Lovers, writers, and scheduling

A friend who I’ll call “Heather” was describing a common problem among artistic types in their teens and 20s: she wants time to write, but she also wants time for sex, and sometimes the time that might be spent on the former gets slotted into the aftermath of the latter.

“Gets slotted into the aftermath of the latter” is a strange phrase I should explain further: Heather said that she’d invite a guy over after she gets home from work and they’d make dinner, and hang out, and watch a movie, and chat, and get down to it; all these activities necessarily took all night, while I got the impression she was most interested in one of them. Heather also said she’d feel bad about giving a guy the boot on a Saturday morning after he’d stayed over on a Friday, instead of spending most of the day with him. But she also wants to be a writer—would-be writers tend to clump—and she said she’d also feel bad if an entire week had gone by without her managing to accomplish anything because she’s busy running from work to guy to sleep back to work, leaving no time for any substantial projects of her own.

The solution seemed obvious to me, but I have a fair amount of experience in this department, and, as with many matters romantic, the honest and simple solution is often best. Instead of inviting someone over as soon as you get home from work, say, “I’ve got an hour between eight and nine. Bring a bottle of wine.” Or, if you’re more direct, just say, “I’ve got an hour between eight and nine. Come over.” As New York Magazine’s sex diaries series makes clear, this is not unusual or unreasonable behavior. On a weekend, you do your morning thing—like E does in that one episode of Entourage*—and say something like, “I’m going to start writing. You need anything?” If the answer is no, start writing. If the answer is yes, and if it’s concrete, do something about it. Ignore the pouting that may result (more on that below).

Heather and I chatted some more and it came out that the problem is not really the simple stuff—it’s what Heather worried that her actions said about her and/or the guy she’s dating. To me, saying, “Hey, I’m going to start writing this morning” doesn’t say anything other than, “I want to get some writing done.” To her, however, it says a host of other things bound up with femininity: that she can’t be a person who might be perceived as an “easy lay,” whatever that means; that she has to want to develop a deep relationship quickly; that a “deep relationship” means spending nearly every waking moment outside of work with someone; that two people can’t see each other for an hour and still care about each other. She kept saying things like, “I can’t do this to someone!”, until I said, “Your language is all wrong. You’re not doing to someone. And the guy might be happier anyway.”

It turns out she’s internalized social norms into some voice in her head. We talked about that some, and she said—by this point I realized there was a solid blog post in our conversation—”I know what I want. I want it now. Then I’ll create a block: ‘No, you can’t.’ ” The answer, of course, is that she can. And it’s not even really Heather doing it to Heather: it’s what she imagines other saying about her: “You know what gets me into trouble? Other girls. We are a factory of bullshit.” My observation: she just needs to stop caring what she imagines other girls think and how some vast cultural narrative of how relationships works. Because real relationships seldom fully work like they’re supposed to (which is why Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish,” which I just taught Textmate how to spell). Heather said that she feels like if a relationship or hookup isn’t serious, if a girl isn’t being treated in a certain way (whatever “a certain way” means)—it’s automatically bad. But why? There isn’t a great answer.

Philosophy is good at digging underneath assumptions, and so are teachers; while we were talking, I was basically digging at assumptions. After Heather figured out what was going on, she wanted to know: “How do I avoid this shit?” I didn’t have a perfect answer, because it would be something like, “Internalize some of the feminist arguments about cultural conditioning,” which isn’t an easy or short-term process. A more practical, immediate approach is to be conscious of it. Tell yourself: you can make boundaries. The whole argument about, “Am I getting taken advantage of?” go away. Heather feared what others would think of her. That’s a status question, and once you become cognizant of the status games people play you can, I hope, become like Neo when sees through the Matrix and learns to manipulate the fabric of perceived reality itself. You can’t be taken advantage of if you’re getting what you want and giving someone else what they want.

Besides, I told Heather something important: “You are not like other girls: you want to be an artist.” Other girls can be perfectly happy wasting an infinite amount of time sitting in their boyfriends’ or fuck buddies’ apartments (which I know, having been on the receiving end of the sitting treatment before I knew better) not doing anything. If you want to be an artist, you can’t do that, or you can’t do it all the time.

