The Best Valentine's Gift Money Can Buy
I spent over 20 years helping people buy Valentine's gifts that would get them laid. The angry capitalist machine turns sweet and erotic one day a year, conveying us with deceptive tenderness into bed and telling us to get down to business.
I'm not immune, of course, and for both personal and professional reasons I'm always on the lookout for a great Valentine's Day gift. This year I found something kind of perfect. It's something that will turn you on, make you think, provoke conversation, and instead of your money going to blood flowers and chocolate or overpriced lingerie, it goes directly to an author who cares enough to write honestly about sex and present his work hand-wrapped in a tinsel heart (I mean this literally, scroll down to check it out).
What I found, thanks to The Rumpus, is a limited edition of six tiny sex books, self-published and lovingly produced by author Steve Almond. The series is called Writs of Passion (buy via PayPal, $25).
If you haven't read any of Almond's sex writing you should. I can't think of anyone who writes about mostly heterosexual people having sex better than he does. It's funny, weird, unexpected, with just enough four letter words ending in hard consonants to create tingly feelings from the inside out. It is hard to write good sex, and it may be equally hard to describe what's good about great sex writing, but what I can say about Almond's work is that in his hands, sex is smart and smutty. His characters may be stupid for sex, but stupidity exists here only in the service of a good lay. Almond's work is mercifully absent of the cringeworthiness and condescension that afflicts so much well intended sex writing.
Writs of Passion collects ten of Almonds previously published works. The cover of each of the six volumes is one part of a single gorgeous illustration by Brian Stauffer. Arrange each book just so and you get the full image.
I've been a fan of Almond's writing for a long time, so I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about the series and writing about sex.
One of the pieces in the Writs of Passion is a fifteen point manifesto you first published in The Normal School. Can I take this to mean you prefer the word smut over erotica or pornography?
SA: I try not to get caught up in the nomenclature. I'm happy if my stories are a turn-on, especially a story like "Sauce" -- which is mostly just one women telling her friend about her first orgasm. But my essential goal is always to write about people in emotionally dangerous situations. And sex, if you're doing it right (and heck, even if you're doing it wrong) is emotionally dangerous. Pornography is mostly about sex as a male power fantasy. My own experience, I'm sorry to say, is that sex does more to reveal weakness and shame than power. It's a struggle for many folks even to allow themselves sexual pleasure. And even if we do enjoy sex, we find all kinds of ways to punish ourselves for that pleasure. I wish it wasn't so complicated (believe me -- I wish!). But it is. I'm trying to capture that.
With Valentine's Day coming up, can you offer some advice to an aspiring writer of sex, whether it's for a private or public audience?
SA: The main thing is to pay attention. Attention is the first and final act of love. It's what people want deep down. So rather than relying on these mass-produced Hallmark sentiments, I'd write a note, or even a poem, that talks about why the person in question is so awesome. And goes into precise details. Not just that someone is "pretty" or "smart." Those are abstractions. I mean the little things you notice about them. For my wife, it would be how she soothes our kids. And the way her hair curls over her shoulders. And the smell of the skin at the small of her back. (I could go on....) The poetry is always in the precision. People want to be perceived, known. Funny is also good, but get there by way of the truth. Don't be afraid to take a risk. The Writs has a whole piece called "How to Write Sex Scenes: The 12 Step Program" which offers much more explicit advice.
The sex in your stories is often unexpected, which is part of what makes it feel real. Best laid plans are fine and good, but it's when you lose a little control (of the narrative, of your body, of your mind) that things get deep and weird and hot. Is this reflected in your writing process? Do you know where you're heading and who is going to get off with who, and how?
SA: I'm always happiest as a reader when I arrive at the intersection of astonishment and inevitability. That feeling of: "No way!" and "Of course!" at the same time. But I do have a road map -- who I'm writing about. The two young guys in "See You Down There," for instance, are all about racking up conquests. But they're secretly in love with each other. And so, when they finally get into that hot threesome, there has to be that shocking moment when they run up hard against the truth of themselves (even if they don't act on their impulses.) It's that old Aristotelian idea that "character is fate." In The Writs, this maxim just takes place with everybody naked and aroused.
Is there a word that is just inherently non-sexual? Something that you'd never include in a sex scene?
SA: "Penis" and "vagina" are both pretty awful. They make me think of health class. Or venereal disease. "Discharge" is also ghastly. There are very few human contexts in which "discharge" is a happy word to be hearing. But here's the thing about the effective sex writing: the language (not the acts themselves) have to be able to surprise us. If a woman is having sex with her husband of 20 years, out of a sense of duty, and he's a military veteran, and she can't get the word "discharge" out of her head -- that's the most important detail in the whole story. It says everything about what she's feeling in that moment. Or maybe it's a soldier who's just been "discharged" from the army after a harrowing tour and he's thrilled to be alive and he and his girlfriend are having sex for the first time and realizing they're going to be together for the rest of their lives, they've found love, they want to make a baby, they're ecstatic, and both of them start screaming "Discharge! Discharge!" at the moment they climax together. That could happen, too. Maybe it even has. Honestly: there's nothing that's off limits, as long as it's written on behalf of the truth.
Buy the Books: Writs of Passion
Image of Illustrations used with permission, copyright Brian Stauffer
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