Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of leading an advanced retreat with Susan Brown, a master writing teacher I met at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference, where I’ve been teaching memoir for the past few years.
Susan is the best writing teacher I’ve ever met. After a 30-year career teaching creative writing at the university level, she really knows how to get her material across. In addition to her great skills in the classroom, Susan has a great sense of humor and a contagious spirit of adventure, so one night, at a fancy party overlooking the Jardin in San Miguel, I invited her to come to California to teach with me.
For our first retreat together, I didn’t advertise; I hand-picked a group of students who’d worked with me for a long time-some of them for years-all of whom were deeply committed to a project, be it fiction, memoir or non-fiction. I knew that Susan would have a lot to teach them about the craft of writing narrative-how to find the plot in a memoir, how to create symbolic imagery that weaves through a novel, how to improve dialogue and characterization, and how to use plot points to create suspense and keep a reader turning the pages.
What Susan brought to the retreat exceeded my expectations. I learned a tremendous amount about writing-and I’ve been successful author and writing teacher for 25 years. Not only did Susan work tirelessly with my students; it turns out she is a wizard with structure. She was able to take each writer’s collection of episodic adventures-or single chapters, and see how to impose a plot to create a cohesive, compelling whole. One woman came into the retreat assuming she was writing a memoir and came out writing a novel. Another came in writing a novel and is now writing a memoir. People threw out hundreds of “starter pages” and left with a new direction, vastly improved writing skills, and a fire in their belly.
But my favorite lesson from the week, which was basically a last minute add-on the final day, was how to write an effective sex scene. “Once you get genitals on the page, it’s a total yawn,” Susan informed us in her typical brusque style. “And bodily fluids? Well, they’re just gross. An effective sex scene is all about the seduction.”
Compare these two examples. The first is an edited excerpt from a published novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford:
Within a few seconds they were both completely undressed, naked on the rug in front of the fire. Ian sat back on his haunches looking down at her. She never failed to stir his blood.
Staring back at him, Kay saw the intensity in his luminous hazel eyes, twin reflections of her own filled with mounting desire. She lifted her arms to him…In answer, he stretched himself on top of her. How perfect we fit together, he thought.
‘I want you,’ she whispered against his neck, and her long, tapering fingers went up into his hair.
He wanted her as much as she wanted him, but he also wanted to prolong their lovemaking…And so he kissed her very slowly, languorously.
As he began to caress her breasts, her hands moved down over his broad back, settled on his buttocks. Smoothing his hand up along her leg, he slipped in between her thighs; her soft sighs increased as he finally touched that damp, warm, welcoming place. She arched her body, then fell back, moaning.
Now he could hardly contain himself and parted her legs and entered her swiftly, no longer able to resist her.
Kay began to move frantically against him, her hands tightly gripping his shoulders, her whole body radiating heat and desire for him he had not seen in her before. Excited beyond endurance, he felt every fibre of his being exploding as he tumbled into her warmth, and she welcomed him ecstatically.
I mean does that passage do anything but embarrass you? For me, it’s a total yawn. Now read this one, written in response to Susan’s lesson, by Jen Astone, a student in my Friday feedback class who’s writing a memoir about her fieldwork in Guinea:
The night sky enveloped us in velvet darkness on the small porch. We were finally alone. I had been thinking of this moment all day and now I was here fidgeting with my small iron house key. The day’s rains had released the earthy scents of the soil overrun by sweet potato vines. Goats shuffled in their wooden pen. I leaned in to Abdoul’s shoulder, touching his upper arm for the briefest of moments, as I searched for his hand.
We had flirted like this for the past year, a brush of skin on skin like a hummingbird’s darting flight from flower to flower. Was I reading more than I should into our relationship? He was the elusive village brother who lived in another town. Would he break the rules with me?
I lived in and studied his strict Muslim village, apprentice to the proper conduct of men and women. I had adopted his mother as my own. But now, my fingers ached to feel his torso; my body craved his close presence.
I placed the key to the front door in his palm. “It’s so good to be back in the Fuuta. Everything smells so alive here.”
“I’m glad you’re back.” He cradled the key and dropped it in his pocket as we stood there, the space between us small yet unbroken, thick with taboo.
That scene is a lot hotter, don’t you think? It certainly made me squirm. And did I want to turn the page? You betcha.
Susan and I are going to make our “Using the Secrets of the Masters to Take Your Writing to the Next Level” an annual retreat. You can learn more here:
P.S. When I asked Jen for her permission to quote this excerpt from her memoir, she gave her approval, but asked that you, the readers, refrain from quoting or sharing it elsewhere since it’s in a work in progress and not yet published.