Last month, a magazine called Bartleby Snopes published my short story “The Dinosaur Graveyard.” It’s a partly fictional story about first love and the fleeting quality of memory, and there’s plenty of sex. So which parts are fictional?
I’m not telling.
We’re all grown ups here. Honestly, I’m not embarrassed writing about sex, because when I write I’m not thinking about publication. I’m thinking about the story, and how to stay true to it. For nonfiction, that means staying tethered to memory even as you drift far enough away to examine it from the outside. For fiction, it simply means staying true to your characters.
The moment a story is accepted for publication is when I start picturing my family reading it. And that’s not a pretty picture if the story is a sexy one. There’s my dad to think about (cringe), and my brother (thank God he’s not on Facebook).
It’s ridiculous, of course. They both know perfectly well how children are made, and that I have two. They both know the definition of fiction, and that not everything I write is based on—ahem—experience.
Still, it’s awkward, and no one addresses this in a more funny or eloquent way than Barbara Kingsolver. In a March 2000 essay for The New York Times, the famous novelist confessed that unlike her previous books, her upcoming Prodigal Summer (HarperCollins 2000) had lots of sex, and she worried how she’d be judged:
I’ve begun to think about the people who will soon be sitting in their homes, on airplanes and in subways with their hands on this book. Many people. My mother, for instance.
. . . I’ve written about every awful thing from the death of a child to the morality of political assassination, and I’ve never felt fainthearted before. What is it about describing acts of love that makes me go pale?
It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. What I’m reminded of is me as a little girl having sneezing fits in the car when George Michael came on the radio:
George Michael: I want your—
Me: Achoo! ACHOO!
My mother: Goodness! Are you okay?
I’m not a little girl anymore, but some things never change. So when I published the link on Facebook to my story, I added a warning for my family’s benefit: “Rated R for sexual content.”
I felt kind of silly doing it, but I’m only following Kingsolver’s advice. Among her suggestions on how to make peace with coition in writing is, “We must warn our mothers before the book comes out.”
Do you ever feel nervous about your family reading your work, even when it’s fiction? Share your story with me, and don’t forget to subscribe. 🙂