Art and Play

by | October 21, 2013 | General | 12 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

I discovered buried treasure today.

There’s a box in our storage closet
labeled “L’s Writing”. I hadn’t examined it in quite a while. I
knew it held my old journals, my poetry notebooks, various term
papers, theses and other academic artifacts. I couldn’t recall,
though, how much I’d kept of my very early schoolwork and writing.
After all, my life journey has taken me through five decades and
halfway around the world since I was in junior high school. Maybe I’d
jettisoned some of my childish output – or maybe it had
disintegrated, the paper drying out and crumbling away after half a

In particular, I was looking for a set
of science reports I remembered from eighth grade. Each week the
teacher would perform a demonstration and ask us a set of questions.
In our reports, we were supposed to diagram the experiment, then
answer the questions and draw conclusions. I liked to draw and I
liked my teacher. So instead of simple scientific figures, I created
a series of cartoons, some of them harboring private jokes. I had
great fun concocting those reports. I’m sure it took me far longer
than if I’d merely followed the instructions, but I didn’t care. I
was happy putting in the effort, expressing myself. It was homework
but it was also a kind of play.

Imagine my delight when I found a
tattered manila envelope crammed with documents going back to
elementary school – some as fragile as I’d feared, but many in
decent condition. My book reports and my compositions from French
class . My high school honors thesis about the Great Chain of Being
in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. My plays about the Beatles, about the
jealous gods of Olympus, about the 1964 presidential election. My
ghost and science fiction stories. And, just as I’d hoped, the full
set (as far as I can tell) of said science reports.

You might ask what all this has to do
with writing erotica.

I’ve been pondering the way we look at
our writing as work. Many of the posts here at the ERWA blog discuss technical aspects of the writing process. We discuss conflict and
pacing, the theory of the short story, the exterior and interior
elements of character, techniques for evoking sensory experience in
our scenes, strategies for self-editing. We wrestle with revisions.
We “kill our darlings”. We train ourselves to view everything we
write with a critical eye.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance
of self-analysis or craft. However, I sometimes worry that we’re too
analytical, too focused, too left-brained, about our writing. Or
maybe I should say “I” as opposed to “we”. I’m so concerned
with markets and word count, sentence structure and word repetition,
that I forget why I started doing this in the first place. I’ve lost
my sense of play.

Nobody taught me how to write
creatively. I’ve been doing for as long as I remember, and from the
very first, I did it for fun. I played with words, and back when I
was a kid, I played with images too, as can be seen from my eighth
grade efforts. (I was always a better wordsmith than visual artist,
though.) I was, in psychological jargon, intrinsically motivated,
writing, drawing, painting and rhyming simply because I enjoyed doing so.

And that’s what’s often missing now.
The product is what counts, from the perspective of readers and
publishers. They’re waiting for my next book. I try to ignore the
pressure, but I’m never entirely successful. The limited time I have
available for writing adds to the sense of stress. I only have this
day, these few hours – what if I can’t get the words out?

Art cannot be compelled. You have to
simply open yourself and let it flow. I know there’s a theory that
all great artists must suffer. I don’t know if I buy that, but in any
case, I’m not aspiring to greatness. No, I just want to enjoy my
writing the way I did when I was younger. I want to play.

I managed this, to some extent, with my
last novel Rajasthani Moon. I undertook this project solely
for my own amusement, as a challenge to myself: how many sub-genres
could I combine in a single book? In a sense, I was thumbing my nose
at the erotic romance establishment, which so loves to slice and
dice, categorize and label, every story. So I let my imagination run
free, and I didn’t censor myself to please my publisher. I even
included some F/F interaction, generally considered to be the
marketing kiss-of-death in traditional erotic romance. If it turned
me on, I put it in and damn the markets.

When the book was done, I knew it was
no work of enduring literary significance – but it’s lively,
entertaining, and pretty hot. Most important, I had a fabulous time
writing it.

I want to do that again.

