Writing Erotic Romance Without Apology
There isn’t a time in my life I can recall when I wasn’t writing. From scratch pads stolen from my grandparents’ print shop to spiral notebooks filled to the max with longhand stories, I have always been a writer.
The same isn’t true for my comfort level with my writing, and to a degree, this persists today. It’s something I’ve mentioned before (recently, though in passing, in my post about the Bechdel Test), that I have brushed aside with disparaging remarks when asked the “what do you write?” question from strangers. The thing is, I’m not uncomfortable with the paranormal elements, or the religious elements, or the contemporary elements, or any element…aside from romance.
It has always been this way with me, though I’ve grown leaps and bounds over the years. I used to be embarrassed just writing a kissing scene that I knew no one else but me would ever see. I would angst about it, blush over it, and go back and reread it as though afraid people would know it was there. Granted, this was when I was around twelve—that age where all kids are becoming increasingly aware of themselves and their sexuality. To a degree, my response was normal.
My earliest attempt at genuine novel writing consisted of mostly horror and suspense work. The material was graphic and gory, with no romance to speak of. When I was in high school, I penned a high fantasy with a love story in it, but I killed the hero to keep it from being a romance. Through each subsequent fictional exploration, the romance thread was prominent, but typically understated, like I was afraid to apply more focus, lest people know what I was doing. It wasn’t until I discovered fanfiction that romance writing graduated from this thing I fixated upon guiltily to something that I found inherent in my voice.
The trouble is, that sense of discomfort remained. I was known in high school for being very prolific, but I didn’t want to share that I was prolific in writing fanfiction—never mind romance fanfiction. Even my best friend (then and to this day), Nikki London, had to persuade me to let her read any of my work. I was nervous and uncomfortable. Whereas the internet had provided a blanket of anonymity, I had no such guarantee of acceptance and encouragement from someone I had to see every day. Someone who could spy my vulnerability and make my life hell for it. Writing itself is intensely personal, even if the characters aren’t your own. You feel stripped naked the first time you let someone into your world.
I’d like to say I got over it. That after Nikki responded favorably, I let her read all of my work without a second thought. I did become more relaxed, graduating in heat level the older I became; my behind-the-scenes sex became graphic, hardcore explicit scenes. When I was in college, and still writing fanfic, Nikki was my most fervent fan, demanding to read everything I wrote. I sent her chapters as I finished them, and mostly—mostly—killed the self-conscious voice inside. On occasion, I’d attach a novel-length disclaimer to the emails containing an X-rated chapter, detailing my self-consciousness and discomfort. I’m not sure Nikki ever realized how hard it was for me on those days, because by then she had read things that would make a sailor blush and fed me hours of praise. Why my puritanical self-awareness would pop up every now and then remained a mystery, even to me. And when I left fanfiction behind and began pursuing a publishing career with my own characters in my own worlds, I still clung to that blanket of anonymity that had become my second skin in high school.
I tell people I write under a penname because I don’t want to scandalize my family. That’s true, to a degree. My grandparents are incredibly religious, very conservative folks, who once told my mother they were worried about me because I watched Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which, if you all remember, aired on ABC Family. For them, it was too suggestive. Yet I respect and adore my grandparents; they are two of the best people I know, and I don’t want them worrying over my soul because I write explicit sex scenes, or worse, have an irreverent attitude toward the theological.
That is the reason I tell people, and myself. But I have to admit something else: I didn’t want anyone to know. Not my mom, not my brother, not the kids I hated in high school. I didn’t want them to know little Rosalie had grown up to be an erotic romance author.
As a side-note, I am very grateful for my penname now, and for reasons unrelated to my personal comfort level with what I write. It’s better for my jobs (both of them) if I keep my writing categorized under a different name.
Here’s the thing: the attitudes prevalent in our society regarding men and women are incredibly different, especially when it comes to sex. I don’t want to rehash all my points from my posts last month, but sex is something women are supposed to be more demure about, more emotional, less secure, and less enthusiastic. Women who enjoy sex—having it, reading it, or writing it—are threatening creatures. Consider Judy Buranich, who was accused of being unfit to teach children because she pens steamy romance on the side. Do you think parents would have given a crap if she’d written mysteries, true crime, or even horror? Or heck, you don’t even have to look at the romance novel industry—Miley Cyrus has become synonymous with “cry for help” like so many girls who came before her. She’s shed the Disney version of herself and become overly sexualized, and the world waits with bated breath to see how long it’ll take before she implodes for good. Imagine for a moment Justin Bieber had performed the exact same number with Robin Thicke at the VMAs in the exact same style. Sure, it would have gotten attention, but would it be the same attention? The same response from the public?
I don’t think so.
So many of my author colleagues are able to do what I am just now trying to really do, and damn, do I envy you. You’re proud to announce that you write erotic romance. You don’t qualify the statement by adding “trashy” or “smut” or “porn” to the genre. I have noticed in myself, as I stated in my Bechdel post, a tendency to do just that. To insult my writing as a way of deflecting or bypassing any scrutiny I might receive from a stranger. It doesn’t help that I have ingrained self-doubts for a completely separate reason. If anything, that compounds my discomfort. Because, aside from being an erotic romance author, I’m also an overweight erotic romance author.
I’ve already taught myself to be incredibly sensitive to any perceived negativity toward myself or my interests, and while a degree of self-preservation is healthy, there comes a time when you have to draw a line. For me, that’s with apologizing preemptively, or being uncomfortable when I announce what I write. Hell, I am married (almost two years now), and have been with my husband for over half a decade, and yet the thought of him reading my work manages to make me uncomfortable.
Yes, it’s that absurd.
So I have to ask myself…why?
Because this was how I was brought up. Plain and simple. Perhaps not intentionally. But to draw attention to myself was always a bad thing, and something to be avoided. While my mother is somewhat of a hippie, I spent a good part of my childhood with my grandparents (who were really my second parents), and I learned that Sex Is Bad And Only For Making Babies. I learned enjoying sex was evil. I learned good girls don’t do it, don’t think it, don’t want it. And while I know all of this is wrong—I’ve known for twenty years this line of thinking is wrong—yet it is engrained. I thought all romance novels were trash until I started reading them, until I realized that this was what I wrote. Because good girls don’t enjoy sex. And chubby girls don’t draw attention to themselves by being sexual creatures.
I’ve known this about myself for a while now, but it’s a hard thing to actively combat, since so much of my thinking is hardwired. Becoming aware of a certain behavior is the first step to changing it. I want to change it—I don’t want to qualify what I write when asked. I might politely warn readers who don’t ordinarily gravitate toward romance, but I need to stop preemptively apologizing. Because beneath that puritanical bullshit is a woman who is damn proud of what she does. And a woman who is comfortable in her skin, even if I am overweight. Fuck anyone who tries to tell me differently. I owe no explanations. The reason I apologize, do this, is because I’m worried about offending others or being hurt by preconceived notions I thrust upon myself as a defense mechanism. But people have no inherent right to not be offended, or to make others ashamed for enjoying what they like as long as it A) Doesn’t hurt anyone and B) Makes them happy.
So this is what I’m going to work on this year. Not qualifying what I write. This will entail learning to live with discomfort until said discomfort fades on its own, but as an OCD survivor, I’m no stranger to that. I can’t promise it’ll be easy, but it is necessary. Because as a feminist, I am not inwardly ashamed at all, and if someone takes it upon themselves to try to make me feel uncomfortable, that speaks to their character, not mine.
What I wonder is, how many erotic romance authors out there had a similar journey? How many had to get passed their own hang-ups and embrace the nature of what they write? Do you have stories, tips, or anything you can share with the rest of us?