How To Write About Sex

(PHOTO: Alan King) Stonecoast faculty instructor Aaron Hamburger leads Tuesday’s discussion on writing about sex.

A roomful of writers laughed after Aaron Hamburger noted that nipples shouldn’t be compared to cherries, pencil erasers or Frankenstein’s neck bolts—at least not in literature. “Metaphors should be used to make things clear,” the Stonecoast faculty member said during his presentation. “But we’re all adults, here. I think we’re clear on what a penis and breasts look like.”

Hamburger’s presentation Let’s Talk About Sex: How To Use Eroticism Effectively in Writing was the Tuesday highlight.  I’m five days deep into a 10-day summer residency in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program.

The first half of the residency culminated today with a dinner for poetry faculty and students at a local pub. Earlier today, my group had our last poetry workshop with Tim Seibles. (Next week, I’ll be in a different workshop group led by Joy Harjo.) I’ve knocked out all my required evaluations for the Graduating Student Presentations. Aaron Hamburger’s was the last of my required Faculty Presentations.

Writers packed the Casco Room of the Stone  House Tuesday afternoon to examine the work of authors depicting eroticism in original ways. Among Hamburger’s examples of works that transcended simply reporting the mechanics of sex was the title novella of Philip Roth’s short story collection Goodbye, Columbus.

The title story, which looks at the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, is from the perspective of Rutgers University grad Neil Klugman. While working a low-paying gig at the Newark Public Library, Neil meets and falls for Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe College student whose wealthy family lives in the affluent Short Hills.

Hamburger’s example is what happened after Neil agreed to hold Brenda’s glasses while she goes swimming:

She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside me. “Thank you,” she said…She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where  it belonged. My blood jumped. That night, before dinner, I called her.

(Artwork: Chris Andruskiewicz)

Hamburger noted the tension in Neil’s anticipation. “You want to do a striptease, which is what she [Brenda] did,” he advised his audience.

Not every character should like sex the same way, Hamburger noted, then cited a tender moment between a nameless Hungarian writer and an aging actress in Peter Nadas’s novel A Book of Memories:

I edged closer to her, and rather than objecting to this she helped me by slipping her arm under my shoulder, gently hugging me to herself, and simply to return the gesture I let my hand slide up her thigh, my fingers slip under her panties. And we lay there like this. Her burning face on my shoulder. We seemed to be lolling in some spacious, soft and slippery wetness where one doesn’t know how time passes but it’s of no importance anyway. With my arms I was rocking her body as if wanting to rock both of us to sleep.

Hamburger pointed to a masochistic sexual relationship between two strangers, Beth and The Man, who go away for the weekend in the short story, “A Romantic Weekend,” from Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior:

She put her glass on the coffee table, crossed the floor and dropped to her knees between his legs. She threw her arms around his thighs. She nuzzled his groin with her nose. He tightened. She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.”…This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her. She made a surprised noise and her body stiffened. He bit her again, harder. She screamed. He wanted to draw blood. Her screams were short and stifled. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily. She put her hand on his tentatively. He realized what had been disturbing him about her.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Victor LaValle

No matter the characters’ sexual preferences, Hamburger advised the crowd not to forget to include foreplay in their stories. Don’t make the mistake, he said, of jumping right to penetration. The instructor cited a moment between Rob, a male prostitute, and his customer in the short story, “slave,” from Victor LaValle’s collection Slapboxing with Jesus:

Rob eats pussy like a champ. He’s on awful knees that should have been turned in months ago; they are now numb. He should be getting ready for school; tenth grade is usually the age of football teams and part-time work. She says, —Don’t stop, through those teeth so white Rob was sure they were caps…—Don’t you fucking stop. She has soft skin everywhere and does nothing he might call work. This woman doesn’t have rough fingers like secretaries who must type and dial phones all their lives or lawyers who look tired and must win every argument; not even models who are so pretty, or pretend to be, that they would never have to pay for an ugly little kid to eat their pussies. Her legs and thighs are draped over his shoulders, her ass somewhere in that space between him and the bed; he wants to tell her that his shoulders hurt, but will he? No.

Watching some folks in the audience cringe at the details, Hamburger offered some perspective. “I’ve met Victor LaValle. He’s a total gentleman,” he said. “He’s not the type of guy to say, ‘Rob eats pussy like a champ.’” But the author, he noted, realized that the language was appropriate for the story. What the author did underscored the instructor’s message. Speaking of LaValle, Hamburger said, “He does his characters justice.”

8 thoughts on “How To Write About Sex

    1. Hey Tara,

      It definitely is treating me well. I didn’t know about Gaitskill until today. Right now, I’m trying to get my hands on Scott Wolven’s novel Controlled Burn.

  1. Loving these articles, Alan! I really want to be at Stonecoast now. More than ever. The chance for growth and exploration in my writing in the program with such amazing faculty and students would be a dream come true!

  2. Thanks for the info. Been meaning to read this and figure out how to write about sex in the least common way. Maybe I’ll write more erotic poems and stories.

  3. Alan,

    If you want a companion book to Gaitskill’s “Bad Behavior”, check out Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son.” His characters and Gaitskill’s could walk in and out of each other’s stories.

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