In the first installment of her new column, Megan Pillow shows us how some of the best examples of contemporary writing craft can be found in writing about sex.
This is the first installment of Megan Pillow’s column FUCK ME UP: The Craft of Sex Writing in Critique and Practice, which explores the craft of sex writing through original creative nonfiction and analyses of sex writing by contemporary authors.
I consider these questions not peripheral to craft discussions but essential to them, especially in a country where a woman’s ability to fuck for pleasure without punishment is currently being outlawed. In this fragile, failing white republic, as we watch a misogynistic gaggle of religious zealots effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, it’s clearer than ever that the continued denigration of sex writing is just another tool for enforcing patriarchal control, a mechanism for ensuring that discussions of sex remain governed by purity discourse rather than an artistic one.
Sex writing, especially in 2021, is an act of revolt: It demonstrates what Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue in “Sex in Public” is a queer “counterpublic,” which they contend is part of the creation of a queer world. Berlant and Warner aren’t using queer here to simply mean homosexual. Instead, queer indicates practices that are subversive and defy traditional structures and expectations. Whether depicting queer relationships or heterosexual ones, sex writing can offer insight into something deeply personal, and often deeply uncomfortable, to make us feel both like we belong and like we are transformed, whether we want to be or not. As a result, the very best sex writing has always functioned simultaneously as erotic titillation, high art, and an essential interpretive lens for parsing interpersonal relationships, cultural phenomenon, and craft lessons.
In each installment of this column, I’ll take a look at a piece of sex writing by an established minoritarian writer that constructs a representation of Berland and Warner’s queer counterpublic and melds titillation, high art, and a craft lesson. I’ll frame each critical analysis with some of my own sex writing, wherein I’ll experiment with some of the same craft elements being utilized in the work I’m analyzing, and discuss my process so readers can see an example of how we implement some of these techniques in practice. And when I talk about “craft,” I’ll be doing so through Matthew Salesses’s lens in Craft in the Real World, which presents craft as a series of expectations that can be accessible and inclusive rather than those that enshrine a kind of creative writing mysticism and myth that shuts out too many writers—especially emerging writers and writers outside of the academy.
In other words, I’m going to show you how some of the best examples of contemporary writing craft can be found in writing about sex. Just like the apps, this column is something of a chemistry experiment: How do we make sense of this marriage between erotica, high art, and creative writing pedagogy? Where do we see it demonstrated, and what does it mean? When does it boil? Blow up? Burn to the ground?
I’m going to show you how some of the best examples of contemporary writing craft can be found in writing about sex.
In her essay “Mind Fuck: Writing Better Sex,” Melissa Febos establishes some of the groundwork for this argument in the way she identifies the roots of these volatile relationships. She writes extensively about how writing is a performance and how so much of what we operate under is instinct, but how sex writing bears an even a greater burden: “So much of writing that describes [sex] is still performing unconsciously, still comprised of a series of decisions that were not so much made by the writer but by the matrix of inherited values that inform the reader’s own beliefs around the acts,” she says. Febos also talks about how we can move past that unconscious performance and that instinct by writing about these experiences again and again until we rid ourselves of the assumptions. We have to punch through what she calls the “false bottom” of the narrative to find the truth.
The first blow to the false bottom of the old narrative about sex writing? An excerpt from Raven Leilani’s Luster.
Leilani’s novel, published in 2020, tells the story of twenty-three-year-old Edie, who, at a point of existential angst and aimlessness, meets Eric, an older man in an open marriage. She becomes involved with him in ways that increasingly complicate an already-complicated marriage and force Edie to reconsider her own identity.
Leilani is a master of both rhetorical power and concision; one of the things that makes this novel remarkable is the way that Leilani makes sex the centerpiece of particularly pivotal and revelatory scenes. One place where she demonstrates this facility best is early in the novel, when Edie and Eric meet up at a club and then go back to Eric’s house to have sex for the first time. Leilani writes this scene as a run-on sentence, which generates significant narrative momentum but makes revealing nuanced character insights and narrative detail challenging. To help the reader navigate this challenge, Leilani creates two craft expectations (or craft tools)—conjunctions and descriptions that echo throughout the scene—to establish rhythm without interrupting narrative momentum and to simultaneously construct and destroy the protagonist’s sexual privacy for the benefit of the reader.
Leilani’s use of conjunctions in this scene is particularly interesting:
Leilani repeatedly uses the coordinating conjunction and to loosely link scene descriptions here, which mimics the chaotic club atmosphere that Edie is in, and then she introduces her first subordinating conjunction, which, to give us a moment of pause and insight into Edie’s mindset. This is a pattern that Leilani employs throughout the scene: She uses and two to three times in a row to mimic first the chaos of clubbing and then the heightened desire of a first sexual experience. She then integrates a subordinating conjunction to signal a moment of interiority, a window into the protagonist’s thoughts about the scene. The effect for the reader is movement and pause, movement and pause, which establishes a reading rhythm for the scene that’s similar to dancing in a club and, later, the rhythm of sexual contact.
