Taking Books to Bed: Amber Belldene on How Reading Shapes Our Sex Lives

photo (7)I’m delighted to welcome Amber Belldene to Wonkomance today. Amber, thank you so much for guest-posting!

Amber writes paranormal and contemporary romance and is an Episcopal priest and student of religion. To quote Amber’s bio, some people think it’s strange for a minister to write romance, but it seems perfectly natural to her because she passionately believes desire is divine.

I love talking to Amber about reading and writing. She’s thoughtful, vibrant, and funny, and she inspires me to delve deeper, think harder, and give more. These are the best kind of writer friends! 

The first time I had sex, it was at least partly just to get it over with, and the whole time a significant portion of my brain was imagining that the bed would roll away and I would drop straight into hell. Otherwise, it was pretty good, as first times go (I’ve only had one, so it’s hard to compare. But like most of you, I’ve read about a bazillion firsts in romance novels and those are my points of reference).

That’s pretty much the thesis of this post. What we read shapes our experience of sex. Not by itself, of course. We absorb all kinds of values, expectations, and norms, long before we even realize we are doing so.

Somehow, under these influences, we construct meaning from a crazy intense animal physical encounter that might simply remain a blurry mishmash of grunts, thrusts, and neurological explosion. What we are thinking, feeling, and choose to do during sex is very much constructed and I’m interested in the way the genre of romance is part of this construction for its readers. For example, we all heard about the run on certain sex toys following the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.

Much of what shapes our sexual selves is initially unconscious. But reading romance and erotica is a conscious, active exploration of our values. By entering into the experience of a character—we try on his or her feelings, actions, etc. Personally, I think this is profound, but I’ve only got my own experience and anecdotal evidence from others to support my thesis. I’m also very curious about your experience too, and I hope you’ll share in the comments.

Here’s mine: As a young woman, my primary texts were the Bible and romance novels, and they were basically running in my head side by side. It was specifically the letters of Paul which endorse married, straight sex as a stopgap measure for those who can’t handle celibacy until the second coming, alongside stories of people whose desire and connection to each other were so strong they could overcome immense internal and external obstacles to love. There was probably a third text too—what I absorbed at large from peers, parents, sex-ed class, etc. That’s the set of values and vocabulary I brought to sex and they remained my primary texts for a long, long time.

I’m convinced that, of all of these, romance novels served me the best. They taught me that passion, mutual pleasure, and a kind of ecstasy were things to seek out. They gave me words for sensations, metaphors for previously vague longings, taught me that my desires and the physical expression of affection were good, holy even; that sexy men like sexual women; and they nurtured an inkling that St. Paul was wrong about some things. I am profoundly grateful that I brought all of that to my first fumbling experiences, and to my later deliberate ones.

But this was the second half of the 1990s, and so the (mostly historical) romances I’d read also taught me that true love magically stimulates vaginal orgasms, that all good girls have hymens, and probably taught me to like pushy alpha males more than I might have otherwise developed that taste (oh, who knows, maybe that’s nature, not nurture).

Years later, when I got back into reading romance (and first met erotica), the genre had changed so much. The sex was more explicit and gritty and realistic and hot. Things about my sex life that felt like failures or limitations were suddenly cast as erotic, and the power and vocabulary to find paths through them were an unexpected gift. I couldn’t get enough.

During both periods of my life, I found romance incredibly sexually empowering, even those old-fashioned ones with the limitations we all know about. I suspect this empowerment is what people subconsciously fear about the genre—whether they are dismissing romance on intellectual grounds or moral ones—the idea that LOTS of women might know what we want and feel entitled to it, that we might expect our partners (and ourselves) to be heroic, if also flawed, and that self-determination and pleasure aren’t only for men or certain elite women. Sadly, those ideas are for many people still revolutionary, and they are at the heart of nearly every romance novel. Hurrah!

Yikes. When I put it that way, its starts to feel like an immense responsibility upon the writer. Maybe it’s good I never think about that when I start a new story.

Back when I began writing, sex scenes were my favorite. They felt so alive to me with both kinds of power—the fraught, frustrating, sticky, sweaty, AND the self-shattering, self-revealing, transformative, transcendence of sex. I was so excited to write the sort of book that had done so much for me.

Nowadays, writing something feminist or sexually empowering isn’t at the forefront in my planning, but I assume those sensibilities will seep into my work because I hold them dear. It isn’t until I start revisions that I ask myself (and my critique partners) if my characters’ actions and choices point to the values I hold dear—that desire is divine, that we sometimes go astray in our search to fulfill it, and that the story of this journey (desire, wayward search, and fulfillment) is gloriously fun and sexy and good for us as human beings.

