Posts Tagged ‘integrity’


   

     Earlier today, I had an unusual and rather in-depth conversation with a good friend of mine about sex.  We talked about everything from the obvious basics to the more sophisticated habits, rituals and desires of our fellow men and women, musing over the roots of their various tastes and beliefs.  Many hours later, I again wound up engaged in yet another sex-based discussion with a different friend entirely.  This talk centered more around sexual orientation rather than the act itself, but still, today’s sexual theme was not lost on me, and it made me wonder at the sudden prominence of the subject of sex.  After all, despite what it may sound like right now, I don’t usually sit around and discuss the various forms of human intimacy with everyone I know.   I don’t even know what inspired the topic in either case, but it got me thinking of how dominant of a force sex really is in our lives, and how important it is in writing.

     For all the years I’ve been writing, sex has never been one of my subjects until recently (except a little erotic poetry, of course).  I wasn’t avoiding the topic really, it’s just that until I began the book I’m working on now, there was never a place for sex.  I’ve been pretty diligent about incorporating all the other factors that make characters feel more human, such as bathing, brushing their teeth, changing their clothes and getting an occassional night’s sleep, but it never occurred to me that perhaps fictional people like having sex, too.  Until now.

     In the book I’m currently working on, it’s as if all the sex-starved characters of fiction’s past are exacting their revenge on me.  In this story, I don’t think a chapter has gone by that someone wasn’t getting skins, knocking boots, doing the horizontal hokey pokey, or at least getting well felt up.  The particularly challenging thing is, in this book, no one is having conventional sex.  The main character is a perverse, sexually deviant murderer, so most of the time, the sex isn’t even consensual, making this especially foreign territory for me.  But I’m learning.

     One thing I’ve determined about fictional sex is that it follows the same basic rules of fictional anything.  In the world of fiction, everything seems to be slightly dramatized. When fictional characters are rich, for example, they are filthy rich.  If they’re depressed, then they’re really tormented… and if they have sex, they have a lot of sex, and if it’s good sex, then it’s got to be mind-bogglingly great sex.  The key, of course, is striking a balance that is believable but also engaging.  If you don’t amp up the intensity of the characters lives and emotions, then you’ve got a story as dull and lifeless as, well… real life, and why would anyone want to read a book about someone whose life is as drab as their own?  But, on the other hand, if you aggrandize your character’s experiences too much, it becomes melodramatic and ultimately alienates the reader.  Regarding sex, striking this balance is an especially challenging feat for me.

     There are other problems also.  I’m finding that writing about sex (especially sex of the deviant variety) is a multi-faceted and precarious thing in that, on one hand, there’s the fear of repulsing and offending your reader, and on the other hand, setting out to do just that. After all, don’t I kind of want to repulse and offend the reader?  And if so, to what degree? 

     Also, there is description.  Just how much detail do we need?  Do we need to know how bad Martha wants it (or in my case, doesn’t want it), and is it important to mention the exact bodily and psychological responses of each character in this situation? 

     Finally, there is word choice.  This one is especially tricky because there are times that the clinical terms for certain acts (or parts of the anatomy) just don’t properly illustrate the mood you’re trying to create.  Which brings us back to the first problem: am I offending the reader? 

     It’s a cyclical and potentially stressful dilemma, writing about sex.  And add to this your mother’s voice (real or imagined) – disapproving and stunned by your foulness – to the mix, and you’ve got a pretty toxic cocktail of troublesome puzzles to contend with.

     For me, the key to overcoming the stumbling block that is sex can be found in two words:  just write.  I can’t stop and think about what the agent, the mother, the sister, the priest, or the produce manager at Wal-Mart is going to think of my book.  If I do that, then I’ll be writing to please other people.  And if I do that… then I’ve lost all integrity and should look into getting a new, tamer passion than writing.  No matter what you do, some people will love you and some people will hate you.  The way I see it, I’d garner just as much criticism if I wrote stories about butterflies and dandelions… so I might as well write what feels true to me, because in the end, my own truth is all I have… and honoring that is the only way I know how to sleep with a clear (well… somewhat dirty) conscience.

   

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     It’s been over a week since I wrote anything in An Evil Heart, the collaborative novel I’ve been working on with my mentor, Kim.  At first, this just seemed like a little break and I thought nothing of it.  The last couple of days though, when I sit down to write, a strange thing happens: nothing.  It wasn’t until today that I realized why.

        Kim and I sat at the coffee shop, where we’ve been meeting on Saturday mornings, and began to discuss our progress.  I, of course, admitted to having made none.  When she asked me why not, I was a bit surprised to realize I hadn’t given any real thought as to what was hindering me.  I thought about it for a while and then stumbled on my answer.  “Because,” I told her, “I am starting to really like Sterling (the antagonist and my main character) and every time I try to write him, I find myself wanting very badly to redeem him, to make him a nice guy somehow… and I know I can’t do that.”  Kim agreed that no, I can not suddenly make Sterling into a good guy.  Doing so would only throw the story entirely off course, not to mention, be wholly unbelievable.  So I know that’s not an option, but my sudden change of heart is a perplexing shift that has thrust me, yet again, into foreign and bewildering new territory.  I suddenly feel kind of like I’m in the middle of the ocean without a life raft… a feeling that is becoming all too familiar in this whole writing thing.

     In the beginning, writing Sterling was fun.  He is all the terrible, nasty things I could never be.  I never admired him by no means, but it was a fresh, albeit horrific, new perspective that invigorated my sense of adventure and truly moved me outside of my own way of thinking.  It was fun and it worked because I hated this character.  Whenever I would think of him, I’d get little chills of distaste all over my body.  The things he did made me feel sick sometimes.  I despised him.  But now that we are more than half-finished with the novel, a baffling thing has transpired:  Sterling has grown on me.  I seriously like the guy… despite his wretchedness and hideous proclivities.  This should be a good thing, but in this case, I’m not sure it is.

     I’ve spent many hours this afternoon rethinking Sterling and re-planning my approach.  Here is what I’ve surmised:  I don’t have to like this character or dislike him.  I have to love this story though, and if I change this character, I have to change story, which A) in this case, isn’t entirely mine, and more importantly, B) would ultimately be a great disservice to the story’s integrity.  Simply put, you can not set out to write a reprehensible, psychopathic character and then develop of conscience mid-stream.  So… I will maintain Sterling, warts and all, and let him tell his story, terrible though it is.  In the end, I know I’ll be glad I did.

     That being said, some definite good has come from this.  I’ve learned that even I have a fundamental desire to find the good in things, even the most vile things.  I’ve learned that with the dark and destruction comes also the light and the creative.  Perhaps above all, I’ve learned that what’s most important to me after all is the integrity of a good story, and that raises my faith in my own ability to continue on this path.