storytelling, soul + the power of the erotic
The universe is made of stories. — Muriel Rukeyser
I was struck by this post by online blogger-god Jon Morrow. As one of the “five techniques for spicing up your writing” he recommends that you :
“Our job as writers is to say the things other people are unable or unwilling to say. Sometimes that means being brutally honest, but more often, it means touching the taboo – subjects like cowardice, greed, jealousy, hate, and yes, sex.
Instead of running away from all those scary feelings inside you, cuddle up next to them and say howdy. Get to know them. Learn how they work. See them for what they are rather than what you feared they would be.
Yes, it’s hard, but this is what we do, people. We speak the unspeakable.
If you flinch at the idea of writing a steamy sex scene, how will you ever find the courage to address topics like suicide, double standards, and legacy? Those are the really tough topics, and the truth is, you’ll never be able to learn how to handle them with grace until you can feel something scary and not go running for cover.
In my opinion, sex is a good place to start, because while it’s dangerous, it’s also fun. Writing a steamy sex scene can and should be a helluva good time.”
It was a moment of synchronicity for me because I’m co-hosting an “erotica for entrepreneurs ( + writers!)” workshop with my writing coach Rachel Resnick in LA on Feb 17. (I’m a big fan of Rachel. So is Cheryl Strayed, who provides one of the testimonials.) One of the promises we make is to help “unleash your writing voice” and I was really struck by that.
Seth Godin writes a lot about the importance of being vulnerable (in fact, he wrote a picture book for adults called V is for Vulnerable). To work with risk and vulnerability, to bring all of yourself to your message: Godin refers to this as art, which he claims is the only true way to “create things that matter to other people”.
We bond with each other through vulnerability. We crave authenticity and connection. We live in a superficially polite society, and sometimes we want more.
We don’t just want to know what you think. We want to know what you really think.
People hesitate to do this – to put themselves on the line like this – because it’s polarizing.
Some people won’t like you.
If you’re willing to take that risk, though – to say what others are unwilling to say — here’s the thing:
A lot of people will find you fascinating.
When they see you take a stand, they will stand by you (and buy your stuff, and advocate for you, and demonstrate other signs of fierce loyalty).
One of my favorite nonfiction books of recent years is Sally Hogshead’s FASCINATE; in order to cut through the noise, in order to catch people’s attention and compel them, you have to invoke an “intense emotional focus” (which is how she defines fascination).
There are seven “psychological triggers” that we are, thanks to evolution, hardwired to respond to, and one of these triggers is passion (which Sally originally called lust).
Passion can infuse
“…communication with warmth and positive chemistry. Passion can bring approachability and friendliness to a conversation, encouraging strangers to lower their natural barriers of resistance, making them more likely to absorb our message.”
Passion is about feeling rather than thinking.
And as Hogshead puts it: “Passion is very VERY hard to ignore.”
But to write, to communicate, to deliver your message with passion, is to open up, to reveal some aspect of your inner life, to be vulnerable.
To “go there” as we would say in my writing workshop.
We talk a lot in writing – and in life – about voice. A great voice is a distinctive voice, it sets you apart, it resonates. It shows us who you are. And so often we talk about finding your voice: it needs to be uncovered, unearthed, unleashed, as if we trapped it without even realizing.
Your voice is your truth.
And to speak your truth, you have to get naked.
Emotion lives in the body. It’s why we talk about gut feelings and broken hearts and butterflies in the stomach. When my own emotions started thawing out several years ago – after a lot of therapy – I was amazed at just how physical those sensations were. I could feel them in my gut, in my chest, moving up through my throat, creating pressure behind my eyes.
(That saying – the only way to heal it is to feel it – is true, to my continuing annoyance.)
When we talk about voice, we mean the voice that resonates with the truth of the body. It embodies an inner guidance system, a sense of soul.
It knows what it knows.
But so often that knowledge is messy, inconvenient; it cuts against the status quo; it threatens to hurt or offend.
So we disconnect.
According to psychologist Carol Gilligan, boys and girls disconnect from their inner voices – suppress them, bury them – at different ages for different reasons.
Boys do it around age 5, when they start absorbing a definition of masculinity that values power, strength and domination over emotion, relationship and empathy.
Girls do it around age 12, when they start absorbing a definition of femininity that values being nice, getting along, looking out for other people’s needs (often at the expense of their own).
This kind of femininity also encourages them to suppress their anger and aggression. To avoid conflict at all costs. Nice girls never rock the boat.
So when their inner truth would disrupt their relationships, or put them at odds with the culture in general, girls learn “not to know what they know.”
“Do you want to know what I think,” a participant in one of Gilligan’s studies was quoted as saying, “or do you want to know what I really think?”
I remember when a twentysomething woman asked me to recommend biographies of successful, accomplished, powerful women. It was not enough that they were successful and powerful, they had to have, as she put it, “really rocked being a woman.”
I knew what she meant. She wanted stories of women who took the traditionally masculine concepts of power and ambition and injected some feminine soul into them so they didn’t feel quite so…distasteful, as if to buy into them was to taint or compromise yourself as a woman.
She wanted to know what that looked like.
Power, competition, ambition, achievement = boy stuff.
Relationship, empathy, emotion, nurturing = girl stuff.
Dr. Stephen Henshaw writes and speaks about how girls today find themselves caught in the “triple bind”: expected to be good at boy stuff and girl stuff and to look pretty, thin and hot (effortlessly, or risk being perceived as shallow and vain). Which means that girls are now supposed to look out for the feelings of the same girl they’re competing with for college scholarships and trying to murder in field hockey (all while cultivating and maintaining a thin, stylish, hot appearance).
This gets tricky.
As a result, Henshaw writes, girls feel hollowed-out, stressed, exhausted and confused by the demands to live up to conflicting expectations and to please everybody.