I’m a pantser and write from the gut, with a lot of hope and not a lot of planning. So, I don’t always nail those values in the first draft. I think if I tried, I might not be able to write a word. And I’m immensely thankful for all the people who read my drafts and help be sure I’ve written something that actually says what I want it to.

So what about you?

  • As readers, have books constructed the way you think about yourself as a sexual person and/or engage in the act of sex?
  • Any books in particular help you find the big O you wanted?
  • As authors, do you consider this potential influence on readers as a responsibility when you write?
  • Or would that burden your creativity?

Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book. As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read during sermons—an irony not lost on her when she preaches these days. She lives with her husband and twin kiddos in San Francisco.

Find Amber: Website | Twitter | Facebook

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 10 Comments

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Take a look in your forgotten story drawer. Just open it up, and rifle through the text. Deeper. Older. There you go. Back there. Way in the back, that story that’s maybe barely in there any more, the one on a scrap of paper that has almost managed to escape the back of the drawer, wedging itself between the boards, pushed over and out by all the more recent, quite possibly more worthy, ideas.

It’s a story you started maybe a few years ago, maybe a lot of years ago. The one you started when you were a different person, it was that long ago. You don’t even remember how to feel like the person you were then.

But the story is still in your drawer, because we’re always still the person we were then, aren’t we? To some degree, at least. That’s the story I’m talking about today.

My work in progress is a story I started before I was published. Before I wrote fan fiction. Before I had children. Before my second marriage. Before the current millennium.

In its first incarnation, this thing was scribbled in a notebook some time between the time I filed for divorce from my first husband, and the time the papers were signed a few months later. It was scribbled in a notebook because at the time, I had only a desktop computer, and I didn’t like to use that for writing. Writing was still so private a thing, back before I learned to monetize it. It felt too personal, somehow, for a keyboard. I was still shy with my own process. I had no idea what I was doing.

The story was ridiculous, a cobbled-together mashup of ideas from somebody who knew nothing about craft, who had decided it was finally time to do this novel-writing thing everybody’d always told her she should do. Parts of it were so bad that when I found those notebook pages several years ago—torn out, stuffed into a manila file labeled, “writing,” along with a bunch of other snippets of junk I’d jotted down over the years—I didn’t even bother transcribing it all into a Word document. Not all of it made the cut, because I’d learned some stuff by then. But most of it I typed in, under the working title “Something Blue,” and then I went back to writing some more Hermione/Snape fic.

The problem with “Something Blue,” and the reason I didn’t start working on it when I started writing stuff that wasn’t fan fic, was that it didn’t have a story. I used to think I needed one, is the thing, I used to think that was where you started. Until I wrote a few novels, I didn’t realize it was okay to start with characters. I didn’t realize that I had to start with characters, or that even the few times I thought I was starting with a story, or a scene, I was actually starting with characters. I wasn’t shy with my own process anymore, but I didn’t know it very well yet. I had no idea what I was doing.

Around the time I’d published my first handful of novels, I switched from PC to Mac in order to make use of Scrivener. In the process of moving everything from my old writing software (PageFour) to Scriv, I encountered my plot bunny corral again, and this story was still there. I made a Scrivener project and pasted “Something Blue” into its own page, and I read the disjointed bundle of stray scenes and character sketches and was surprised that it didn’t totally suck. I still knew those characters. I still wanted to know more about them. I still liked my words. But it wasn’t a romance—it wasn’t ever intended to be, I’d started it with vague literary fiction notions, or with no particular genre in mind, really—so I closed the file and forgot about it again, because I’d become a romance writer. What’s more, on this re-read, I realized that if there were a romance in it, it would be between the two female protagonists. And I certainly wasn’t a lesbian romance writer. The long and short of it was that I couldn’t use any of the characters in the series I was writing at the time, none of the partial scenes or snatches of dialog fit, so I moved along.

I wrote more books. I finished that series and wrote another one. Then another, and sort of another, and various standalone things in between. I went to workshops and read craft books and talked and talked and talked to other writers, and presented workshops, and won awards, and critiqued and edited other peoples’ books and then wrote some more. Started editing for money.

I know my process. I own my process. I can no longer claim to have no idea what I’m doing, if what I’m trying to do is write a romance novel.

So I have some credibility when I say this next thing. When I pulled “Something Blue” out of the drawer this most recent time—arranged the characters on my desk, ignoring their eye-rolling and long-suffering sighs at all the neglect, and started considering their words again as I seem destined to do every few years—I realized that parts of it were really not that bad. I realized that, in fact, parts of it are better than anything I’ve written in years. Possibly better than anything I’ve ever had published. And I’m pretty sure it’s because when I wrote it, I had no idea what I was doing.

