#18: Writing Erotica from the Margins

Dear Story Nurse,

I have this problem, and I can already hear the punchline: “Dear Story Nurse, it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that, then.”

I want to write salable Kindle porn. Write something I think a largish category of people will get off on, in a similar structure and length and style to what’s selling currently in that category, format it correctly, pay a designer a fair amount for an appealing and professional-looking cover, put it up, lather, rinse, repeat. I know people who do this. It works for them, and I think that’s great.

I’m disabled and on a limited income, and this seems to be the most promising way to increase my income without doing things that are harmful to me or unethical. I know I can write to order, and write things other people will enjoy—I’ve done that for fanfic exchanges. But whenever I sit down to work on one of these projects, something in me balks.

It’s not that I have an ethical problem with writing what will sell, or with helping to get other people off. I think it’s an entirely fair way to make a living, and more useful to the planet than a lot of other ways. No, what’s bothering me is resentment. There’s no Kindle category for people like me. I’m too niche for that, in too many ways.

And when I set to work on one of these projects, the thoughts start up: they wouldn’t want to help you get off, why should you help them? They probably don’t even think your kink/(a?)sexuality/gender/body type/neurotype is valid! They don’t think you matter. Or, more plausibly: you’re contributing to your own erasure. Why aren’t you using your writing time and skill to help your own communities? (Of course, when I work on a project that is more geared to people like me, a different set of thoughts starts up.)

I don’t know if I need a strategy to deal with the discouraging thoughts, or advice on juggling multiple writing projects at one time while maintaining enough focus to complete any of them, or a kick in the pants about my trite, unoriginal saleability versus creative integrity dilemma. I have a therapist, but “How do I get over myself and write the sex scenes?” isn’t something I can see myself asking her.

Help? Thank you for reading,

A Martian

Dear Martian,

I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble with this. It sounds like you’re caught in a real emotional struggle. You’re right that the easy answer is “Don’t write porn,” but it’s not clear to me that avoiding sex scenes, specifically, would actually resolve anything for you. If you wrote about abled people riding horses, I think you’d feel just as resentful. If you wrote about disabled people riding horses, I think you’d feel just as pigeonholed. Your complicated feelings about dis/ability and marginalization will exist regardless of whether you embark upon this particular career.

However, there is a particular emotional and psychological weight to writing about sex, and especially to writing about sex in ways that the reader is supposed to find arousing. You’re creating a fantasy. If it’s a fantasy you enjoy, that means tapping into your own feelings about sex and your body, which can be difficult when you’re disabled and more difficult if your disability interferes with your sex life. If it’s a fantasy you don’t enjoy, writing it requires you to try to understand the mind of someone who does enjoy it, an exercise that can range from wearying to actively unpleasant. Any fantasy can carry feelings of guilt and shame, because as a society we are extremely good at finding ways to shame ourselves for sexuality of any kind. Creating sexual fantasies for money carries a particularly heavy cultural burden. You also mention possibly being asexual, which I imagine would add another layer of difficulty, or at least of complexity, to writing about sex.

In short, although you’ve categorized writing mainstream erotica as not harmful to you, I think you should consider whether that’s actually true. I’m not saying “That sounds hard, so just give up”; I’m saying “Don’t harm yourself.” This is not the only ethical career choice that’s open to you, even given your limitations. Do your best to get away from “I should be able to do this” and bluntly examine whether it’s a good idea for you to do this. You probably make similar calculations around activities that are difficult because of your disability (like thinking “It’s technically possible for me to go to that event, but it involves a lot of standing and I’ll be in pain for the next week, and it’s just not worth it”), so you know how it works. Apply the same metric to erotic writing. Are you going to get enough out of it for it to be worth the cost? Will it be enjoyable enough to be sustainable as a career? That balking part of your brain sure doesn’t think so, and it’s quite possibly a good idea to listen to it.

If you decide you want to forge ahead with erotic writing, here are some suggestions for making the writing itself as easy on yourself as possible:

  • Ditch the false dichotomy of writing for the mainstream vs. writing for the margins. Do both! For every two mainstream stories you write and publish, also write and publish a story where marginalized people are front and center. Publish them under different names if you like, or be very open about writing both; I could see professional advantages either way. And populate your mainstream stories with plenty of marginalized side characters.
  • Model your erotic scenes on erotic fiction that you personally enjoy and appreciate. Tap into the good feeling you get when you read those works, and try to apply it to the works you’re writing as well.
  • Write a purely silly sex scene just for fun. Get really absurd. They’re having sex on top of a piano! The piano is actually a disguised tentacle monster! Giving yourself a case of the giggles is a great way to defuse stress and anxiety.
  • Take the time to develop characters you care about, for whom sexual connection is important and extremely pleasurable. Then the sex scenes become something kind you’re doing for those characters, a way to help them get what they most want.
  • Take the time to develop interesting plots for your stories, such that the erotic scenes are significant to the plot and help to move it along in some important way.
  • Find some enthusiastic beta readers who will tell you how great your stories are. Writing with a particular friend or other beloved person in mind as your future reader can also help to counter your anxieties and resentments about your imagined readers and what they’ll think about you and your work.
  • Find other writers in the field to connect with for support, and to learn from. Definitely reach out to those friends of yours who make a living this way and can give you expert advice, especially if they’re marginalized or writing marginalized characters.

