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How I Became A Sex Writer

Was it the Barbie nudist camps? Mom's hidden copy of The Happy Hooker? The problematic marriage? From teen romance to Red Tantra, one woman tells all.

I'm sitting in Café Borrone in Menlo Park, staring at the cursor on my computer screen. On my right, some guy drones on and on about second-round funding and customer touchpoints. Nearby, an au pair entertains her friends with a loud, nonstop monologue in rapid-fire German. On my left, a woman with a perfect blonde ponytail and a Hermès scarf yammers about a charity fundraiser. Little do they know that next to them, I'm writing an orgy scene so hot it would make them choke on their cappuccinos.

I rest my face in my hands and stare at my screen. Briefly, I imagine turning to the society matron and asking her if she knows any good metaphors for the clitoris. I quickly discard the idea. It's not so much that I'm afraid of shocking her, although I'd rather not get thrown out of this café. It's just that I try to avoid corny, romance-novel metaphors for genitalia whenever possible. That's just the kind of sex writer I am.

That's right. I have become, somewhat inadvertently, a writer of erotica. Porn. Whatever you want to call it. Instead of writing the Great American Novel, I'm trying to figure out how to describe two men having sex with two women at a tantric puja (that's a big circle of people having sex, for those of you not up on your tantric ritual, but we'll get to that later) in the forest while their hosts go at it on a raised dais for everyone to see. Talk about your customer touchpoints.

I didn't set out to become an erotica writer, although anyone who knew about the Barbie-doll nudist camps I staged as a child might disagree. When I was nine, I self-published my first book of short stories full of ghost stories and tales of talking animals, like the lion cub whose mother told her that if she roared, no lion would ever want to marry her. Sure, I'd sneak peeks at my mom's copy of The Happy Hooker (she did what with a German Shepherd?) and my dad's Playboy magazines -- the latter, I'm embarrassed to say, for the cartoons and jokes. Really.

Then, in my early teens, I discovered that bane of Western literature: romance novels. My friend Dana and I decided that we were reincarnated noblewomen from 17th century France, and when most other girls were prank-calling boys, we were writing long, romantic tales with our alter egos as the heroines. We'd end scenes with the heroine and hero falling into each other's arms and then primly cut away, leaving the rest to our virginal imaginations.

I entered adulthood and a new phase: Young Autobiographical Writer. Most of my stories blatantly rehashed my romantic trials and tribulations and again, the sex always happened off-screen. But in my late twenties during my first marriage, I got the world's worst case of writer's block. My desire to write disappeared, along, I might add, with my libido. (Note to anyone wondering about the secret of a happy marriage: ongoing resentment is not an aphrodisiac.)

My libido -- but not my marriage -- was saved when I discovered erotica. I can't remember how I lost my literary cherry. Was it The Best American Erotica 1993? One of Anaïs Nin's collections? All I know is that when I read those stories, I got an infusion of desire in more ways than one, and one night, I sat down at my computer and started typing out one of my racier fantasies -- a threesome that featured phone sex, a male hooker, light bondage and a New York hotel room. Three thousand words later, my writer's block was gone.

I sent the story to a few magazines. I showed it to a few friends. But mostly, it stayed on my computer. Meanwhile, I got divorced. I started a graduate program in creative writing. I started another novel that featured a lot of comically bad sex gleaned from my experiences of being newly single. Like the guy whose oral sex technique consists of one pass of the tongue, as though he were licking an envelope. Or the guy who showed up wearing a thong so he could enjoy the feeling of his pants against his derriere. But because it was played for laughs, not temperature-raising, I didn't see it as erotica.

Then, I got an e-mail from a friend working for an East Coast publisher. An author had approached them with a proposal for a book on tantric sex -- a topic I knew nothing about, by the way. The book, to be called Red Hot Tantra would use short stories to illustrate the author's how-to instruction. They felt the author, a man, needed a female voice for the stories. "You write erotica, don't you?" my friend asked. "Are you interested?" Yes, and of course, I answered.

Suddenly, I was obligated to write 24 short erotic stories in about four months, even though it took me four months to write one story, let alone 24. I soon discovered the secret of every erotica writer: most of the time, writing sex isn't sexy. What made things more complicated was that I wasn't just writing blatant pornography or even "literary" erotica. I was writing about tantric sex -- specifically, red tantra, which, according to my co-author is "based on the sexual practices of the ancient, even neolithic, goddess tradition." In fact, the "woman's spiritually ideal orgasm is natural, sensual, total let-go sexual orgasm. Red tantra agrees with the view that a woman is empowered by fully claiming her sexual pleasure." Try to write hot, sexy stories that illustrate that idea, and you get an idea of my challenge.

If you had seen me in that café, you would have thought I looked like any other writer, brow furrowed, face occasionally buried in my hands. I didn't sit there heaving and blushing and sighing as my fingers pecked away. In fact, I spent a lot of time staring into space. But instead of puzzling over how to describe a particularly interesting landscape, I puzzled over how to describe a particularly athletic sexual position.

To avoid sounding either hopelessly corny or disgustingly explicit, I worked to create believable characters with personality, with quirks and issues and fears and hopes. I tried to get inside their heads, whether I was writing about the 60-ish couple discovering the fun of spanking, the single guy trying to get over his ex-girlfriend, or the young woman experiencing her first orgasm.

I also avoided metaphors whenever possible in favor of clear, straightforward description with lots of sensory detail. Keeping it real kept it hot. I found there was a difference between explicit and specific. Explicit gives you a laundry list of body parts and acts. Specific takes you there, so you're in the room. Some writers tell me they hate writing sex, because it embarrasses them. Not me. Once I know my characters and the situation, I'm usually off and running.

I admit that by the time I finished the book, I was so sick of sex I wanted to become a nun, much to the distress of my boyfriend, who gets a lot of mileage at parties from the fact that his girlfriend writes high-falutin' smut. I had started out writing sex to awaken my libido, only to find that writing too much of it could have the opposite effect. After a four-month diet of nothing but your favorite food, sometimes you just have to go on a diet. But if you're like me, after a while you start craving it again. So when my publisher called me to write a book of sex tips, I didn't hesitate to sign up.

Cynthia Gentry is co-author of <a href="">Red Hot Tantra</a> (with David Ramsdale), now available from Rockport Publishers/Fair Winds Press.