Feb 042010
 
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by Thomas Roche, www.thomasroche.com

A while back in this blog, M. Christian encouraged writers of any stripe — but especially erotic writers — to spread their wings and try new themes, genres, and styles.

Christian wants you to flex your literary muscles — better yet, work the hell out of them until they go rubbery with lactic acid. I think it’s damned good advice from a literary and creative standpoint. In any single instance, this strategy could make you a better writer and give you some interesting work to pimp — or it could leave you scratching your head and saying “Okay, that didn’t work.” As an overall strategy, it’s guaranteed to make you a better writer.

And the exact same thing is true about sexual taboos. Break them, and you’re guaranteed to get a rise out of yourself. Shatter them, and you’ll change the way you think. Run smack dab into a taboo that scares you — something that “squicks” you — and you’ve found something to fuel and uncomfortable moment in front of your computer. Sometimes those moments are the most inspirational; they lead to new turn-ons, new ideas, new stories, new imagined erotic situations. Maybe you’re lucky and even find something you think you simply can’t write about — or don’t think anyone should write about. In that case, you’ve potentially found the most fertile creative ground you’ll ever discover.

Or it might just make you feel creepy for a few days. That said, the experience of writing something that doesn’t work, like trying to write a western and having it crash and burn, will also make you a better writer. The overall trajectory of a writing career, in creative and artistic terms is almost invariably marked by two steps forward, one step back.

Before we go any further, I should do exactly that and take a step back. Let’s define two words I’ve already used, both of which are important. “Squick” is a word used in the BDSM community to describe that feeling of, “Ew.” Everyone has something that squicks them — with Dan Savage, it’s poo; with me it’s clowns, just for starters. In the BDSM community, some common squicks are needles, knives, age play, bodily fluids. At a BDSM event or a play party or in writing BDSM erotica, getting “squicked” means you leave the room, stop reading, or stare in mingled fascination and disgust.

The second important word, “taboo,” is so misused that I want to define it, courtesy of Wikipedia, the arbiter of either all things or nothing, depending on whom you ask:

“A taboo is a strong social prohibition…relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and forbidden based on moral judgment…Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society.”

As a horror writer, I set out to write something that frightens me and, ideally, will frighten my audience. As an erotica writer, I set out to turn myself on, and hopefully turn on my audience. Both genres often rely on transgression of some sort — the breaking of taboos — to provide the fuel and conflict. Whether it’s a happy straight couple feeling each other up in a lingerie changing booth, or a serial killer stalking people through a Louisiana swamp, with both horror and erotica, in my view somebody’s probably doing something they’re not supposed to, or you don’t have a story.

That’s why my philosophy of pushing boundaries is so important to my own personal writing process. Finding the inspiration to write is, for me, a profoundly personal act; to find my own taboos, to learn to work with them, I’ve had to delve into weirdness and get a hold on things I never would have considered sexy.

For me, when I was about 21, the most intense taboo I had was writing about sex between men. That freaked the fucking hell out of me; I was aware from the outset that this experience was about internalized homophobia. I wrote some gay porn anyway — for a not-very-good reason because I was far more financially poor than I was homophobic, and someone was paying $100. It went swimmingly. I grew up and got less homophobic. I write (mostly) straight erotica now, but the experience of writing completely transformed my experience of sexuality.

Or, your taboos might be disturbing not just to you but to other people. Some years ago I wrote a story called “Death Rock,” told from the point of view of a woman whose boyfriend wants her to play dead; in the heart of this necrophilia fantasy, I utterly creeped myself out. Over the years it’s proved to be one of my more commented-upon stories.

But there are risks in writing about taboo; I’ve written far more “taboo” stories that have never been — and never will be — published than I’ve written ones that’ve seen the light of day. Writing about what disturbs me can be such a cathartic act that I often end up with a mess; other times, I end up with something that is so reprehensible and bizarre that I could never see sharing it with the world.

Do these cathartic moments produce marketable stories? Almost never. But they’re important. To me, at least.

For me, the most satisfying part of writing fiction is the catharsis I’ve heard described as “vomiting onto the page.” The most intense experience of catharsis I ever have is when I sit down and think “What am I freaked out about today?” and then “vomit” out a thousand, two thousand, three or five or eight thousand words about it.

You won’t read those stories any time soon; they never see the light of day.

And I don’t sleep particularly well on those nights, for one of about a dozen reasons — ideally, for several of them. But in the space of fifteen minutes or three hours, in exploring my own taboos, I’m changed — utterly changed.

And for me, that’s kinda the whole point of writing in the first place.

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  One Response to “The Art of the Taboo”

  1. I completely enjoyed this article and relate to it. A lot of what I’ve written does explore stuff that squicks me or breaks taboos. I come away from writing it completely and utterly changed. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

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