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.

 

My friend Ruthie knows about shoes.

I have really wide feet. I yearn for a pair of indisputably genuine high heels to wear out to dinner looking all lady-like. I don’t even hope to find any that fit comfortably. I don’t expect to walk in them much. If I walk slowly, I can get a good block or two looking like I walk on heels all the time. It’s a lot like acting.

Ruthie is visiting us and she finds a store right here in Miami!  Ruthie has super powers. She is a gourmet chef and makes beautiful jewelry. Her quilts have won awards. Give Ruthie a problem and she goes at it like a pit bull until she figures it out. By rights, Ruthie should be an intimidating person, but she’s just the opposite. Everybody loves Ruthie.

This store Ruthie finds has weird shoe sizes but only, say, one or two in any given size. Clearance from somewhere where there is a larger concentration of women with big feet. I’d say the Amazon, because of the myths, but I’ve been there and all the Amazonian women in real life have tiny little feet, and they don’t even wear shoes, most of the time. Waste of perfectly good shoe feet, in my opinion. Personally, I am all aflutter because I find a pair of polka-dot three-inch heels that pretty much almost fit me!


So, I go to check out and the guy sees my last name. He asks me if I’d ever been to Zion National Park. I say that I haven’t. Naturally, Ruthie has been there, though, that’s how things are with Ruthie. She’d been all over the world with her husband, Simeon, before it even occurred to me that stepping out of Brooklyn was an option. So, anyway, the shoe store guy runs to the other side of the counter and gets his laptop. Lickety-split, we’re looking at beautiful pictures of the park.

He draws out a diagram of the park on a piece of paper. He shows us where he was standing when he proposed to his wife. Ruthie helps him draw the diagram to make it more accurate. The name of the promontory is “Angel’s Landing.” It is the highest point in the park, from which there is the most expansive, gorgeous view. To get to the actual arduous climb up to it, you have to brave a long narrow land bridge with sheer drops on either side that look like forever to me. This is not somewhere that I would ever have a need to go.

He shows us the view from the very spot where this tender moment took place. It was a stunning place, a breathtaking view.

“That is just the loveliest story,” I croon.

“Yeah, I know,” he says, “I planned it forever so that we would always remember the moment I proposed. I got down on my knee and held out this little blue box with the ring in it and asked her to be my wife with all nature’s beauty displayed before her.”

“What a wonderful, romantic person you are!” I say.

“But you know what happened next?” he asks me.

“She threw her arms around you and cried and said yes, she would marry you,” I respond confidently.

“Nope. She opened the box and took out the ring. Then she took a diamond tester out of her backpack and tested it,” he says.

“She had a diamond tester?

On the top of the mountain?

In her backpack?” I ask.

“Yup. She must’ve been carrying that thing around with her everywhere,” he says.

“Kinda puts a crimp in the ‘romantic’ part, doesn’t it?” I say.

“Should’ve known right then that it wouldn’t always be smooth sailing,” he says.

“Huh,” I say.

“Thanks for the shoes,” I say.

…being an account of the author and wife’s pursuit of a child, subjoined with discourses on teaching, pornography, and “irritable reaching after fact & reason.”


Each month for the better part of 2006, I go into the fertility clinic’s collection room to donate sperm. And each week, I read the sign on the door states that the room is available on a “first come, first serve” basis. I find this hilarious and share with the nurses in the specimen room. The nurses do not laugh.

They take their sperm collection very seriously at Albany fertility clinics.

As I enter the room, a computer desk sits with a laminated sign taped against the monitor. Something about closing whichever porn site you are on whenever you’re finished. A 12-inch TV with collection of outdated VHS porno tapes sits in a stack. It reminds me of my college living room.

I tell Dr. Ramullah that whoever coordinates the pornography purchases in the collection room needs to change their subscriptions.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“You’ve got a subscription to a suite of fetish sites, like Spank That Black Ass, We Like ’Em Hairy, and Girl-Peeing.net,” I say. My wife looks on, her cheeks reddening slightly. She’s less offended than she usually is when I openly talk about my preferences in pornography. “You really should just subscribe to your standard PornStarNetwork.com or Vivid.com. I doubt your clientele wants to view clips from EroticPunishment.com while they donate sperm.”

“That’s very helpful,” Dr. Ramullah says. He seems earnest when he says this, not creeped out at all. I help him spell out “PeterNorth.com” on his notepad. “I’ll tell the nurses.”


Copyright ©2009 by Daniel Nester from How to Be Inappropriate.  Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.



Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.

I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.

I’m a big fan of SMITH Magazine’s 6-Word Memoirs. So much so, I often find myself encapsulating everyday events both large and small into six-word sound bytes without even being aware of it.

For those of you in the dark about 6WMs, Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story in six words (For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.) and is said to have called it his best work. SMITH has taken this idea and marathoned with it.

With the Oscars just two weeks away (Feb 22nd), some of you may be finding it difficult, in these trying economic times, to fork out the $12.50 on a single movie ticket.  So I present, for your consideration, a condensed review of each of the major* nominees.

All in just six simple words.