Stories We Tell Ourselves

by | May 15, 2013 | General | 10 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Fantasy versus reality. This is a
recurring theme in our author discussions and blogs. As authors of
erotica, do we have a responsibility to paint a somewhat realistic
picture of the complexities of human desire? Or is our role to create
engaging fictional worlds and people them with characters who have
more and better sex than most of us actually experience? Should our
BDSM stories portray the actual practices of the kink community,
complete with negotiation and limits? Or should we allow ourselves to
descend into dark fantasies of acts that might be risky, even
physically impossible, because that’s what pushes our buttons?

I don’t intend to reopen this debate
right now. Even if you’re firmly in the “realism” camp, however,
I’m sure you’ll admit to consciously constructing your stories to
enhance their emotional impact. You introduce elements of suspense.
You gradually intensify conflict. Ultimately, you provide enough of
a resolution to give readers a sense of closure. This is, after all,
the job of the storyteller – to build a coherent whole out of an
assortment of people, actions and events, a tale that will linger in
the readers’ (or listeners’) minds and perhaps, change them.

We do this, often quite deliberately,
when we write fiction. But what about autobiography or memoir?

I’m currently reading, for a review, an
anthology of “true sex stories”. Each author has written about
some crucial erotic experience in her life, some encounter or
relationship that had particular significance. I’m perhaps halfway
through the book right now, and enjoying it quite a bit. The authors’
accounts are well-crafted, diverse, and frequently hot. However,
they’re more or less indistinguishable from the fictional erotic
tales that appear in so many collections from this same publisher.
There’s nothing about them that labels them as “true” or “real”.
They have been subjected to the storyteller’s craft, smoothed,
tailored, refined – turned into works of art.

Please understand, this is merely an
observation, not a criticism. As I contemplate the so-called true
stories in this book, though, I wonder whether the phrase is an
oxymoron, whether “story” and “truth” (in the sense of actual
experience) can ever coexist. “Story” by its very nature implies
an intervention to turn raw phenomena into narration.

Of course, many erotic authors –
myself included – mine their own histories as material for their
fiction. Much of my work is to a greater or lesser extent
autobiographical. A few tales (I won’t say which ones) are nearly
literal accounts. In every case, though, I’ve applied my
storyteller’s lens to the details of my real world erotic encounters
– bringing some aspects into sharper focus while blurring others.
Some alterations are intentional misdirections to protect the
so-called innocent, but most have to do with whipping the tales into
a more literary shape, transforming them from anecdotes to stories.

As I contemplated the phenomenon of
the“true” collection described above, however, I realized that I
do the same thing with supposedly accurate descriptions of my “real”
life. Between ERWA, Oh Get a Grip, my personal blog Beyond Romance,my publishers’ blogs, and my frequent guest posts, I produce quite a
lot of material about myself and my past. I know I’m writing for an
audience, and, without really meaning to, I adapt my life story to
fit my perceptions about what they’ll find intriguing. At this
point, it’s practically second nature to tweak a detail here, neaten
up an ending there, to heighten the effect.

I’m a bit disturbed to note that in
some cases, the stories I’ve told you are now the stories I remember.
I am not sure I recall what actually happened, only what I’ve told
you happened. In fact, some of my fictional tales, even the ones not
intended to be “true”, feel just as real.

As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points
out, direct experience is fleeting. Memory is an act of creation –
or re-creation – an effort to enforce some order on the fragmentary
impressions left by our senses. There’s no guarantee that our
recollections are accurate. Research has shown that memories can
be systematically manipulated by changing our foci of attention.

There are two ways to react to these
findings. We can panic, as the supposedly solid ground of remembered
experience turns to perilous quicksand. If we can’t be sure about our
own life histories, is there any certainty at all?

On the other hand, we can embrace our
storytelling genius, our genetic predisposition to rearrange and
restructure the world into some shape that makes sense, as a gift. We
all tell ourselves stories and create realities – whether we call
them fiction or not. That may be unsettling. But it’s also a kind of

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Remittance Girl

    This is a great post, Lisabet. I think the level of realism necessary to a good story is very contextual. And it is going to depend very heavily on your readers and how willing they are to suspend disbelief. Most of us, I think, tend to compress time a lot in stories, and within reason, no one seems much bothered by this.