Note that this isn’t an argument for not spending time with another person, or for avoiding intimacy, or for any number of misreadings I can already imagine. It’s an argument for recognizing priorities and for realizing that work, sex/love, sleep, and being an artist can coexist, if you want them to. The trick, of course, is sticking to your offers. When nine rolls around, say, “I’ve got to go to work in the morning.” If the guy (or girl) doesn’t take the hint, say, “I’ve got to got to work in the morning—you should take off.” Very few people will refuse, for obvious reasons, especially if you remain firm.

Heather observed that she was worried she’d get attached to a guy who wasn’t attached to her. It’s not an illegitimate fear, but my response to it was simple: so what? The sex in the meantime is probably better than none. Being the kind of person she is, Heather observed that, if she gets attached and the guy doesn’t, she still gets a net Pareto improvement, demonstrating that, as Dan Ariely and Tim Harford have shown, economics does apply to love. And she’s right. There’s been a spate of dumb movies about what happens when people in their teens or twenties who start out mostly just having sex develop feelings; No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits are the most recent I’m aware of, although there are doubtlessly others. People who’re just doing it often develop feelings. And if they don’t, that’s okay too.

Look: you don’t need to have a stopwatch next to your bed, couch, chair, or kitchen table, and no one wants to feel like they’ve been scheduled into a slot. Or they don’t want to in the heat of the moment. But it’s also reasonable, if you’re an artist or want to be an artist, to make time for your work. You can find a million posts and essays and so forth like “Find the Time or Don’t” (which is John Scalzi’s version) that all say what his title says: people who find writing (or other art) valuable will find time to do it. Those who don’t, won’t. But you shouldn’t have to compromise on your love life. And you don’t, which I pointed out to Heather. You can be reasonable about time: you don’t need to fit someone in a “slot” every day, and it’s reasonable to spend an hour hanging out when you wake up on a Saturday. If you’re a writer, you can also involve your “friend” by asking him or her to read your work, since almost everyone knows how to read even if many people are effectively aliterate. If you’re reading this, you’re highly unlikely to be aliterate, but there’s a decent chance you’ve also slept with someone who has been. While their comments might not be as helpful as an editorial assistant for a literary agent, who I’ve been told are good to sleep with for multiple reasons, reading tens of thousands of words also takes at least a couple of hours, during which you, the writer, can produce some more words.

Even if you can’t get that person to read, after an hour or so you can get up, make breakfast (if you need to), and say, “I’m going to start writing. Do you need anything?” If the person says yes, and it’s a small task (“I need potato chips”), give it to them, and if they say no, start writing. If the person interrupts you with questions like, “What did you think of The Social Network?” Turn and stare at them for a good three to five seconds. Say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” and go back to writing. They’ll stop interrupting you. Print a copy of “A Nerd in a Cave” if the need arises. If they’re bored and don’t have anything to do, suggest they go home; meet up with them later in the evening, perhaps with new pages for them to read.

The danger is lounging in bed for two hours, then going for a leisurely brunch, then coming back to “hang out” (assuming “hang out” is not a euphemism for something more fun), then going to Bed Bath & Beyond (which is like death itself condensed into one shiny, plasticized place), then you find it’s 5:00, which means you’re going to meet some friends for a drink, or you promised your family you’d have dinner with them, or the person who you found in your bed that morning wants you to have dinner with their family, and so on. The occasional day like that is obviously okay. Having every weekend day like that while you work a weekday job means that you’re not going to get any real writing done, and any kind of writing can only be done one keystroke, one word at a time. So if you don’t guard your time to some extent, you’re going to let it through your hands until you wake up and realize that you haven’t accomplished whatever you wanted to accomplish, and the fault is your own.

