Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex

Image from Flickr by cheerfulmonk

Image from Flickr by cheerfulmonk

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. 🙂


  1. Well…you’re Dad did just fine with the story. No trauma noted…lol. It was a different story line than some of your others and it wasn’t my favorite story you’ve written, but it was still very good and I appreciate it for that. You have to understand that I never read the Twilight books or Shades of Gray. Personal choice. You are an excellent writer and I enjoy your stories. Don’t limit your abilities. Write what you want.

    People always told me I should write a book because I have a LOT of stories in me and I would just cringe. How do you tell the stories without invading the privacy of others? What if someone wrote about me and I didn’t feel the same way they did? The answer is really simple…you write about things from “your” perspective and that is going to be different from others. You write “your” truth. If other people don’t like it then they just have to figure out a way to deal with it as long as you aren’t being deliberately hateful or hurtful. I don’t believe you have these qualities in you so write away, young one, and make a place in this world for yourself. It’s a great adventure that very few embark on. I love what you are accomplishing. We are so proud of you. We are two of your staunchest supporters. Love you.

    • Haha, oh good! I’m glad there was no trauma involved. Yes, privacy issues, hurt feelings, those are definitely things we have to consider when we write. I think very carefully before trying to publish nonfiction, especially where your lovely grandchildren are concerned. The nice thing is that I get a much stronger response for nonfiction than fiction, and my nonfiction is obviously me. The fiction–meh. It’s my favorite to write, but it’s easy to accept when it doesn’t strike a chord with someone, because people have very different tastes in fiction. Personally, I’m right there with you on Fifty Shades. 😉
      Thanks for commenting, Oma!

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    Found you through your comment on Ali’s site and couldn’t resist following the link to your latest post!

    Too true about family reading your stuff. I have lived around a bit and ended up deleting my mothers name from my feed because she just took everything I wrote as ‘overly critical’ about the ‘country that nurtured me’.

    I ended up feeling that I couldn’t write lest it be seen as attacking my home country. So I deleted her! I shudder to think what her reaction might be if I write a novel one day (it’s in my plans) based on all the partying we did in East Africa!

    Writings an intensely personal, yet very public thing isn’t it? Tricky in today’s hyper connected world.
    Stay well and good luck with your work!

    • Hi Ian,

      Thanks for the reply! I’m glad you followed the link 🙂 I love Ali’s blog.

      It sounds like you had little choice in separating your mom from your writing. They say to write with your audience in mind, but when that impedes our creative work, I say it’s not a good thing.

      I agree it’s a tricky balance between the personal nature of writing and the public sharing of it. That very issue kept me from starting a blog for a long time. But our choices as writers are narrowing; it’s no longer feasible to stay hidden behind our work.

      Good luck on your novel! You have a great setting (East Africa), and I’m sure it’ll be a good read.

      Take care,