Tag Archives: Jen Cross

Writing about Writing about Sex

drawing of a heart with a kitten inside the very bottom
Image from writingourselveswhole.org

Debbie says:

Novelist Garth Greenwell writes about writing about sex in The Guardian thoughtfully and — yes — passionately.

I once heard a wonderful writer, addressing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, say that her ideal of a sex scene would be the sentence: “They sat down on the sofa …” followed by white space. This is a prejudice I can’t understand. One of the glories of being a writer in English is that two of our earliest geniuses, Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote of the sexual body so exuberantly, claiming it for literature and bringing its vocabulary – including all those wonderful four-letter words – into the texture of our literary language. This is a gift not all languages have received; a translator once complained to me that in her language there was only the diction of the doctor’s office or of pornography, neither of which felt native to poetry.

More than this, surely it is absurd to claim that a central activity of human life, a territory of feeling and drama, is off-limits to art. Sex is a uniquely useful tool for a writer, a powerful means not just of revealing character or exploring relationships, but of asking the largest questions about human beings.

He goes on first to explain what he means:

Sex is an experience of intense vulnerability, and it is also where we are at our most performative, and so it’s at once as near to and as far from authenticity as we come. Sex throws us profoundly into ourselves, our own sensations, physical and emotional; it is also, at least when it’s interesting, the moment when we’re most carefully attuned to the experience of another. In no other activity, I think, do the physical and metaphysical draw so near one another—nowhere else do we feel so intensely both our bodies and something that seems to exceed our bodies—and so our writing of sex can be at once acutely descriptive of bodies in space and expansively philosophical. Nothing exposes us more, not just physically, though that’s not insignificant, but also morally; nowhere am I more aware of selfishness and generosity, cruelty and tenderness, daring and failure of nerve, in my partners and in myself, than in sex. Finally, sex puts us in contact with our shared animal nature and is also inflected by a particular place and time.

and then to talk about what he tries to do.

What excites me in writing sex isn’t explicitness itself, but the combination of explicitness and a particular kind of sentence I’m attracted to, a sentence with a history one might trace from the great introspective English prose writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, through Proust and James to Woolf and Baldwin and Sebald. It’s a sentence at once expansive and recursive, plunging forward but also falling back to question and correct itself. I think of it as a technology for the production of inwardness, for putting on the page what thinking feels like. In writing Cleanness I wanted to find out what might happen when that technology was applied to sex of various kinds: tender and brutal, intimate and impersonal, joyful and abject. I felt there was an intervention literature might play, that it might reclaim the sexual body as a site of consciousness.

As a lifetime reader on a wide variety of topics, I thought I knew the kind of sentence he’s talking about, and I thought it might be easy to find an example. I opened Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to a random page, and found this one:

They had now entered a beautiful walk by teh side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene.

It’s entirely about Elizabeth’s private experience while things are going on around her which are far less important to her than her inwardness. And that makes me want to read Greenwell’s Cleanness, because I think he’s right. Sex can be written personally or impersonally, mechanically or tenderly, as private or public experience, but it is almost never written about as inward experience–and I feel sure I’m not the only person who can experience sex from that perspective.

Toward the end of the essay, Greenwell identifies himself as queer, and he ends with a paean to writing about queer sex in particular:

To write something, to make art of it, is to make a claim about its value. Even in our age of marriage equality, when as a culture we tell ourselves a very flattering story about gay liberation, it remains the case that our culture despises the queer body, especially the queer sexual body. To write about the queer body not just explicitly, but with all of the resources of the literary tradition, to write it in a way that foregrounds beauty and lyricism is, I hope, a way to cherish that body. It’s a way not to argue for its value but to recognise and proclaim its value, and to l

avish it with the peculiar, ennobling dignity art can bestow.

If Greenwell’s fiction is as good as his writing about fiction, it’s going to be a treat indeed.

(I found the illustration at the top on writingourselveswhole.org and that took me back to Laurie’s and my interview with Jen Cross. Greenwell doesn’t talk about writing about sex as a route to healing, but Jen Cross does.)

Follow me on Twitter @SpicejarDebbie.

Jen Cross: An Interview with the Author of Writing Ourselves Whole


Laurie and Debbie say:

We were very pleased to be invited to interview Jen Cross about her book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma.

Jen is a sexual abuse survivor who has worked intensely with both writing for her own healing, and the healing power of writing in groups. Writing Ourselves Whole is her first book. We were  both very impressed by how thorough, clear, and complete it is: so much so that we had to put effort and energy into finding questions to ask that she hadn’t already answered fully in the text.

Body Impolitic: What led you to make this work your life passion?

Jen Cross: I was a writer before I was abused, and wrote very little during the years the abuse was happening. A few months before I broke contact, I started writing again. The great thing about writing was that nobody could tell me I was wrong. Writing became a core healing place for me. I was also becoming a queer feminist, doing consciousness-raising groups with domestic violence survivors. I found myself wondering how writing could be of service in that work.

I noticed the shift that happens when we write together. In the context of the understandable tension between incest survivors and the queer sex-positive community, I was blown away by how much risk folks were willing to take. Even in the first meeting, people would bring forth stories in stunning, powerful, rich language. There was room for our full stories and artistic genius.

In writing groups structured this way, we make choices about what we share. And we are generously, effusively kind to one another.

BI:  What differences do you find between erotic writing groups and other writing groups?

The difference is in the expectations of the writers when they walk into the room. In explicitly erotic groups, I talk about “adult lived consensual sexuality now.”  In general groups, we are more about feeling out possibility, re-embodying sexuality.

BI: We were both struck by how you use this quotation from Audre Lorde in your book:

I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.

 The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

BI: Can you say what draws you to this concept of the erotic?

JC:  Some of it is about trying to keep the erotic separate from being purely about sexuality.  Lorde offers an expansive view of the erotic, truly about empowered embodiment—living fully into our artwork, or nonsexual conversation with a dear friend. Erotic is too often relegated into one place. For an abuse survivor, it can be about being able to replace the abuser’s “erotics” with a form that is not his, but is the survivor’s own. 

BI:  So you are differentiating between creativity that arises from the need to be creative to survive trauma vs. creativity that comes from other sources?

JC:  I don’t know where our creativity comes from. One thing survivors have to do is reframe our relationship with coping mechanisms. The genius in our psyche helps us get through horrific situations.  But then we blame ourselves for how we did it.

There’s not a person I have ever written with who hasn’t written something that blows the top of my head off.

BI: Can you say something about the difference between writing an organized book like this one and freewriting?

JC:  I freewote all of the sections. I made a list of topics and then used those topics for freewriting. I wanted a book you could read in chunks, or as a whole, or return to. I used Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones as a model.

I found it such a pleasure to do editing. I print out everything and edit on paper. Editing uses a different part of my brain, and I can let the writing show me what it wants to be.

BI:  When you talk about healing, are you talking about something like returning to our true inner selves before we were abused, or about creating ourselves in a new context. How do these processes differ?

JC: I struggle with the sense of healing and recovery as return—finding your voice. We are multiplicitous and vast. Finding our way in a positive sense. Trauma is part of us. We can feel fragmented and be accepted as fragmented. Healing is about something messier than simply being whole all the time. We are able to say both “This shouldn’t have happened” and “I like who I am now.”

Writing Ourselves Whole is a finely crafted roadmap to an entire world of healing strategies. Jen Cross is fiercely honest and effusively kind. If anything about the topic of the book or the tone of this interview speaks to you, buy the book. You’ll be glad you did.