And in addition to the writing, there’s your own psychological and emotional situation to consider:

  • Sort through your thoughts and feelings around sex and sexuality, and come to terms with your own truths. The more at home you are in your body (and as someone with an intermittent disability, I know how challenging that can be), the easier it will be to write about people enjoying their bodies and one another’s bodies.
  • Look for ways to break the self-criticism habit. I get the sense that at least some of it is anger at others, or at the world, that you turn inward. Some of it may have been taught to you by critical people. Some of it might also genuinely just be habit at this point. Regardless, do your very best to counter it with active kindness toward yourself. Instead of “I need to get over myself,” try “This is hard for me but I’m going to persist.” Instead of “No one’s going to want to read my story,” try “I’m going to do my best to enjoy writing this story and hope others enjoy it too.” Instead of “Why aren’t I doing more to help people?” try “I’m helping a person with a disability—me!—achieve a better standard of living, and also putting stories out in the world that help people feel good.” Write your own scripts (maybe with your therapist’s help) and practice saying them to yourself. I don’t believe that positive thinking will magically heal the world or bring a million dollars to your door, but I find that when I’m kind and patient with myself, I feel better, I do better work, and it’s much easier to identify and work through my mental road blocks. Give it a shot.
  • If your narrative of “Those people wouldn’t care about me, so why should I write for them?” stem from specific encounters with specific people, spend some time both working through your feelings about those encounters and countering the inclination to generalize.
  • Practice lots and lots of self-care while you’re writing. Lots and lots and lots. Especially physical self-care—eat enough, drink plenty of water, take your painkillers, soak in a hot tub, get a massage, stop writing when your hand starts to cramp rather than persisting until you’re in agony, and generally be good to your body.

I’m sorry you don’t feel you can talk with your therapist about your difficulties with erotic writing, because it seems to me that this would be an entirely valid topic for discussion and potentially quite fruitful. I completely get that it can be difficult to talk with a therapist about sex-related matters, but therapists are very used to their clients struggling with conversations on that topic, and ideally yours would be supportive and helpful. Also, this isn’t just about “getting over yourself” to write sex scenes. Erotic writing connects with a lot of things that are important to you: disability, resentment of people who aren’t disabled, your body, your (a?)sexuality, self-criticism, financially supporting yourself, having an ethical career and doing work that’s good for marginalized people, maybe even feeling like you need to keep up with those friends of yours who do this for a living. I really strongly recommend trying to talk with your therapist about at least some of those things, even if you don’t fully explain how they came up.

If you do want to try telling your therapist that your stress around writing is specifically triggered by writing erotic scenes, I recommend starting with something along these lines: “Therapist, I have been considering writing erotic stories, and that turns out to be loaded with a lot of baggage for me. I’d like to talk about some of the thoughts and feelings it’s brought up. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for me to talk about sex in a therapy setting, so please be patient if I’m very hesitant or can’t make eye contact or frequently need to pause and collect myself. It may turn out that I just can’t talk about this but I would like to try.”

The intersection of sex and capitalism is a really messy place. It’s absolutely true that plenty of people set up shop there and do very well by themselves. It’s also absolutely true that a lot of people try it and find it’s not to their tastes. There’s no shame in either choosing to do it or deciding it’s not for you. Either way, please be good to yourself. I hope you find lots of ways to genuinely enjoy and have fun with your writing.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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3 thoughts on “#18: Writing Erotica from the Margins

  1. Seconding the “write for someone you like with mainstream tastes” advice so hard. For whatever value of ‘mainstream’ you’re targeting. Writing for a broad, generic, entirely hypothetical population segment is hard, and it seems like it would be even more so if you are envisioning your audience as inherently hostile towards your humanity.

    Could you ask a friend or an online writing group for a prompt? Browse forums or request threads with communities you actually like? Do something to put a face on your future readers that isn’t ‘undifferentiated collective that looks down on me’? Is there maybe some intersection of “mainstream” + group-you-actually-share-values-with that you could target a little more narrowly (at least in your head, if not explicitly on the page)?

    Like

  2. Thank you, Story Nurse. That was a very kind and useful response, and reading it made me feel seen in a way that was both comforting and unnerving.

    In fairness to my therapist, I’m sure she’d hear me out if I brought up how to write erotica, but like a lot of people at the intersection of a bunch of different… well, differences, I have more problems to bring to therapy than I can afford sessions to bring them to, so I have to triage. We definitely do talk about some of the issues you mentioned.

    I think your suggestion to develop characters I care about was particularly acute. I’ll start with that, and with the suggestion to play with absurdity. Thanks again.

    Like

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