Reading Like a Writer: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES and Writing Sex
Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that is full of great sex scenes. The scenes are diverse in terms of groupings as well as style and objective. Some are steamy, some are quiet, and some are horrifying.
Machado uses many smart techniques in the depiction of sex, but I'm particularly struck by the attention she pays to the breathing of the reader. In "The Husband Stitch," which includes a series of parenthetical instructions to the reader, she addresses breathing directly.
(If you read this story out loud, the sounds of the clearing can be best reproduced by taking a deep breath and holding it for a long moment. Then release the air all at once, permitting your chest to collapse like a block tower knocked to the ground. Do this again, and again, shortening the time between the held breath and the release.)
Heavy breathing is a cliché of arousal, but it's a good one. It's rooted in real experience, and in terms of making a scene sexier, it works. If the only detail you get is heavy breathing—if it's the only sound, say, from behind a closed door—your first thought is almost always sex.
Of course, this example does not occur in the precise middle of a sex scene, but once we're made conscious of our breathing, it's hard to let that awareness go and it therefore sort of spills into later scenes. It's a quick and easy way to increase the eroticism of a story.
Besides, I don't think it matters so much the kind of breathing that is happening, as the awareness of it. Breathing is necessarily heavier once we notice it. It has presence, which is followed very quickly by meaning.
Not every writer can pull off the direct instructions that Machado makes work so brilliantly in "The Husband Stitch." Not every story could hold them. So how can a writer of sex manipulate the reader's breathing without an explicit command?
Machado provides an example in "Mothers," another story from the collection. It's a lot more subtle, but the following sentence does the same thing.
Back in Bad's bed, in the good bed, as she slid her hand into me, and I pulled and she gave and I opened and she came without touching herself, and I responded by losing all speech, I thought, Thank god we cannot make a baby.
The rhythm of the sentence dictates when you breathe—the repetition, the stop and go. Read it again, out loud. (Especially do this if you happen to be in a public place.)
The pauses at those early commas, as well as at the ands, become like short intakes of breath. We may or may not take the breaths, but even if we don't, we feel them. The extra breaths, of course, are sexy, as are the noticeably breathless patches that follow.
I should note that this works best out loud, but many readers breathe along with sentences when reading in their head, too. If not, it's pretty easy to feel the breaths even without taking them.
But don't all sentences contain breath? Sure, but this sentence is remarkable because it contains too much of it. There are too many pauses and they are too close together for comfortable breathing. As the reader tries to keep up, it gets difficult, heavy even, and thus becomes more noticeable.
Then, look at how explicit the sentence is without being very explicit at all. Not a single word is dirty or crude. The only anatomy directly named is "hand." (Of course we know what's going on—there's the bed and the allusion to making a baby, in addition to the unquoted parts before and after.) In a less rhythmic sentence, non specific words might make the actions seem abstract—a summary of sex, a memory of it—rather than a play by play. But the rhythm here makes it feel like a real scene, unfolding before us. Each beat becomes a physical movement of the body.
The sentence does other sexy things, too. I'm interested in the italics at the end and the change they make happen. The final clause "Thank god we cannot make a baby," might even be a representation of climax. Maybe that's stretching the analysis too far, but hear me out. It's all about the many, simultaneous ways the sentence changes.
First, the italics just look different. That's a change in the reader's sensory experience. We have up and down letters. Then—boom—we have these snaky little guys.
Then there's the meaning of the italics. In this case, they mark the narrator's direct, in-the-moment thought. So we move from a concrete description of bodies into the mind. And what is that thought? It's a euphemism. So it's necessarily more abstract and cerebral than the choreography of the earlier clauses. The shift might be felt by the reader as a sudden absence of bodily awareness.
Italics can also represent emphasis, which is kind of like intensity, right? Even though these italics mean something else, the subconscious can't help feeling a sudden squeeze on the words.
There's a shift from positive to negative. The first part of the sentence is about things that do happen, while the second is about things that, ostensibly, do not. This, again, is a lift out of the concrete and into the abstract—from bodily presence to intellectual absence.
And of course the tense changes. The first part of the sentence is written in past tense, but the italicized thought is given in present tense, even as it gestures to the future.
Most of these shifts are subtle. They won't all be obvious to the reader; maybe none of them will be. But add them all up and something is there.
In all of these various ways, the sentence starts moving in a particular direction but then shifts, suddenly, to go a different way. Most people think of a climax as moving up and then falling. But isn't the fact of sudden change more important than the direction? This moment feels to me like a climax or a release—the sentence is having an orgasm.
Instead of just describing the experience of the characters, Machado uses each of these techniques to create sensations in the reader. Thus the reader can feeling the scene in the body, instead of just knowing it in the mind. Sex isn't the only reason to make a reader feel a scene, but it's a pretty good one!
Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss. Check out the Loft's Winter 2018 class offerings for her classes: Awkward is My Superpower: Writing Sex; and Reading the Other.