The Agony and The Ecstasy: Writing Sex In Fiction with Michèle Roberts

Two geese honked and hurried me through the Gardens toward the Teahouse Theatre earlier this week . The escapees from the nearby Vauxhall City Farm enjoyed their freedom with vocal pleasure. Once inside the Cafe, the room felt particularly bright and airy and it took me a minute to work out why - the theatre curtains had been put away, opening up the room to the early evening light. Letting in the light seemed an apt prelude to our salon: The Agony and Ecstasy: Writing Sex in Fiction. We were expecting a full house and quite a few early birds had already arrived, eager to hear our guest, the celebrated novelist and poet, Michèle Roberts.

 With Emma Darwin on the left & Michèle Roberts, centre.

With Emma Darwin on the left & Michèle Roberts, centre.

Michèle published her first novel, A Piece Of The Night, in 1978. The book looked at women's search for 'stories that will not put them to sleep’ and included an exploration of lesbianism, causing an outcry at the time. Michèle has since gone on to publish fourteen novels, as well as short stories, essays and a memoir. Her novel, Daughters of the House, was nominated for The Booker Prize and won the W. H. Smith Literary award. Her most recent novel is the Walworth Beauty. Born and bought up in North West London, to a French mother and English father, Michele’s Catholic upbringing and early education had a formative influence on her writing. 

We touched on the role of women within the tradition of the Catholic faith and the church’s fear of the female body. Women were expected to ‘transcend’, be a martyr and suffer. Women’s voices, if not silenced by the church, were rarely heard. As a young woman in the 1970’s, with the ascent of the women’s liberation movement, Michèle joined a women’s consciousness-raising group. The group gave voice to the experience of being a young woman in that time and place. They found they could talk about motherhood, equal pay, free love and desire but struggled to talk about sex. It was a linguistic problem - a question of finding a vocabulary. For Michèle, having grown up in the 1960’s, hearing & reading primarily male writers, it was vital to find a language to write about sex in a way that was meaningful to her own experience.

Women writers, with a history of censorship, have had to find alternative ways to express the body and desire. Michèle referred to the women mystics of the fourteenth century, renowned for their suffering through the mortification of the flesh, whilst seeking unity with God. The language of the mystics abounds with images of heat, sweetness and light suggesting a woman’s orgasm. Michèle is interested in metaphor and cites Collette as a source of inspiration. For Michèle, an effective scene of intimacy is driven by the writer’s desire to produce pleasure in the reader.

 (Photo: Andrew wille)

(Photo: Andrew wille)

We talked about the distinction between porn and a successful sex scene (as opposed to a scene of successful sex). In simplistic terms, porn leaves out history, its pure purpose is to drive the reader to a climax. A key difference between porn and a literary approach to writing sex is that with the former you objectify and with the latter you’re invited in, unless the writer wants you peeping in at the keyhole! Consider the effect of point of view; if the third person P.O.V objectifies the subject, by contrast, the first person P.O.V can portray a more subjective experience, expressing a character’s interior life and feelings. 

How can a writer who’s self-conscious help themselves to write a sex scene? Michèle’s inner critic takes the shape of a metaphorical Mother Superior. Michèle banishes this inner critic by actively wooing and inviting her in, "Come Mother Superior, let us tango!” Is there anything that is taboo? Encouragingly, as time passes Michele feels more more permissive and open to exploring her art. 

 Ready to tango? Eufemia Szaniawska, Abbess of the Benedictine Monastery in Nieśwież with a crosier, c. 1768, National Museum in Warsaw

Ready to tango? Eufemia Szaniawska, Abbess of the Benedictine Monastery in Nieśwież with a crosier, c. 1768, National Museum in Warsaw

In this era of #MeToo there is a sense that the culture is going through a strange time. It’s seen as uncool to be sentimental. Our notions of intimacy and self have changed over the decades. Recalling the 1970’s, Michèle acknowledged the bravery of individuals speaking out in her consciousness-raising group. Now, in the age of the internet, we’ve become more tribal and suffer from a loss of privacy. Apart from using email she doesn’t engage too much with the internet. If Michèle has something to say she’ll wrote a story or a poem.

Her advice to a beginner writer is to ask yourself - what do you desire to write? Follow that strong desire or strange impulse. Sit in chaos and darkness. Cultivate a mindset described by the Romantic English Poet, John Keats, as ‘negative capability’. Try to be open. When working with students Michele strives to put aside her personal reactions, be they on political, emotional or moral terms. Resist cliché. Good writing, even if it’s not to your own taste uses concrete, specific imagery. Focus on the senses. Use your imagination with sensitivity and tact. Keep your new, early work to yourself: sharing writing too soon is like ripping up the tender shoots of a nasturtium to see how it's growing before it’s ready.

When running a writing workshop, Michele sets her students an exercise that asks them to think of a sexual act they’ve never experienced - perhaps a secret thing that might include feelings they’ve never had, with people they’ve never met. It opens the imagination and gives permission to explore an imagined setting  with a focus on pleasure. 

Michele’s daily process involves going beyond the ‘I’, the daily ego, following the unconscious and going into a sort of a trance. First thing in the morning she’ll begin by revisiting the previous day’s work, pursuing her desire to write with discipline.  Writing should be like the search for pleasure. We’re forbidden to seek pleasure in our culture. It is frowned on!

We glanced at cultural appropriation - i.e. writing outside of your own experience, (race, class, gender, religion etc,) and talked briefly about men who write well about women; D H Laurence, William Boyd and Julian Barnes. Write what you like but write it well and with truth!

 Michèle Roberts ( photo: Sue Wallman)

Michèle Roberts ( photo: Sue Wallman)

How does Michèle quell the anxiety about whether a story is working or not? She asks her friends, do you like this story or do you hate it? If so why?

There was an excellent question from the audience about tackling shame. Michèle’s advice was make the problem part of the subject. Interrogate the problem. Ask questions. Ask who is telling that story? If you write your way though the obstacle you’ll find the form that fits the problem. Never underestimate the power of naming something!

We are in a time of enormous change. Keep attentive to language, even when it is painful to listen to ( such as the testimonies arising from the numerous child abuse scandals involving the Catholic and Anglican church in recent years.) Maintain eternal vigilance.

Michèle was such an engaging speaker with a great sense of humour. Everyone was delighted that she made the time to stay on and chat following the discussion. I hope my summary has done her justice! I've included some references from the talk below.

Our next guest, novelist, short story writer and playwright, Courttia Newland, is joining us at the TeaHouse on 21st May to talk about setting: The Power of Place. I also have a few spots left for The Craft of Revising workshop led by experienced editor Andrew Wille, on the 23rd June at the London Bridge Hive, feauring a Q&A session with the chair of Virago Press, Lennie Goodings. Hope to see you soon!

Kellie 

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Some Links & References:

 The escapees

The escapees