The other extreme—simply saying, “no sex while I do this”—sounds even more unpalatable than having someone slurp your entire weekend into nothingness, and I suggested to Heather that one can have both. If, of course, you’re willing to set boundaries. In her case, that meant understanding the social conditioning she’s had, which implies that a) she always has to be on the hunt for a “serious” relationship, b) that she needs to play games to gauge a guy’s commitment, c) that feelings might be hurt by her having other interests, and d) that the person you’re sleeping with has to be at the entire center of your being. None of those have to be true, but when they’ve been ingrained since, if not birth, then your advent into American culture,

None of this is especially true: feminists have been saying stuff like this for years. Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own. But the conditioning remains, and if you’re not willing to dig underneath the assumptions that are preventing you from doing what you need to do, you might also simply not have the tools to be a writer. Heather does, from what I can tell, and if she has those tools, she should also be able to apply them to the conditioning she’s undergone as a member of our society. She once said, “I can’t help it. I’m a girl. Our foreplay starts 12 hours before the actual sex.” That might be true, but she can help it, or re-channel her energy, or take other steps to make sure she’s not wholly bound by other people’s desires. I’m merely pointing out to her that it’s possible for her to do so.

If it’s possible for her to do so, it should be possible for you to too.


* Found it: Season 2, Episode 2, “My Maserati Does 185.” Worth watching for, uh, educational purposes.

Sugar in my Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex — Edited by Erica Jong

Sugar in my BowlI can’t really generalize about the pieces in Sugar in my Bowl other than to say that most have a quality of the forbidden about them. Michel Foucault famously argues in The History of Sexuality that we’ve always talked about sex and that the “regressive hypothesis,” which holds sex can’t be discussed, is wrong. But I think he’s wrong, or at least wrong regarding the United States: it’s still difficult for many people, especially women to speak and write of sex, which is why Erica Jong—the editor of Sugar in my Bowl—can cite what amounts to a version of the regressive hypothesis in her introduction. Maybe we’re now collectively allowed to express all kinds of sexual signs, but moving from physical expression of signs like the ones seen in movies and porn to intellectual analysis is or feels forbidden. What happens in the mind is so intimate relative to what you’ve got under your clothes. Anyone can shuck their clothes, and Victoria’s Secret has built a massive business on the promise that most of us will, but relatively few people have the ability to really express what’s happening in their minds. Susan Cheever writes that “A one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem—only we are seizing the night instead of the day,” but one has to wonder: how many people have felt precisely that and never found the words to express it?

Without the words to express it, one can’t create the writing that will allow others to feel empathy. I don’t buy the school of thought that holds men and women can’t fundamentally understand each other, or that either sex is incapable of writing characters from the other effectively in fiction. People who want to learn what other people are thinking will find a way to do so, and, if they’re good, they’ll be able to reproduce what other people are thinking. There’s a cultural meme, for example, that women automatically “give up” sex to men who “take” it from women. While that no doubt describes many encounters, especially first encounters, it doesn’t describe all of them. Consider Anne Roiphe describing her first, or what I assume to be her first, time, after playing doctor with a boy as a child:

Years later when Jimmy and I were thirteen we were kissing in the dark at a party. We were sitting on a table in my classmates’ living room. Couples were curled up together in every corner of the floor, despite the fact that the carpet was rough and scratchy. Louis Armstrong was playing softly in the background. Abandoned in a corner was the Coke bottle that had begun it all. It was a game of spin the bottle that had brought Jimmy and I to the moment. ‘Do you remember,’ I said, ‘when we played doctor.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you have hair there now?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I really need to see it,’ he said. We found a closet. I showed him. He showed me his penis, larger, straight penis, full of some mysterious fluid.

This isn’t merely a my-first-time description (although it is that too), which litter memoirs and the Internet like discarded water bottles after a concert. It’s her way of delving into what’s nominally about the development of sex but really feels like the growth of an artist:

The thing about sex is that each act while different from the other even with the same person, even with the same person for forty years, is not a single act. It builds on the sex the night before, the year before, the decade before. Sex is a matter that unfolds like an accordion in the brain, the past is connected to the near past to the present and the future stands there waiting to be attached. So the feeling in the body, the feelings for someone else, the excitement of the new or the welcome of the familiar rises and falls, depends on memory, gains its depth from what happened at the beginning, a while ago, in the imagination, in reality.