I’m willing to put in the effort it
takes to write well – but not without the payoff of having fun. Not

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. Jeremy Edwards

    WHOA, Lisabet, that last illustration is priceless (and you drew so well!).

    So, when does Flames of Passion come out? I hope your publisher will keep this as the cover.

    Yay to "play"! And more juvenilia, please! (:v>

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Jeremy,

      Actually, I used to specialize in drawing curvy girls in bikinis. In grade school I charged a quarter for custom work!

      I suspect there are already a million books entitled "Flames of Passion" LOL.

      Thanks for reading my stuff!

  2. Amanda Earl

    love this, Lisabet. i am still very much playing all the time for my creativity. if i can't play, i don't bother with it. i don't have to worry about "product." thank the heavens. i can imagine how restraining & creatively blocking that might be. but it looks like you're able to find a balance between creativity & serving your adoring fans. 🙂

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Success (i.e. publication) is a slippery slope. The more publishing credits one has, the more pressure there is to generate more.

      "Adoring fans?" Where? Oh, that guy in the raincoat, over in the corner….?

  3. Donna

    Well, I would have given you an A+ on "The Inside Story," but glad to see "Flames of Passion" was properly appreciated by the teacher! Clearly proof you were destined to be an erotica writer :).

    Thank you for the reminder that writing is about play and joy and letting creativity romp. I agree that calling our writing "work" does take us in a certain glum direction–which reminds me of that joke you once told about St. Peter guiding a new denizen of the afterworld to hell where writers were sitting chained to their desks laboring away. To the newcomer's surprise, up in heaven he was greeted with the same scene–writers chained to their desks laboring away. "Why is it the same in heaven and hell?" he asked to which St. Peter replied, "Oh, it's not the same, the writers up in heaven are published!"

    Certainly it's nice to have an audience clamoring for the next book (the publisher clamoring is a little less personally gratifying because we all know that in the ebook era, the longer their catalog, the higher their profit). But I hope the audience understands that their reading epxerience will be better if the writer really cares about her story. Anyway, keep channeling your younger self–I know I'm inspired!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Donna,

      If I've inspired you, this blog has served its purpose!

      I've heard the joke about Heaven and Hell. Definitely sends the wrong message.

  4. Garceus

    Hi Lisabet!

    We're very lucky you and I that we have day jobs. That takes a lot of the preasure off of us compared to some writers who have to deal sales with every time the baby gets sick or the bills come due. We have the freedom to explore the pleasures of language and imagery alone.

    One thing that really been a gift to me in that area is the Oh Get a Grip blog we're on, because from the beginning I regarded it as a place to experiment. Different formats, different story forms, screwball poetry, just playing with language. I even wrote a story in Powerpoint. I never thought I would be on there this long so i thought i'd mess around while it lasted and its lasted a few years now and some good stories have come from there.

    The Band recorded their first two albums in "the clubhouse", which was the pool house of Sammy Davis Jr's malibu beach home, basically a fancy garage. Those two albums are great classics of rock that still stand today because they were having fun. Their work went down when they began using a studio. I always think of OGG as my clubhouse. You have to find that place where you kind of don't give a shit and start to have fun.

    I've been going through a rough spell also and find solace in imagination and language, but only because I know I don;t have to try that hard.


    • Lisabet Sarai

      Unfortunately, these days, I often view blogging as just another thing on my "to do" list. I do love your Grip posts, though (not to mention your latest post here) because they throw the rules away and simply revel in the joy of writing.

  5. vbonnaire

    Lisabet those drawings are entirely fab, and I love that big roundy font you drew! Plate 11! xxoo! Valentine

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Valentine,

      This was the sixties – that "roundy font" was everywhere!

      Thanks so much!

  6. Bob Buckley

    What? He only gave you a C?

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hey, Bob,

      The maximum grade was 10. So I got a better grade on Flames of Passion than on The Inside Story. Wouldn't you expect that? ;^)

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