I wasn’t writing for an audience. I didn’t know anything about gatekeepers or tropes or editing. I didn’t even know what the story was. I just had these characters in my head and needed to get them out of there so I could move on to thinking about other things. These weird, melancholy characters who wouldn’t do much of anything, who thought about stuff way too much, who seemed to be living their lives at oblique angles to anything like the issues they ought to be facing head-on. These character who have resisted, for years, allowing me to engage them in narrative of any kind. At least any kind that would lead to a resolution, to a romance writer’s preferred ending.

But I have tools now. I’ve learned all these things. I’ve built up all this stamina. And I’m not getting any younger. So this time, I’m keeping them out of the drawer, and I’m writing them. With no clue how it will turn out, or even whether I’ll recognize the end of their story once I arrive there. I’m trusting in these characters, these odd, broken characters, to know for themselves. My recalcitrant lesbians (only one of them is a lesbian, I don’t know what the other one is nor do I need to know, because she doesn’t care about labels). They’re stuck, in their lives. And currently literally stuck, in a house, trapped there by a storm, having to craft a new kind of conversation that neither of them has ever successfully managed before.

They’re not going anywhere, on a lot of levels. That’s their problem, and I’m making it mine.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Posted in Formative Wonk, Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | Comments Off

The Accidental Femdom Writer

Like nearly everyone else reading this blog, I’ve loved romance for a long time. I love the fact that it’s a genre devoted to a woman’s emotional journey, to the development of two characters as they grow and change because of each other. I love the way the genre takes sexuality seriously, and affirms that yes, this part of a woman’s life is important, is crucial, even, to her fulfillment as she develops in her self-awareness and strength. I know I’m not the first person to note that very little other media is devoted to this aspect of women’s lives from a woman’s point of view, as the drivers of desire rather than as simply objects of male desire, or the first to note how subversive and radical that is.

When I started writing Have Mercy, my first real attempt at writing romance, I thought a lot about what it means to be a woman with sexual desires in this culture, particularly a woman in the public eye, where every aspect of our contradictory relationship with women and sex is amplified. I realized that what seemed to be considered most deviant was a woman who actively wanted. Even in my own fantasies, I was afraid to let myself want– I had to turn myself into an object, someone to be wanted by someone else. What kind of woman, I wondered, could free herself enough to turn that social conditioning around? And what kind of consequences would she face for it?

But even after deciding that about Emme, my protagonist, I still couldn’t make myself cross the final barrier into femdom. I wrote and wrote, and there was something about my sex scenes that was just off. It wasn’t until I finally shared half a manuscript with Mary Ann Rivers that she did a close reading and pointed out all the clues that were lurking there in the text, and suggested that maybe, just maybe, there was a dynamic that I was writing around instead of tackling head-on.

And I was writing around it instead of just writing it because it was fucking terrifying.

Those social consequences I’d written for my character were the very ones I was afraid of facing myself, if I wrote femdom. Even if what I wrote was the mildest version of BDSM (and in many ways, it is), femdom is still sexually in-your-face. Shocking. Outside of the norm. If writing romance in general might give away the fact that you’re a woman who experiences desire, writing femdom might give away the fact that you’re a woman who should probably be locked in the attic because otherwise you’ll chain up innocent men and ruin their lives by sucking out their souls. Or something.

But the more I thought about Emme, and the more I thought about Tom, the more I realized that I couldn’t write their dynamic any other way. I’d written a woman who wanted, a woman who fought to be taken seriously at every turn, and to have one man who trusted her judgment, believed in her without constantly questioning her skill, her professionalism, her talent, or her very sanity would be such a relief for her. To have one man who just did what she asked, for once, would be so appealing. And as for Tom, to know a woman who was so competent that he could trust her, and could let go, would be the best gift he could be given. He would cherish being able to give love and affection without having to worry about whether or not she could take care of herself.

Starting off with one “what-if” that reversed a gendered stereotype– a woman who wanted, rather than a woman who was wanted– led me all the way to femdom. It doesn’t have to work that way, but it did for me, for this book, for these characters. I’d like to think that we’ll see more and more of this kind of dynamic in romance, that it will begin to seem less deviant, soon, not only because I love reading it, but because on a larger cultural level, it might indicate that we have finally begun to accept a more flexible view of sexuality, both male and female. I’m hopeful, since there have been some fantastic femdom books written by writers of this very blog, as well as some of my favorites: Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, and Del Dryden; and short stories by Anne Calhoun and Edie Harris in the Agony/Ecstasy anthology.

For writers, have you ever accidentally written a theme that scares you? For readers, do you have a favorite femdom book?

And, since this is shameless self-promotion, have a buy link: Have Mercy at Amazon or at Barnes and Noble

Posted in Reading, Shameless Self-Promotion | 6 Comments