Recent Work By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Digital native is a term coined by writer Marc Prensky, one I discovered, along with its counterpart, digital immigrant, in New York Times tech reporter Nick Bilton’s excellent book about media and technology, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. According to Wikipedia, “A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts,” while “A digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life.” According to my understanding, a digital native is someone for whom the use of digital technology is innate and natural, who never had a moment when they learned, say, what the internet was. Not so for me; I’m pure digital immigrant.

A long time ago, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Bitch—yes, the book she admitted to writing on coke—a and one part has stayed with me, which is her assertion that maybe female victims of domestic violence, rather than avoiding the beat-your-wife types if they came with dots on their foreheads, would head straight toward them. I haven’t kept this in mind because I think it’s some fantastic insight into domestic abuse, but because the idea that we, as humans, will always avoid difficult situations rather than seek them out has proven, at least in my case, false. I often go directly toward the choices that are most catastrophic for me.

This week, I participated in a reading in New York City’s West Village. All I knew when I entered was that I was going to a new “science fiction” bookstore. That turned out only to be partially true. Ed’s Martian Book is indeed new, but what it stocks is nonfiction, namely author Andrew Kessler’s debut book, Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission (Pegasus). There’s something extremely surreal about being in a store where shelf after shelf, case after case, table after table only have one title. Perhaps that is science fiction-like. It’s mesmerizing, and I kept being tempted to open the books to make sure they weren’t blank inside (I gave in to temptation and, in fact, they were not blank inside). I emailed Kessler to find out more about his mission to Mars and his “crazy” bookstore brainstorm.

Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in authors asking for a critique of the stories I’ve rejected from my anthologies. Most of them ask politely, and I send back the shortest reply I can explaining that I have a rule against giving any sort of critique. This latest round of requests made me wonder if perhaps I was being too harsh, but then I realized that there are very good reasons for me to refuse. Here are the top three:

Last year, I got an email from Erica Jong. Yes, that Erica Jong, noted author of the classic novel Fear of Flying. She was inviting me to submit an essay to an anthology she was editing about sex. “I am asking for your contribution, of course, because I so admire your writing.” My immediate thought was, “I’ve made it,” because this anthology was also going to house the writings of some very prominent female writers. It felt like the last ten years of sex writing, which I stumbled into while in law school with very little thought about its consequences, had culminated in this opportunity. The book was being published by a major publisher, and would pay $1,000.

For some of you that may be small potatoes, but in my world, that’s major money, both in terms of my usual rates, and in terms of what it could pay for: two-thirds of my monthly rent, almost seven therapy sessions, a few trips and hotel stays. I was so excited that I forgot about the hard part: the actual work.

I agonized over my essay. Well, before I agonized, I blabbed. I’ve since come to the conclusion that talking about my writing while it’s in progress, before there’s a contract for it. is the kiss of death. But at the time I was so honored I thought it would be a good idea to tell my boyfriend. I hadn’t quite thought through the process, though, of assuring him that no, I wasn’t writing about him…for an anthology centered around “the best sex I ever had.”

I was honestly stumped at first. What was the best sex I’d ever had? How could I rate that? Is there such an objective way to measure it? I had been chosen, presumably, for my years of writing a sex column for The Village Voice, for my ability to write about my personal life with no qualms about what others might think. Yet the more I tried to focus, the more elusive the topic seemed to be. It seemed audacious to suggest that some of the kinky sex I was having with my boyfriend might be the best; I know I’d scoff at someone who made it sound like her life was so glamorous and perfect.

Finally, I settled on a particular one-night stand that, as I titled my essay, “saved my life.” It was an over-the-top claim, and I flip-flopped while trying to describe—and disguise—my subject, changing his profession and appearance, while still maintaining heart of the story. Jong mailed me back extensive revisions, and while I stood outside the Au Bon Pain on Broad Street during a lunch break, took the time to go over those revisions by phone.

I should have been extremely honored that such a literary luminary wasn’t dismissing my words out of hand, but trying to teach me how to share something personal and powerful, something that would resonate with readers and reveal something I’d never revealed before. Instead, as I so often do, especially when any amount of money more than a pittance is offered to me, I got in my own way. I procrastinated. I thought about retackling my essay, and I wrote it on my to-do list for months. I woke up each morning determined that today would be the day…or tomorrow. Or the next day. Or, in reality, never, because I never did tackle the revision. Maybe I was so afraid that I would try again, and be rejected, that instead I rejected myself. Maybe I convinced myself that nothing I could possibly write would be worthwhile. I know that not trying will be something I regret for the rest of my life.

The bottom line is, when the book now titled, according to Amazon, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, comes out in June, my words won’t be in it. This, much more than the missed financial opportunity, serves as a daily reminder of my lack of follow-through, my lack of belief in myself. In the meantime, I’ve since submitted dozens of short stories, ones that usually pay around $50 each. I value writing erotica, and editing it, but I’m extremely ashamed that, through no one’s fault but my own, my words will not be nestled alongside those of Susie Bright, Fay Weldon, Gail Collins, Honor Moore and others.

