This is not a tale for those who flinch at the R rating on some films. It’s about an incident that may make you blush, make you angry, make you question my taste in writing it. It props open the window about where I glean my tales and is meant as instructive insight. Just a warning: be attentive about what you read, what you show the kids. This may be rated R but it may be instructive about how we harvest stories from life’s true labors.
Who of us has not hidden the details of our first sexual encounter behind lies and denial, embarrassed by the failure, foolishness, or pain of the event? We like to imply to strangers (if we imply to them anything at all) that our first time out of the gate we were heroic in bed, we topped the charts in appeal and performance. Informed by Hollywood, “reality” TV, Internet videos, phone texts, bathroom talk, and trashy magazines, even young teens “know” exactly how gymnastic and fulfilling sex should be. Only years later, sitting around with several bottles of wine and the intimacy of adult complicity to tell about our First Time, do we confess the real circumstances. In the intersection between swagger and modesty the actual incident endures, usually a moment more about duplicity than commitment, more discomfort than triumph. In truth, it was messy, it hurt, it was embarrassing. It wasn’t Olympic, it wasn’t blockbuster, and it wasn’t love.
A member of our writer’s critique group read a chapter of my second novel, concerning the protagonist’s first sexual experience, and said he felt so sorry for the awful incident I’d suffered. I was amused by his sympathy. The episode hadn’t happened to me but to a teenager whose trusting question posed to a group of strangers—am I still a virgin?—caught my attention. The girl was a runaway, only 13 or 14, a beautiful, confused kid. We were a group of college students in our early twenties, building a community free clinic. She regarded us as adults who knew what to do in uncertain situations. It was clear she had engaged in something she barely understood, and just as clear she’d been seduced by a man who knew what he was doing to a girl who didn’t. A crime. as much for stealing her innocence as for the act itself. I never knew her name but never forgot the rawness of her plight.
Turning the girl’s coerced initiation to sex into so persuasive a chapter that my crit colleague felt “my” pain convinced me I’d written it well enough to be authentic. The story, described differently from the actual experience by my imagination and limited knowledge of precisely what had happened to her, nonetheless tapped into her wound and conveyed the universality of awful first sexual encounters. I did know the letdown totality of first sexual incidents from personal encounter, mine more consensual than hers. And though it embarrassed me that my reader thought her first venture was mine, I crowed to know he responded emotionally to my writing. He believed me. It felt real to him. The story elicited empathy from him. A fabrication became truth.
Good writing reveals the suffering, confusion, wonder, rage, isolation, rebellion, discovery, or enlightenment of real people, no matter how contrived their circumstances. It shows action, albeit bizarre, and response, always genuine. It reflects what we’ve come to understand about life by what we’ve lived. When our readers gasp or shout, weep or moan, laugh or lose their breath, we know we’ve touched them. As a writer I don’t have to have lived every experience I write, but I must own each one so my reader may acknowledge it. You caught the situation perfectly. I know exactly how it feels. I ached. I wept. I burst with joy when I read what you wrote. It’s the medal our readers confer on us for letting them see their own faces in the human mirror we glaze.
If I know you, if you’ve met me, if we’ve been in the same vicinity, you may provide the raw material that will ferment in my writing. No, I didn’t ask your permission. I’m sly that way, a bit untrustworthy. If my writing shines, it does so when I’ve borrowed your experiences and inserted them convincingly into my story. I gloat if I’ve stolen from you but you don’t recognize yourself. There must be some common ground, language whose words you know and landscape you’ve traveled, for you to want to read what I’ve written. Real human experience must resonate within any story, and that which I haven’t personally lived, I borrow from you.
I can never be a 13-year-old girl who was raped, at least statutorily raped, by a selfish man who should have been less Don Juan and more Sheriff John. I’m past that moment by decades and experience. But I’ve been betrayed in other circumstances and I own those hurts forever. I took my betrayal and conveyed the hurt to a character in my story. Anecdotal became tangible. Critiquer sympathized. I felt that moment of triumph as when a marathon runner crosses the finish line and knows she’s run her best.
When have you recognized such clarity of your own writing that you felt the accolades were honestly earned? I’d love to read about your successes.