Many girls — and women — feel that in order to succeed at the “boy stuff”, they have to disconnect from the “girl stuff” – from their own sense of the feminine – in order to be taken seriously.
There’s a cost to that.
You see it partly reflected in the rise of thriving businesses like Mama Gena’s School of the Womanly Arts and Sheila Kelley’s The S Factor. The promise here is to reconnect women with the beauty, pleasure and sensuality of being female: how to rock being a woman.
Sheila Kelley gives a compelling TED speech about why this is even necessary. Her intro states:
“There exists in every woman an Erotic Creature. When Sheila Kelley discovered this sleeping giant, her life changed irrevocably. She had stumbled upon what women were missing and launched it into a worldwide sensation, ushering in the 4th wave of feminism by teaching women to own their sexuality. ”
Kelley talks about “the Yin effect”. Yin is the feminine to the Yang of the masculine and the world, Kelley says, “cuts out a piece of the yin.”
The physicality and sexuality of the female body gets shut down due to a series of offenses that create a sense of body-shame, of being constantly judged.
These offenses range from the barbaric (stoning a woman to death for expressing her sexuality) through to subliminal (the media global uproar over the unwitting exposure of Kate Middleton’s nipples). They “eat away at the emotional boundaries of the female body” until you separate from your physical self in some way; you no longer own your body. Women internalize this shame, and then express it through eating disorders, hiding in baggy clothes, cutting, chasing some ideal of perfection, “mini-manning up to be taken seriously”, or just living with the nagging discontent, the sense that something, somehow, is missing.
(Kelley’s list of symptoms, by the way, echoes what Dr Henshaw writes about in his book THE TRIPLE BIND.)
Here’s what I think:
When you separate from your body, you also separate from the emotional, intuitive life of the body.
Your inner knowing. Your Yin.
Which is the voice of your freaking soul.
What women are seeking when they go to places like Mama Gena’s or The S Factor isn’t to learn how to please a man – any newsstand is loaded with magazines that promise to teach you how to do that — but to please themselves. They seek an ease and comfort inside their own skin, a release of authentic sensuality — their ‘erotic creature’ — in a way that they can integrate with the rest of their lives.
They are seeking wholeness.
As Kelley found her own sense of wholeness, she discovered what she describes as a “dark soulful emotional sexuality”.
Soul. Emotions. Body. Sexuality.
The voice of the soul speaks through the body. You can’t shut down one without damaging your sense of the other.
When I was younger (and not the wise mature creature who sits before you now), there were times when I would – as I eventually came to think of it – “vixen out”.
I would use clothes (I like clothes) and maybe a bit of makeup (I don’t like makeup) but it was more about attitude, the way I carried myself, stood or strutted, made eye contact, smirked knowingly. It was a persona I could switch on or off (I was also good at disappearing, which is impressive given my height). It wasn’t any authentic expression of desire on my part. I did it to get a dopamine high off the hits of attention. I was quick to shut down that persona when the attention got uncomfortable, retreating into a “who, me?” kind of faux innocence that I’m sure made some people – like my therapist – want to throw something at me.
Much more recently, I attended my first yogadance class. I had no idea what to expect – maybe some woo-woo thing where you shake your hips while doing downward dog (and how you’re supposed to accomplish that, who knows). It was definitely a bit woo – the instructor described it as “dancing through the seven chakras”. I knew that I could spend the hour feeling self-conscious and silly, or say to hell with it and commit. I don’t like to waste my time, so I chose the latter option.
Halfway through the class, something interesting happened.
Something about the emotion of the music, the instructor’s talk about the heart chakra, and the way I was moving – throwing back my arms to open up my chest like I’d learned in regular yoga – made me feel delicious, sensual and primal. I experienced a kind of power that didn’t depend on being looked at – we were all dancing with our eyes closed – but felt grounded and centered, like it was coming up through the earth itself.
I’m not into goddess religion – or religion in general – but I thought, very clearly, This is what goddess energy feels like. It was part of me, but connected to something larger; it was moving through me, like the spirit of creativity itself. It didn’t feel like something I had to switch off or disconnect. It was mine, but it was also a gift to me, and to the world.
And it made me think of the kind of dancing that in ancient times celebrated the fertility goddesses, whether it was Hathor in Egypt, Aphrodite in Greece, or Ishtar in Babylon. Women undulated their hips and shook their bodies. Every culture has its version of ‘fertility dancing’ – but, now, framed within a different context that sometimes involves a stripper pole. Exotic dancers once danced to connect with a higher energy; many exotic dancers now perform for money, in a culture that often holds them in contempt.
Digging for gold.
Because these are the stories we tell about female sexuality. A moral woman is a pure woman: a virgin. If she is not a virgin – and most women don’t remain virginal forever – she is impure, and if there is no monogamous heterosexual relationship to legitimize her, she is tainted and inherently untrustworthy.
Female sexuality is the villain that got Adam kicked out of the garden (somehow Adam himself is not responsible for his choice in the matter). It’s the siren who calls sailors to their deaths; it’s the succubus who sucks men dry; it’s the femme fatale who ensnares the protagonist and destroys him; it’s the golddigger who trades up. When female sexuality combines with a sense of personal agenda and autonomy, there’s danger and destruction ahead.
We need new stories.
We need stories of female sexuality from a uniquely female point of view; we need to access that “dark, emotional, soulful sexuality” that makes us whole; we need to let our erotic creature know she is loved and valued. We need to speak up with both body and soul. We need a nakedness that is about heart and truth and vulnerability and joy — and not just getting off on somebody getting off on us.
It’s not enough to say what we think.
We have to say what we really think.
I often think of that quote by Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
There’s still so much of the world to split open.