This is not the first time I’ve flaked on an anthology assignment. There are several, but the ones I think about when I see them on my bookshelves are the ones where I let my fear get in the way. I assumed that, seen alongside real music writers in a book of musical rivalries, my idea to explore the rivalry between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in the 1980’s would be seen as puny. My Bush twins erotica story for a collection on sex and politics? I let it wither after a few paragraphs on my computer screen out of what I told myself was some fear of White House reprisal.

While I did struggle with the topic, as the best editors do, Jong gave me guidance, told me how I could fix my meandering words into a proper story, one with not just a beginning, middle and end, but a point, a statement, a unique opinion. Instead of grappling with the red marks on those pages, I did the worst thing I could possibly do: I ignored them. I reverted to my childish habit, one that has lingered into adulthood, of abandoning any task that didn’t come easily to me (chess, law school, etc.).

I fear that perhaps my mother’s disapproval of almost everything I write, her belief that sex is a solely private topic, has somehow affected me, even though I clearly have staked my career on the idea that sex is both public and private, and fully worthy of discussion and exploration, in conversation and on the page. Jong gave a talk on a cruise my mother was on, and she related this dismissively; “I didn’t go to that.” I don’t think it’s just my poor relationship with my mother, though, because I write about sex all the time, revealing details and nuances about my erotic behavior. Yet when the stakes are high, I flee.

It hit me last night that perhaps the reason I couldn’t bring myself to face the topic head-on wasn’t just that I didn’t think I had anything original to say, but in that all too classic female way, I didn’t want to hurt anyone by what I might write. If I were to call X, even anonymously, the person who I’d had the “best,” most transformative sex with, would that put all my other lovers to shame?

Even now, I can’t simply produce off the top of my head a single night of passion or a person who seems entitled to wear this crown. But that is not an excuse, because the job of the writer is not to simply allow their mind’s first (or second or third) thought on a topic to prevail. My job, as I perceive it, is to push past those often incorrect first instincts and delve deeper, look farther, unearth things about myself I might not have realized. Maybe instead of a single “best,” I could’ve found patterns or connections, could’ve crafted not just a point A leading to point B lightbulb of an a-ha, but something thoughtful, something that took more than a few hours to produce. In hindsight (ha ha), I’m sure I could have pushed myself intellectually in a way that, whether the final product was published or not, I could have been proud of. Instead, I succumbed to my biggest fears, my inner bully who tells me more often than I’d like what a loser I am. I know that plenty of other people, maybe all of us, have at least a whisper of that voice in their heads, but the successful people, the ones I look up to, are the ones who’ve found ways of vanquishing that voice, at least for as long as they need to in order to create their art.

I write this not to beat a dead horse, because, believe me, I’ve thought about this many, many a time, wondered why I, who often struggle to pay my rent and other expenses, would so easily let go of a lucrative, exciting chance to truly be seen, in a book about sex that even those who probably would never touch—or hear about—the average sex book just may pick up when they see it front and center in their local bookstore or read about it in major newspapers.

I don’t have a precise answer as to why I’m my own worst writing enemy. I share this story for the same reason I write most of what I do: because I want to release some of the haunting thoughts that circle in my head around this topic of self-sabotage, because while I wouldn’t wish that same shame onto anyone else, I think it’s likely other writers have gotten in their own way too. Because I want to apologize to myself and forgive myself and move on. Because I want a public reminder that the next time I say yes to a writing project, no matter how big or small (and I fervently hope there’ll be another big one someday), I want to see it through.

I’ve been reading journalist Courtney E. Martin’s new book looking for inspiration in the lives of others. In it, she profiles eight activists who have forged new paths toward creating a world they’d like to see, and haven’t let their doubts stop them. Often, I hold onto a book’s title in my head even more than I do the words inside, and repeat it like a silent mantra. Sometimes, when I’m sick of my worst habits, it’s Dylan Landis’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Now, Martin’s title one of those phrases, so simple yet so often easy to ignore, that in three words sums up the advice I wish I could give myself, after taking over a thousand to to explain my failure: Do It Anyway. Next time I hope I will.

“Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.”

I read this line in Sara Marcus’s excellent feminist music and culture history Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, and it stopped me in my tracks. She was quoting from Riot Grrrl, the zine, in its second issue, which was in itself quoting from the zine Bikini Kill, written by that band’s ringleader, Kathleen Hanna. This was one of several commands to the new girl order to reclaim traditionally feminine traits. Instead of seeing these traits as weak or problematic, my take is that Hanna was urging women to embrace our entire selves, vulnerability and all. (Other commands included “Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships” and “Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival.”)

It would also make a good command for a writer, to be as vulnerable, open, honest and raw as one can. There are times when doing so feels not only like the easiest thing imaginable, but the only thing I can do, the only way to somehow control or explain or even acknowledge my thoughts and emotions, extreme and otherwise. Writing often feels a lot less vulnerable than speaking to people, because there are things you can do from the safety of not only your computer screen, but the safety of language, contorted, controlled, contrived exactly to your specifications. If only our emotions could be so easily mastered.

