December 28, 2010
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.