Now, let’s look briefly at how Leilani uses what I call descriptive “echoes” later in the same scene, to maintain that rhythm and to both construct and destroy sexual privacy:
Leilani uses three descriptive “echoes”—corporeal control, religious fervor, and the specter of danger—consistently throughout this scene to help teach readers how to understand this sexual encounter. She begins with suggestions of bodily control—phrases such as “so I try to help him out of his pants,” “slowly, he eases me down,” “so I cover his mouth and say shut up, shut the fuck up,” and “make a white man your bitch”—to communicate the atmosphere of dominance, power, and restraint infusing this sexual encounter. She then imbues the sexual encounter with suggestions of religious fervor with phrasing like Eric’s “grand, slightly left-leaning cock” that makes Edie “rethink [her] atheism” and “consider the possibility of God,” the couple’s “miraculous genitals,” fucking with the “force of this epiphany,” and finally a rumination on death. Next, she weaves into the scene descriptive moments suggesting threat or danger: Eric is “talkative and filthy,” his face is deranged, and he shows the whites of his eyes, and she references Eric’s “violent sexual mania” and how the couple both experience orgasm as a moment of “satiation and horror.”
By the time Leilani equates climax with an “arduous exorcism” at the end of the scene, we aren’t surprised by the comparison. The suggestion of sex as a form of exorcism, with all of its complicated connotations surrounding consent, religion, and danger, has been threaded through the scene from the beginning. What this scene also does is create a dual and contradictory construction of sexual privacy: Because of Leilani’s descriptive thoroughness, the sexual boundaries of a deeply private moment are created in ways that are often only known by the two people engaged in the act, but they are simultaneously laid bare for the reader. In this scene, Leilani writes her readers into the roles of both participant in an explicit sex act and its voyeur.
There’s a lot to unpack in a scene that uses the rhythms of sex to suggest that sex is an exorcism, and Leilani explores the implications of this extensively in the rest of the novel. What’s crucial here, however, is that this scene is key to understanding why Edie and Eric are who they are and why they continue to gravitate toward one another. The point in this scene in Leilani’s novel is not to turn the lens outward and use sex to force commentary on a religious practice, but to set a different expectation: to encourage us as readers to use the conceptual elements of a religious practice to examine the nature of the relationship between two characters.
What this scene also does is create a dual and contradictory construction of sexual privacy.
I spent a lot of time examining my sexual experience with Jaye after reading this scene in Leilani’s book. Inspired by Febos, I’ve written the story about my night with him five times now. The first few times, I was focused so intently on the titillation that I forgot about the rest: the situational absurdity, my selfish focus on my own pleasure, and, later, my embarrassment and shame. Now I think I’ve gotten it close to right. Like Febos, I think I’ve finally punched through the false bottom; like Leilani, I think I’ve discovered its rhythm and figured out how to engage my readers’ voyeuristic tendencies to both enhance and destroy my own sense of privacy.
But only because I’ve finally written this ending:
This is the way it went: Jaye made me cum well before the air mattress deflated. Afterward, we patched it with duct tape and we spent six more hours there. We watched horror movies and music videos, and when we felt like fucking, we pumped the air mattress up again. I kept one heel on the duct tape while we fucked to hold it in place. I remember the way my calf cramped while I held it there, the way my orgasm hit me like a thunderclap and the endorphins relaxed the muscle and made the pain fizzle down to nothing, the way my muscle throbbed like a sore tooth and the air mattress hissed like a steaming kettle, the way we were finally lulled to sleep by the sound of it. When we woke up, the air was humid and gray and the air mattress had almost collapsed. I could feel the floor underneath my elbows. Jaye pumped it up one last time, and then he put his face between my legs and made me cum with his tongue, and I made him cum with my mouth and a finger in his ass.
Afterward, I rested my head on his leg as his breathing slowed.
“I’m not an engineer,” he said. “I work on the assembly line.”
I shrugged to say it doesn’t matter.
“I don’t have any more furniture coming,” he said. “My daughter’s back in Detroit. I send most of my money there.”
I nodded to say it’s okay, I understand.
“You wanna do this again sometime?” he said, and he smiled at me, a candle in the gray light.
“Sure,” I said. And then I reached up and put a palm to his cheek. He pulled away like I’d slapped him.
It was instinct, a brief bit of affection from someone who loves all kinds of touch. I didn’t mean anything by it. He brushed it off and smiled at me, but I could see in his smile that I’d fucked up. I’d broken a cardinal hookup rule: You can fuck somebody for hours, you can put your tongue and fingers in all their holes and still keep things casual, but if you touch a no-strings-attached sexual partner with anything that resembles tenderness instead of lust, sometimes it’s like touching a wild animal. The intimacy can scare the shit out of them. It’s too much a mimicry of love, even when love has nothing to do with it.
Jaye walked me into the gray, damp outside. I got in my car and drove away.
On Your Own:
Follow Melissa Febos’s recommendation from “Mind Fuck”: Write your sexual life story in five sentences. Then start over again and write it five more times. Each time, look for ways for the story to become truer, more visceral, and less inhibited by instinct and expectation, until you’re satisfied you’re telling it as accurately as possible.
Brainstorm about your very first sexual experience with a partner. Consider how you felt about it. Was it mostly a positive experience, or a negative one? What do you remember about the foreplay? Your orgasm (or lack thereof)? What did or didn’t that partner understand about your body? Write down as many sensory details as you can remember. Now, look to see if you can find patterns in those descriptors, similar to how Leilani does in the sex scene between Edie and Eric. Are there categories you can divide those descriptions into? Is there a theme that you can build your sexual experience around, similar to the way that Leilani builds Edie’s first experience with Eric around the theme of exorcism? Once you’ve either found or established a pattern, try to draft a piece in whatever genre you prefer about that experience. It should include the descriptions from your brainstorming that will reinforce that pattern (this can easily be adapted for a fictional character).
Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is co-editor of The Audacity, a new newsletter by Roxane Gay, and founder of Submerged: An Archive of Caregivers Underwater. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, in Electric Literature, The Believer, TriQuarterly, Guernica, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children."