Writing sexuality is a rigorous and important endeavor for literary writers. There is not a single human who exists without an individualized sense of sexual identity. Even asexual adults are aware of their sexuality and how this juxtaposes to their social group, and yet, many writers will no more than glance at the sexual foundations and arc of their characters. A brilliant example of sexual exploration in literary aesthetic is Cris Mazza’s hybrid memoir, Something Wrong with Her. In this memoir, the author speaks candidly and vulnerably about her sexuality. The work not only belongs in the artistic canon, it is an excellent resource for literary writers exploring voice and sexuality.
Essentially, every character has a sexual arc from birth to adulthood and everywhere in between. Ask yourself. How much time have you given to the isolation and study of your characters’ sexual arcs both on and off the page?
A lack of time and isolation with this sexual foundation and arc is a common flaw in a writer’s process and craft. Sometimes it is because the writer is writing merely to titillate. Sometimes, the writer believes their sexual preferences should be those of their character (which is a ridiculous notion. If Nabokov had written Humbert Humbert’s sexual identity from personal preference,… I’ll let you finish that sentence). Sometimes, the writer is too uncomfortable with sex to truly analyze and explore it in any genuine and unique way. It is as important for the writer to explore the character’s sexual preferences both individually and as is essential to the narrative (apart from the writer’s personal preferences), as it is for the writer to explore the character’s experience hunting big game in Africa or getting her period at eight years of age or dying and then narrating from beyond the grave. A literary writer cannot always call specifically on personal preference and experience when writing characters. At some point, the character will transcend the writer and become an individual. Writing sex and sexual identity of this character must do the same. Especially if you are a man writing a female character. Or a woman writing a male character. Or a heterosexually identifying writer writing a homosexually identifying character… The imagination and depth of character exploration must take precedent.
- Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 1969.
- Aronofsky, Darren. Requiem for a Dream. Film. 2000.
- Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1963.
- Chopra, Joyce. Smooth Talk. 1985.
- Cook, Fielder. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Film. 1979.
- Demme, Jonathan. Beloved. Film. 1998.
- Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. 1991.
- Ferber, Abby L., Kimberly Holcomb and Tre Wentling. Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: The New Basics. 2016.
- Gaitskill, Mary. “Secretary.” Bad Behavior: Stories 2009.
- Harron, Mary. American Psycho. Film. 2000.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937.
- Kubrick, Stanley. A Clockwork Orange. Film. 1972.
- Lyne, Adrian. Lolita. Film. 2013.
- Martin, Darnell. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 2005.
- Morrison. Toni. Beloved. 1987.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Novel. Vintage, 1989.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” 1978.
- Paglia, Camille. Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. 2017.
- Potter, Sally. Orlando. Film. 1992.
- Selby, Hubert Jr. Requiem for a Dream. Novel. 1978.
- Shainberg, Steven. “Secretary.” Film. 2000.
- Williams, Diane. Some Sexual Success Stories: Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear. 1992.
- Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. 1928.
Writing Exercise: Excavating Sexuality
Choose a character from a narrative on which you are currently working. Open a separate document and begin a new narrative in which you explore this character’s sexuality as organic and a-typical to the character. Some things to explore:
- First awareness of self as a sexual being;
- First sexual encounter without intercourse;
- First intercourse;
- First sexual violence (this might or might not be consensual violence);
- A sexual anomally….;
- What other sexual excavations might you explore?
Forget the original narrative, throw away any preconceptions you may have had regarding this character’s identity of self, body awareness and sexual history. Allow the character’s sexuality to grow independently within this “safe space.”
You might find that very little or quite a bit of this sexual excavation finds its way back into the original narrative. Or none at all. No worries. What you’ve excavated about this character’s sexuality will inform the character both on and off the page.
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.
One on One Creative Writing Workshop
If you would like to share your narrative, post it to the discussion board below and share it with your course peers. If you end up expanding this narrative into a fuller work and would like written, individualized feedback on it, we invite you to join us for a One on One Creative Writing Workshop.