Don’t Fondle My Sentence: Sex with Strangers, Casual Critiques, and Fearlessly Arty Applesauce


After Halloween’s explosion of exuberance and magic, November glides in more softly, a month of waning light and color. Fortunately, some thoughtful neighbors of mine always rescue a few pumpkins from the jack-o-lantern carving block to adorn their porch and bring a splash of orange fire to the dying landscape. In this edition of Cooking Up a Storey, I thought I’d do the same and carry on last month’s discussion of the role of mentors and critiquing in the writing life.

I mentioned in October that I’d been approached by a few beginning writers who expressed the hope that I’d be willing to comment on their work. I discussed in some detail one of the unspoken questions hovering over such a request—the expectation that I, or any “experienced” writer, had the power to assure a newcomer that they truly belong in the guild. I actually came up with an easy answer to that one, a fiery orange lesson I draw on for myself when I’m feeling wobbly at my keyboard, and I’m happy to pass on the maestro’s wisdom (Are You a “Real” Writer?) to anyone who asks.

However, there is another implicit assumption in such a request that I’m not so sure I can handle. Again, because I’ve been there myself, I suspect when new writers ask for my “comments” they believe that my opinion of their work can either validate or improve their story, merely because I’ve been published myself.

In this I think they are very much mistaken.

Not that I haven’t experienced some amazingly fruitful and instructive feedback from fellow writers. Recently I likened the critiquing relationship to having sex with someone—from the traditional female perspective. You can do it with anyone, but it’s only good with a fairly small percentage of willing bed partners out there, those who care enough about you to take the time to give you real pleasure or likewise have enough of a sportfucking ego to insist on your orgasm as a trophy. However, it’s only truly great with a partner with whom you share a deeper emotional bond and that rarest of treasures, trust. (I’ll go out on a limb and argue this part is true for men, too).

So let’s talk intimate encounters.

Back in my teens and twenties, I took a few writing classes and bedded more than a few partners, some of whose names I barely knew. I don’t regret these adventures. The latter has come in very handy in my erotic writing and helped me define what I do want in a sex partner. And the writing classes? Well, they certainly helped me define what I don’t want in a critiquing relationship.

Stroll down memory lane with me for a moment to take a peep into my checkered past. No, not the exploratory late adolescent couplings on single dorm-room beds, but a scene of more intimate agony and ecstasy: a college creative writing seminar. Imagine a group of six or seven undergraduates seated on sofas in the toasty converted classroom of an old elementary school at 185 Nassau Street, an address that still makes my stomach twist into anxious knots. In strides the Famous Writer of the semester—or more often the Not-So-Famous-Writer who is interested in making some money on the side by teaching at Princeton. After all the location is perfect for a quick commute down from the city, where all Real Writers make their abodes. The Writer sits in the lone padded armchair and shuffles the mimeographed copies of the week’s stories. The students draw in a collective breath, wondering who will be on display this week and what will happen to the victims. The pathetic souls will definitely be stripped naked on the page but what comes after? Will they be flogged or fondled and praised?

Oddly, or perhaps not, I remember little else of my four semesters of being “mentored” but this public spectacle, the seemingly arbitrary praise or censure from our nation’s elite wordsmiths. Sometimes they liked a turn of phrase, which they read aloud approvingly. Sometimes I only learned they had admired a story when a later story was deemed sadly inferior. Mood and taste, the fit of sensibility or lack thereof seemed as important as my words in determining the worthiness of the effort. In other words, some teachers liked my writing and some didn’t.

I did take away a few valuable lessons. I did my very first extensive revision of one badly skewered story and discovered that it was indeed better the second time around. And I have glowingly fond memories of a Very Famous Writer telling me in the quiet of his office hours that I was talented and should keep writing. Perhaps not coincidentally, this particular writer was exceedingly kind to all the students in his class and gave us mostly praise or thoughtful suggestions in the spirit of the story. But the main consequence of my apprenticeship under the great and mighty says it all. After I left college, I didn’t dare write a word of fiction for fourteen years.

Now I realize I can’t exactly blame my teachers for this extended vacation. Surely I needed that time to find my voice and my confidence. Once I did begin writing again, I was fortunate enough to find a casual peer writing group, consisting of my former grad students. This experience was far more helpful and inspiring because the power dynamic was radically different in this group. The writer giving the critique knew she would in turn face critique of her own work. For all of us, writing fiction was an enriching way to take a break from academic work, so we focused on the joy of creation rather than proving ourselves as Real Writers with agents and Manhattan addresses. Still, I will admit some of the members “got” my work more than others, and I had to struggle at times to separate the wheat from the chaff. The group disbanded around the time I became more serious and published more. I wonder now, if like a love relationship, the dynamic might have changed with our changing levels of dedication? I’m sure there are exceptions, but anecdotal evidence seems to support the idea that writing groups work best when the members are peers.