So I think writers can make good use out of Hanna’s phrase. Yet as a command for life, it’s more challenging, because by its nature, being vulnerable makes you possible prey for those who would indeed see that as a weakness and seek to exploit it, consciously or not.

I looked up the word because I thought it meant something akin to easily embarrassed, but no, it actually does mean, by definition, a form of weakness. According to Merriam-Webster, the first two definitions for “vulnerable” are “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” and “open to attack or damage.”

I find it fascinating that a movement built on the idea of revolution would embrace those qualities, and at first was startled at the connection. My immediate image of “riot grrrl” is the opposite of vulnerable; it’s fierce, in-your-face, proud, rocking out, empowered. Marcus’s book draw the connection, though, by exploring not just the music (including bands like Heavens to Betsy, which did betray vulnerability in their lyrics), but the zine culture riot grrrl spawned, and in those writings, we can see vulnerability unleashed, and also see that it’s not the opposite of empowerment; the two can coexist. We can also acknowledge that even a performer who seems to embody all those non-vulnerable qualities I cited above may very well be quaking on the inside, and the daring it takes to get up on a stage, or put your byline to your words, is still an extremely bold act, whether you swagger or cower your way through it.

On a deeper level, I think recognizing and embracing our vulnerability is being truthful about who we are. It means we might not always know why writing is our first defense and our first offense, we only know that it’s our only option. It feels like our life will stop unless we write this one thing down; not literally, perhaps, but in all the ways that matter. It means, maybe, sometimes writing something and only wondering later whether it should have seen the light of day. It means being okay with the fact that sometimes we have no barriers, no shields to protect our hearts, our egos, and that being “strong” can look like its exact opposite. At 34, I’ve never developed the thicker skin I probably should have tried to grow. Maybe I’m not built that way, or maybe there’s a part of me that needs to be a little undercooked, soft, easily pierced.

In fiction, my most personal and vulnerable pieces have been written in the second person. That distance was something I needed to truly go there, especially when it comes to what I can only describe as breakup erotica. For examples, see “The End” in Best American Erotica 2006 and my recent “Espionage” in Best Women’s Erotica 2011, both fictional stories, the former pretty much true, the latter heavily borrowed from real life. The latter starts:

You tuck your new pink and black coat, the one purchased earlier in the day just for this special evening, around your body, pull it tight like it’s cold out, except you’re indoors and the fire is roaring. You are cold, but it’s the kind of cold that can’t be heated by rubbing two sticks together or turning up the thermostat, the kind of cold that can only be vanquished once your heart catches up. Your heart is cautiously icy, watching and waiting; it isn’t safe to let it melt just yet.

It’s a story that, frankly, makes me cry when I reread it, but I’m still glad I wrote it, glad I took a situation where I felt nothing but vulnerable and could step back and assess it with a smidgen of distance, turning it into something outside of myself, where it wasn’t about me, but this character, this narrator–“You.”

I’m often so wary of being vulnerable, of being any emotion that’s too soft or scary. But I think we all have our moments when something shatters the calm we want to project onto the world, when things seem on the brink of collapse, whether because they truly are, or our minds distort our inner worlds to appear so.

This topic reminds me of Brin Friesen’s post here, “The Facebook Aquarium,” asking whether The Nervous Breakdown and its commenting community are “too nice.” I don’t know if that is a qualification I or anyone else can make, but with the internet deluged by often hateful, stupid or hateful and stupid comments, I don’t think we should discount kindness. Not to the extent that we tiptoe around each other’s emotions, but instead recognizing that any writing, or art, takes guts to share with the world, or a slice of it.

While I do believe the personal is political, unlike Hanna in the context above, I don’t think striving for vulnerability is so much a political act, as a holistic one. It’s something we can embrace and acknowledge without succumbing to it, or playing the victim. I’ve been mulling over this, my first posting here, for several weeks, and have talked myself out of it more times than I can count. Perfectionism and vulnerability go hand in hand, and the former often keeps me from exposing the latter.

Ironically, perhaps, about a month ago, I got a tattoo on my back that says “open” as a way to remind myself to be, well, open, emotionally, to not shy away from either my own fear of rejection or from experiencing new challenges, personal and professional. But old habits die hard. Embracing and consciously engaging in radical vulnerability, which is what I sense Hanna was aiming for, is not easy. I don’t think we can be that vulnerable all the time and still protect ourselves the way we need to to survive, but never being vulnerable means missing out on not just taking our writing to the next level, but our lives. I want to strive to keep peeling back the shell I often hide under, whether via simply not trying, or masking it with something more “fun,” like humor. For me, writing speaks to me loudest, as author or reader, when it goes somewhere that makes me squirm, that makes me think, “How could he or she expose so much?” I’m up for the challenge, though I’m not putting a quota on myself for X days per week of wringing myself dry on the page. How often I “possibly can” remains to be seen, but in this case, I believe the process of trying counts as much as the outcome.