You get older, you try things, you realize that, say, writing “is not a single act,” that it “builds on the [writing] the night before, the year before, the decade before.” Experience makes you good, and, although, there’s a sense that experience contrasts with innocence and is somehow bad, Roiphe doesn’t buy it. Neither do many of the writers in Sugar in my Bowl. They’re too heavily thinkers to buy the bullshit, and when thinkers break down their lives, they realize how much more valuable experience is than ignorance. It’s ignorance, and the celebration of it, that they’re really fighting, collectively, through writing, which is a powerful and impressive thing if you take the time to think about it. Maybe even more powerful than sex, which is their putative subject and the one that branches into so many other subjects; as so often happens, writers inevitably write about other things while they nominally write about one. Those “other” things can’t help being present to those who care to look. Susan Cheever writes, for example, “Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings.” But it’s so often hidden, and hidden deliberately, that one might ask why something wonderful must be “a passage through a maze,” unless seeking is part of the finding. Others want it to be religious, like Fay Weldon when she says:

I have been convinced not just of the significance and marvel of sex, but also of its sanctity, and its healing power, and the importance it plays in our lives, and how it is wrong to deny this. And if for a time thereafter, as I fled from bed to bed in search of love, I became a positive priestess of Aphrodite, it was not for long. I had a baby, as I was bound to, and steadied up. The psychoanalyst told me I suffered from low self-esteem, but my version is I was just born to like sex, and inherited the tendency from my father.

Notice the “sanctity,” the way she becomes a “priestess,” and the way she might not be in full control of her sexuality—she’s is “just born to like sex.” So if she did it, she did it, and so what?

There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays, many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out? I can imagine reasons, like the ones Megan McArdle pointed out:

In my experience, the big dividing line [between favoring drug legalization and not favoring it] is having kids. Read this interview with P.J. O’Rourke and discover some shocking things coming out of his mouth about how he doesn’t want his kids to do drugs. Having kids makes you realize how narrowly you escaped killing yourself–and remember all the friends who overdosed, or got arrested on a DUI, or spent their twenties working at a job that would let them smoke up three times a day, only to realize at age 35 that they had pushed themselves into a dead end. [. . ..]

in my experience, as the kids approach the teenage years, a lot of parents do suddenly realize they aren’t that interested in legal marijuana any more, and also, that totally unjust 21-year-old drinking age is probably a very good idea.

That’s not a good intellectual argument, but it is a very persuasive one that explains why we are where we are. (Does Levy have children, I wonder?) Still, Ariel’s line is funny precisely because of the discomfort she experiences at imagining a twelve year old wanting to follow in these particular footsteps.

I like Sugar in my Bowl more than it probably deserves, which may say more about my present preoccupations and less than its absolute merit. But, as I said above, while the anthology has the drawback of anthologies it also has the virtue: any piece that doesn’t resonate is only a few pages from being done and is easily skipped. And if you don’t care for reading a collection primarily about sex, you can also read it for what it says about history, relationships, politics, and writing. Jong thinks it’s also important because it equalizes an unlevel playing field some; she writes about

the fear some potential contributors had that they would not be taken seriously if they wrote for my anthology.

Anaïs Nin had made exactly the same argument in 1971 when I asked her why she allowed her diaries to be bowdlerized for publication: ‘Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers,’ she said.

‘But that’s why we must do it, Miss Nin,’ I countered.

And that is why we must do it. We must brave the literary double standard.

I can’t tell if she’s right, though she sounds the same note in the “Acknowledgments” section, where she writes that “Women who write about sex still get no respect—but we don’t give a damn!” Really? I don’t think I’d take someone less serious for writing about sex or not writing about it; Jong sounds certain that it’s true, however, and I wonder: who is giving the respect needed here? And, if someone is giving this respect, is it actually worth having? Isn’t an assumed position on the outside of some presumed literary establishment a necessary precondition for eventually getting in the literary establishment? The questions presume the answers, and, by creating this anthology, Jong does imply that 1) she can probably get more respect with it than without and 2) writing about sex is probably more literarily respectable now than it ever has been.

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