My other major experience with critiquing was through Francis Ford Coppola’s online writing workshop called Zoetrope Virtual Studios. This is the Plato’s Retreat of critiquing experiences because you submit a story to the public forum and any one of the hundreds of writers in the group can review it and give you numerical scores (gasp!) on plot, character, and quality of writing, as long as they produce at least one hundred words of feedback. Predictably many of the reviews were either meaningless praise or pointless panning. A surprising number would counsel me on how I should write my story according to their tastes. Once in a while, however, a thoughtful reviewer would give my story a close reading and come up with ways to make it better.

Then we’d go off and make out in a private chat room. (Not really, but we often did become friends).

While I’m on the topic of online writing groups, I understand that ERWA’s StoryTime is an excellent way for new erotica writers to get supportive feedback from people who “get it.” Again this is probably because it is more like a writing group of peers with similar goals than a public free-for-all. Had I joined ERWA at an earlier phase in my writing life, I would definitely have taken advantage of this aspect of a great community.

Instead I was battered and toughened in the ways I described, which doubtless made the criticism and rejection of editors somewhat easier to take. Yet, just as I have no desire to return to my sailor-seducing days, I’m no longer interested in letting strangers fondle my lovingly crafted sentences. Nowadays I’ve settled down with only two cherished and trusted first readers of my work. I’m monogamously married to one, so the sex/critiquing metaphor is quite appropriate there. Fortunately he is not a writer himself, so his reading is blessedly free of even a whiff of competition. My relationship with my other first reader, a writer and fellow Asia scholar, developed over ten years. It wasn’t all easy, but we started out with a natural affinity for each other’s sensibility and worked through the rough times. Our story shares over dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant have all the reassuring grace of long-time companions who respect each other’s vision, but are comfortable with pointing out weaknesses.

At this point in the process, my mentoring comes from reading the work of other writers and absorbing their lessons in action on the page without any sticky personal politics. I believe I learn more by keeping an open mind and showing up at the computer to write and rewrite and write some more.

While I’m flattered by requests for my feedback and I could certainly mark up any story in red, in the end I’d only be indicating how I would write someone else’s story to my taste. I could tell them to be stingy with adverbs and dialogue tags other than “said.” I could counsel that they start with a solid hook and have an ending that circles back to theme or echoes the title because I tend to use such tricks. Yet all of these suggestions, even the part about the adverbs, which might seem like god-given law, are all a matter of preference. Countless excellent stories have broken every rule a teacher can devise because the passion and vision and creativity of the writer will always trump every “thou shalt not” in the book.

So what’s the lesson here? Should you avoid classes and watch the MFA’s swarm the soup kitchens, shed your worn-out writing group and blaze your own solitary trail through the wilds of the English language? Every writer’s relationship with her readers, teachers and editors, formal and informal, will indeed change over time. My advice? Yeah, I know I’ve basically lectured you on why you don’t want my advice, but I’ll give it to you anyway. Do what feels right for you now, but don’t forget your writer’s “condom”—a skintight pledge to protect your vision and your passion no matter who tries to finger your juicy bits.

This month, in keeping with my fuck-authority message, I want to pass along an “approach” to homemade applesauce that can be anything you want it to be. The result is always different—and tasty—every time I make it, just like a story written with courage and passion.

A Non-Recipe for Fearlessly Arty Applesauce

(Serves as many as you like)

Quarter, core, peel and slice:
About 8-10 medium apples of your preferred variety from tart Granny Smith to sweet Golden Delicious. Almost any cooking variety will work well, although Red Delicious is not recommended. Just as character plays the major role in fiction, the taste of the apples will be the largest factor in your final result—all the more reason to experiment and see what works best for you.

Add two or three peeled, pitted and sliced peaches or pears in season, if you dare to play loose with genre.

Add fruit to a large, heavy-bottomed pan along with:

1/3 cup water to start and add more if the apples stick to the pan. Don’t go overboard, though. Best to keep the result dense and flavorful like sharp, evocative prose.

Bring the fruit to a boil over medium heat then turn heat to low and cover, checking often, until the apples have boiled themselves down into a sauce. Crush remaining chunks of fruit against the side of the pan with a fork, or leave them if you want texture. If the sauce is runny, you can thicken it by continuing to simmer gently uncovered until it reaches the desired consistency, but stir often so it doesn’t stick.

Taste the sauce. Sweeter varieties or pear or peach applesauce may need no additional flavoring at all—let it go naked in all its glory. But you might find the sauce could use a little editing. As in writing, if you’re willing to deal with the consequences, you can basically add whatever the fuck you want at this point, but dumping in the entire list is of secrets ingredients is probably overkill. I’ll give you my palette of flavors. Innovate as wildly as your muse allows.

White or brown sugar, one Tablespoon at a time (come on, you’re a grown up, you know the authentic sweetness of the season’s freshest apple wins out over the stale plotline of processed sugar every time)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or to taste
Fresh ground nutmeg
A pinch of cloves
Pumpkin pie spice to taste
Chinese five spice powder to taste
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Serve warm or place in a container and refrigerate. Homemade applesauce is great with latkes or pumpkin pancakes, mixed with cottage cheese, or in any fearless form your creative mind can conjure. You may also freeze the applesauce; it keeps well for six weeks, which reminds me I have a container from peach season that is about to expire, so I’ll see you next month. Bon Appetit!

Donna George Storey
November 2009

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2009 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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