    Also, how much fantasy one can get away with depends on how well the writer has lured the reader into the storyworld. So a bit of total fantasy at the beginning of a story might not wash, but once a convincing 'world' has been built and the event/action/reaction seems right within the context, then you can take people practically anywhere.

    I tend to stand in the realism camp where it applies to human behavior, because for me, eroticism is an entirely human thing. If I don't buy the way the characters are acting, there's no way the story is going to pull me in, or arouse me.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, RG,

      Over in Writers, we've been having a discussion about amnesia. Someone received a comment from an editor saying that amnesia didn't really exist, that it was just a literary device and should be removed. The author then went on to explain that she herself had experienced amnesia…

      It may not be possible to distinguish fantasy from reality – or memory.

      In a true account, though, one expects gaps, illogical or extraneous details, and most certainly endings that aren't 100% satisfactory to everyone concerned. In fiction, we are encouraged to smooth the rough edges, eliminate elements not connected with the core narrative, and tie things up, in some sense, so as not to leave the reader with a sense of incompleteness.

      When I think about how many love affairs I had that simply petered out… not good story material. But I could turn them into acceptable fiction, with a bit of tweaking.

  2. Garceus

    Did I post on the wrong day again?

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Oh darn, darn, darn! No, Garce, you're not wrong. This post wasn't supposed to go live until the 21st! That's what I get for trying to stay on top of my commitments for the future!

    However, now that the cat is out of the bag, I can't really force it back. I suppose readers will just have to deal with it ;^)

  4. Jean Roberta

    Lisabet, you've posted on a fascinating subject. I was invited to contribute to an antho of "true" lesbian sex stories (not sure if this is the one you're reviewing – it's recently-published). I had 2 previously-pub'd stories handy, but the editor said she wanted original stories. Sorry, I said — I won't write any more stories like that because it's too unfair to the other people involved, who prob. don't remember things the same way & might not like their (naked) portraits in print. (My spouse & I have an agreement about that.) And as you point out, there is no clear line between unreliable memory & invention. I've had interesting discussions with students about what should & should not be included in autobiography or memoirs — everyone who thinks about this seems to reach the conclusion that much editing & composing goes into even the most "truthful" writing.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I've rarely read any autobiographical work by erotica authors that struck me as "true". The one exception is Marilyn Jaye Lewis' anthology ENTANGLED LIVES

      The book authors are incredibly honest and unvarnished in the tales they tell, which don't necessarily show them in the best light and certainly, unlike the stories in the anthology I am reviewing, don't all end with sexual satisfaction.

  5. Donna

    Great post! I think everyone is converting "truth" or "reality" into stories pretty much all the time as we try to make sense of experience. Making sense or meaning involves applying form, motif, significance, all the things we must do to write a good story. I'd also hazard to say that in "real" sex especially there are two parallel narratives–the physical facts of what's happening with the bodies of the lovers and the mental engagement they bring which draws upon memories, fantasies, and all sorts of unrealistic images and desires. Sometimes it is that story we tell with erotica, and it's no less "true." I have to say, though, that it is a bit disappointing that the "true" stories sounded just like regular old erotic fiction. There's something especially brave about speaking honestly about sex, and that's doubtless what the readers are seeking.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I think that raw honesty was what this editor was seeking. So far, I at least haven't found much of it.

  6. Rachel Green

    I'm a bit disturbed to note that in some cases, the stories I've told you are now the stories I remember.

    This is so very true. I've written some of my exploits so many times I'm sure the reality was much tamer (mostly)

    • Lisabet Sarai


      More than thirty years ago I married a man whom I love, but who is not my Master. Since then I've written dozens of stories in which the protagonist (very similar to me) took a different path, where she chose a stable and long-standing D/s relationship with her Dom (similar in at least some ways to him). At this point, I have so many memories of those tales, I almost feel as though I've played out that alternative life, on a different plane of existence.

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