and 'I think you should do a different thing that the one that you are doing/trying to do because I like that one better'. And the first is useful, but the second isn't.

    I'm going to show this to my insider-writing friends!

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    1. @lyricalagony

      Thanks for your comment. I was thinking of perhaps some of the same writings, as I wrote this. I esp. love I Didn't Dream of Dragons & reread it often. (http://deepad.dreamwidth.org/29371.html)

      I like the distinction you are drawing here between two different goals for criticism; it is a really useful one, I think!

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  2. Hello, Xan,

    Welcome to the ERWA blog! I must say you've started off with a bang!

    You're completely right about the need to look at readers'/critics' motivations when you get feedback on your writing. Like reviews, critiques often tell you a lot more about the critic than they do about the work being assessed.

    However--don't you think you are targeting an audience that's a bit narrow? I applaud your (successful) attempts to explore the erotic lives of fat transgender disabled queer people. Are those really the ONLY people for whom you're writing, though?

    I'm about halfway through your book at this point. I love the intensity you bring to your characters' encounters, and especially, the way that trust, emotion and imagination drive the pleasure (as opposed to things going in the opposite direction). But I'll admit to being intermittently mystified. Though I'm bisexual and kinky, I live a pretty straight life. Some of your references are obscure enough that I can't even look them up.

    If all your readers belong to your in-group, then I guess you don't have to explain. And yes, over-explanation can kill the immediacy and dissipate the heat. On the other hand, confusion also breaks the erotic spell. If you make readers work too hard to understand, you pull them out of the story.

    Just something to think about.

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    1. Thanks! I’m so excited to be blogging at ERWA, it’s an incredible honor.

      Thanks so much for your kind words about Show Yourself To Me, and for sharing a bit about your reading experience.

      You are spot on in your description of what it can be like to read an insider story from an outsider perspective. I’ve been there myself, felt the jolts and starts of it, the moments of holding the not-knowing. Especially with stories that center experiences that are often on the margins, where my experience is more likely to be at the center, like stories written for and about folks of color, as I’m white, and texts written by and for trans women, who are deeply marginalized and targeted in ways that I am not as a trans masculine genderqueer person. With those stories, one of the things I’ve treasured is those moments of recognizing that my perspective and understanding is not the framework of the story, that I will not know all of what goes on in the story. Two of the best books I’ve read recently were reading experiences like that, and I got so much out of those books, perhaps because I was reading through my discomfort and recognition that the story was not centering me as an audience, and I needed to stretch myself as a reader and still would miss some of what was going on. (The books I’m thinking of were The Summer We Got Free, by Mia McKenzie and Nevada, by Imogen Binnie, and they are amazing, books I have recommended over and over since I read them, though neither is erotica.)

      I’ve mostly had another kind of outsider reading experience. Most of the erotica and erotic romance out there does not center folks like me, or intend folks like me as the audience. Most of it centers folks that don’t experience the kind of marginalization and oppression that I do as a fat disabled trans genderqueer queer person. Most of the time, I’m attempting to engage erotically with texts where I need to rewrite so many aspects of them just to sort-of relate, and I still get jolted painfully and jarringly out of the story. I’ve written about those reading experiences as a fat reader (https://xanwest.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/fat-characters-in-romance-and-erotica/) and as a trans reader (https://xanwest.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/writing-erotica-for-trans-readers-part-1/), and those writings capture a small part of the experience. They hint at what it’s like to constantly read from the margins where I’m grasping for any way to partially connect because I’m mostly erased from the story altogether. And where I am often jarred out, not just by differing perspective or things I don’t understand, but by things in the story that insult me, hurt me, and generally make me feel terrible. It’s a very different kind of outsider reading experience, one of rarely finding a mirror in fiction that even comes close to not being terribly warped and not really close to me at all.

      That’s why I write insider stories, for people like me. Because we so rarely are ever represented, and when we are, it is often distorted, or simply not *for* us. Stories about folks like me, even ones written by folks like me, that are written for others don’t feed me in the same way. They mostly center on the insistence that *someone* might find folks like me desireable, and they are in many ways more depressing than trying to read myself into texts where I’m simply not there.

      My hope is that the stories in Show Yourself To Me feel like a mirror, for folks in my communities. The critical feedback I’m getting from my communities seems to indicate that they do, at least in some ways. That feels like important work, to me. Work that I hope to continue doing in my next book. I feel lucky to have found a press that wanted to publish this work, as it is on the margins in so many ways.

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  3. Excellent post! Giving and receiving feedback do not receive the attention and care that is needed for a truly useful exchange and your criteria for evaluation of critiques are spot on. I've also learned to "go with my gut" because useful feedback often resonates within me and I get what the critic is saying because it taps into my own doubts.

    I have no doubt your teenage writing teacher was uncomfortable. I faced the same as a teenage poet who wrote about sexuality.

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    1. Thanks so much. I agree, my gut is a great resource in this area, and often helps me parse feedback. Trusting my gut is incredibly important in this process.

      I am not at all surprised that you had a similar experience with a writing teacher. It's pretty amazing that we survived those experiences to write erotica. I'm glad that teacher didn't make it too hard for you to continue to write about sex; your work is beautiful, and your voice in erotica is important. The erotica community would have lost out.

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  4. Writing about a culture for people within that culture would seem different than writing for an audience of a different culture, Sometimes your objective is one, sometimes the other. I wish there were more good books explaining Muslim culture to Americans.

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