Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Great Good Place for a Reading

My Amorous Woman book events continue—including a radio appearance on Berkeley’s famous “Free Speech” radio, KPFA, this coming Monday—but I wanted to let you all know about my last in the flesh appearance last Thursday, October 30 at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland’s charming Montclair neighborhood.

A Great Good Place for Books came well recommended by many writer friends as a place that is open-minded and supportive of local writers, and sure enough, the reports were all true! I’d been to a few readings there before and knew it would be a cozy, intimate venue, just perfect for my free “lips-on” erotica writing workshop and reading from my dirty novel.

The coordinator for books events, the very charming Jake, welcomed me, my two escorts and my tray of tasting chocolate and adult fortune cookies with news that she’d received more queries about my event by phone than any in a long time. This was perhaps due to the interview with me in The East Bay Monthly—and indeed four complete strangers did attend the reading because of the article, which is a record for this type of thing. Most attendees are either friends or friends of friends, so strangers to me, but with a referral.

While I waited, I browsed around the store, which truly impressed me with its thoughtful and intelligent selection of books. The fiction section was especially strong. I could just tell the books were chosen with love and care, and as you know, this is key for me. Jake gave me some more happy news—as thanks for reading at the store, I was allowed to choose one book to take home with me as a gift. This alone makes A Great Good Place for Books one of the Greatest, Best Places to Give a Reading. I urge Bay Area residents to make a stop there and check it out! And pick up a copy of Amorous Woman for the favorite people on your holiday shopping list while you’re there.

Anyway, I was rather giddy from Jake’s wonderful offer and as I looked around the store I was sure it would be impossible to pick one. But then, as if by magic, my eye was drawn to a book right in front of me on the shelf. The author’s name was “Sheila Munro.” I pulled the book out and discovered that Alice Munro’s daughter had written a memoir: Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro. I adore Alice Munro and long wondered whether someone would write a good biography of her. This was the answer to my longing! In the end, it took no time at all to decide on my prize, and I can’t wait to dig in and read about all the quotidian secrets of my idol and the way she balanced writing and motherhood.

But first I had an erotic-writing workshop to present. A little after 7 pm, I took my seat at the “head of the class” and began my introductory remarks for my workshop. It’s pretty hard to cover all the basics for sensual writing in twenty minutes, so I decided to focus on a few key ideas. And since the class was free, there’s no reason why I shouldn't share them here on my blog!

So, here are some of the highlights of my talk:

“A lot of people ask me why I write erotica. All of my writing is inspired by a question, a mystery—what’s really going on in this situation, inside this stranger’s head. When I was growing up, sex was definitely an unspeakable act in most polite books and movies, and I’ve always wondered what happens when the scene fades to the candle flame. There was a lot of writing about sex out there, but to me it was either too simplistic or somehow moralistic. There was very little sensual, not to mention intellectual, celebration of sex.

It seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with sex, it is very limited in the way it is presented. The focus is all on appearances, how things look. The media is always quantifying the experience—how many lovers we’ve had, how often we do it, how many variations have we tried? What we really want to know is what it feels like for other people—that’s the connection we really want when we talk about sex. And erotica is a very good way to make that connection.

When you write, you try to capture experience from the inside. Transforming experience into words is a challenge that requires you to pay very close attention to what’s happening with all of your senses. You need to ask a lot of new questions. You may have eaten chocolate hundreds of times, but it’s going to be totally different when you mean to write about it. For me this very empowering and exciting, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy goes from black and white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.

I think wherever you are in the continuum of the writing life--whether you’re an established writer or someone who’s just started journaling—taking on the challenge of putting “forbidden” sensual experience into words is worth doing. It will definitely change your life for the better.”

Okay, that’s from my notes, which I won’t quote in full (you’ll have to attend my next workshop to hear everything), but then I went on to read from my novel, then read a passage which I wrote for Don Capone’s interview with me on June 7 this year on how NOT to write a sex scene. Based on that passage I advised my “students” to avoid clichés, make the sex believable and frame the sex scenes in a story with strong conflict, interesting characters and fresh images. Easy, right?

I ended my lecture with the following advice for writing no-holds barred hot and sensual scenes:

“Create a safe space where you can celebrate your senses. No one is watching—not your parents, your teachers, church ladies, Fox News or God. Gather them all up and send them over to Starbucks (I'm sure God will set Sean Hannity back on the right--or should I say left?--course). You are protected from the moral majority. Remember that you’re dealing with some strong forces that are going to try to shut you up or at least ghettoize you, the idea is to be in a place where you can celebrate your sensuality. But there’s another group you need protection from—the editors, the people who tell you what a bad writer you are and how stupid your metaphors are and so on. This safe space is where you’re going to nurture the raw material of your writing. In this sense writing is like cooking. If you start with fresh, exciting ingredients, the finished dish is going to taste much better!”

By the way, this is advice I need to remember for myself every time I sit down to write.

Anyway, after I finished pontificating, I passed around a tray of three different kinds of Ghirardelli chocolate so my participants could do a focused taste-test—white chocolate, intense dark chocolate and the pleasantly subtle mint wafer. I guided the students through the process, suggesting they use all of their senses and take their time. The room was quiet except for the soft sound of mindful savoring and chewing and the scratching of pencils on paper as they jotted down notes. After a civilized time for meditation, I invited everyone to share responses to the exercise. I have to say I was very pleased with the answers, which reminded me again that teaching a class is more of a learning experience for the supposed expert than vice versa.

One person said she noticed her first reaction was to rate the chocolates rather than enjoy them on their own terms, showing how our “rational” judgment can get in the way of an immediate engagement with sensual experience. Another man said he noticed how the first taste of the chocolate was much more intense than succeeding ones, something I’ve found to be true. Someone said the smell of the chocolate brought back strong memories of a recent trip to Africa, and indeed our sense of smell provides a direct link to the past faster than any other sense. One man wrote an entire poem—it was pretty good—and another woman found herself making each chocolate into a character in a story. One was stronger, the other sweeter and more yielding.

Wow! The creative energy in the room was very inspiring. I tend to think of myself as a loner when it comes to my creative work, but there might be something to these writing workshops after all?

Afterward the formal discussion, we broke up and chatted a bit, I sold a copy of the book and left many more behind with Jake (remember, Amorous Woman is a low-cost trip to Japan for everyone on your gift list!) and headed out into the damp October night feeling very good about how far I’d come along the path of book promotion from the frightened and clueless newbie I once was. I know I’ll be much better prepared for my next novel--and I hope A Great Good Place for Books has a free night on their schedule for another workshop.

Speaking of which, I better get started writing that thing!


EllaRegina said...

This is all so great!

You are an inspiration, Donna!

I'm sorry I couldn't have been there myself.

I'm glad you had a rewarding evening (as did everyone else, it seems).

This is yet one more shining point on your upward trajectory of book promotion.

Good for you!

Craig Sorensen said...

Excellent, Donna.

You have condensed so many simple but elusive truths and distilled them beautifully.

Donna said...

Thanks, EllaRegina and Craig. You know, I hope some day we can sit around over dark chocolate and red wine and do a few writing exercises together. That would have made the evening truly transcendent!

EllaRegina said...


Craig Sorensen said...

Sounds delicious.

Count me in!

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with sex, it is very limited in the way it is presented."

Nicely put -- I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for sharing this with us; I was delighted to read how it went and am so glad for you that you enjoyed the experience and feel as though it served.

"feeling very good about how far I’d come along the path of book promotion from the frightened and clueless newbie I once was"

How delightful! I'm so glad you felt that way -- that seems like an accomplishment to be celebrated in and of itself!