retreats

How to Write a Sex Scene

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.

Searching for Sabbath

In preparing to lead the Coming Home retreat in November with my partner Karyn Bristol, I’ve been waking up in the early morning to reread one of my all-time favorite books: Sabbath by Wayne Muller. My copy is dog-eared and yellowed with many highlights, notes in the margins, the corners turned down. Every time I pick it up and read even a paragraph or two from its musty pages, my breath deepens and the tight places in my chest relax.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this weekend retreat. It has a very different focus than my other classes and workshops. It’s not about how to write a memoir or complete your novel—or how to pour out stories in a smooth, passionate flow on the page. It’s not about craft or even self-expression. It’s about reclaiming what we’ve given away in our acquiescence to the wild pace, outward focus, and busyness that characterizes so many of our lives.

Every aspect of the weekend will be designed to help us stop our momentum, remind us what truly matters, and achieve lost balance in our lives. And in the process, hopefully, rediscover our capacity for joy.

They say you always teach what you need to learn—and this is certainly the case for me here. When I look at all the individual things I’ve created, manifested, and brought to fruition—each of them individually has merit. One of the aspects of the Buddha’s eight-fold path is right livelihood, and my work definitely qualifies.

The work I do is good. It helps people express what’s deep inside them. It changes their lives. It builds community. It opens people’s hearts and heals them. It is deeply connected to my purpose and is a natural extension of who I am. Yet when all of those wonderful things are lined up together, when I look at them in the context of how I actually live my life, they keep me on a treadmill, catapulted from one wonderful, meaningful experience to the next. Because of course, each of these projects, classes or retreats require preparation, planning, promotion, and a million details that have to be tended.

When checking things off my to-do list is one of my greatest sources of pleasure, it’s certain something is wrong in my world.

This was the passage from Sabbath that stopped me in my tracks this morning:

“Sabbath requires surrender. If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop—because our work is never completely done. With every accomplishment there arises a new responsibility. Every swept floor invites another sweeping, every child bathed invites another bathing. When all life moves in such cycles, what is ever finished? The sun goes round, the moon goes round, the tides and seasons go round, people are born and die, and when are we finished? If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die.

“Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished. The old wise, Sabbath says: Stop now. As the sun touches the horizon, take the hand off the plow, put down the phone, let the pen rest on the paper, turn off the computer, leave the mop in the bucket, and the car in the drive. There is no room for negotiation, no time to be seduced by the urgency of our responsibilities. We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us for this hour, this day, and so we are invited—nay, commanded—to relax, and enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world.”

I just love that.

How to Be A Writer

I just had the great privilege and joy of facilitating my 8th annual Commonweal Writer’s Retreat in Bolinas, California last week. “The Writer’s Retreat of Your Dreams” is always one of my favorite weeks of the year. The confluence of a perfect environment, incredible healthy food cooked with love, the wild California coast, an incredible collection …

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The Top Ten Benefits of a Writing Retreat

1. Writing retreats lead to deep transformative experiences, cracking us open and awakening us to new possibilities. Nothing is as powerful as walking away from our daily lives to enter a safe, sacred environment solely focused on enhancing and supporting our creativity. One of the things I love most about retreats is seeing peoples’ faces change from the first day to the last. They often look scared and defended and uncertain on the first day—but by the end of the retreat, their faces are gleaming with love, connection and openness. 

2. You leave behind all the things that distract you from your writing. When we are freed from our to-do lists and the relentless pressure of the “undone,” we are free to focus on our heart’s desire: connecting with the deep place the truest writing comes from. 

3. You leave behind your excuses. Making a conscious choice to commit to your writing for an intensive period of time focuses the mind and leads to breakthroughs in your work—and in your life. 

Greetings From Commonweal

 I’m writing this from my fourth (or is it the fifth?) annual Writer’s Journey retreat at Commonweal. Commonweal is a large, comfortable retreat center in Bolinas California, butted right up against the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a center that focuses on healing gatherings for cancer patients, and the sacredness and energy of those gatherings can be felt the moment you walk in the door. It’s a magical place. A safe place. A quiet place. A place for healing and rejuvenation. Creativity flourishes here.

Right now, 21 writers are splayed out around me in the living room in a large oval, some on cushy couches, others on chairs, some sprawled on the floor or perched in backjacks. We range in age from 21 to 70. We are from Toronto and New York, Texas and all over California. Tonight we ate squash blossoms stuffed with fresh sweet corn and creamy ricotta cheese, a huge tray of sliced yellow beets, the freshest green salad with perfect avocados and roasted walnuts, and some kind of small pasta covered with a freshly-made roasted tomato-basil sauce. Peach-blueberry cobbler for dessert.  There is nothing like Clare’s food. I would go to a retreat on auto repair if Clare were the cook.

Tonight, I am trying to teach this unruly bunch of students (they get unruly at about this point in every retreat) how to incorporate vivid detail and a sense of time and place into their writing to make their stories come alive. We danced to drum music on our last break and now they’ve settled down and are writing for half an hour about their memories of a day when a major historic event took place, some time in the course of their lives—depending on their generation, it could be Kent State, the Kennedy assassination, 9-11, VJ Day, Pearl Harbor, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Challenger accident. Their task: “Tell me the story of that day and who you were at the time, using specific, sensory detail to evoke the time and place and the people around you.” Some of them will love this exercise; some of them will hate it. The ones that struggle with this one will fly with the next one. That’s how it is on a writing retreat.

We’ve only been here two days so far, and in that short time, we have formed a living, breathing, vibrant community.

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