Do you write what you know? Are you like your characters?
Common enough questions for a writer, but when you write D/s erotica there’s always that extra layer to the questions -- as there often is to romance / erotica writers of all types and often with the implication of ‘did you do what you wrote about?’ And while I used to be unreasonably irritated by these questioners -- or rather the prurient ones, not the genuinely interested -- I’ve realized that unpacking my kneejerk response has led me to think quite a bit about writing and D/s and how they are alike in their demands. In fact, I’d so far as to say that craft is submission and discipline.
So today I am offering up my mental writhing and unpacking to Shared Wisdom. Please note that this is essentially a snapshot of Syd in January 2010, and that my ideas shift and morph, and I hope, grow! And by the same token, I am NOT an expert; I’m constantly learning more and more about how little I know! In fact, I’d beware of those who bestow the label on themselves. It’s a bit like insisting on being called Sensei by strangers.
As an aside -- I am not unpacking het D/s here at all. It’s beyond my ken -- and beyond my Barbie too! It’s not something my fiction addresses, but I appreciate it’s a whole other dialectic and debate.
I'm honored to be here -- now on with the writhing!
“If writers only took on those subjects we know from experience, there'd be a lot more novels about procrastination out there!” Lee Benoit.
Well, yes, I do write what I know, but I take that dictum to mean write in your zone. Write what you emotionally know. Don’t try to write something you don’t feel. Don’t succumb to the what’s hot / marketable impulse if you don’t also connect with it in your gut. In fact, please don’t!
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push your boundaries and test yourself, but if you look at D/s and say “meh,” then don’t write it! If you look at a character being subdued, and feel deliciously scared -- you might want to start writing some D/s.
Nor does it mean it has to be something you have done or directly experienced. In fact, some direct experiences should perhaps not be grist for fiction. I am in general pretty ruthless abut what I will use from my life, but there are a few things that should be possessed only by you -- see below for Syd is possessive and jealous! But, from a writer’s perspective, those passages can get unreasonably hung up in the “but that’s how it really happened” trap, and criticisms of that part of the story can sting in excess. Real life rarely makes good fiction without significant alterations, so you may as well invent from the start! The truth in fiction should come from the emotions, not the literal details.
But, darn those literal details! We do want them right, of course. As relentlessly as we’ve invented, we should research. Facts should be correct. The essence and spirit of a group should be right. Abuse passed off as “true” BDSM is so profoundly offensive to me in fiction and life, and it’s downright irresponsible in both instances. I don’t mean abuse and extremes don’t exist or shouldn’t be written about, but the lens must be right. A novel that shows an abusive relationship might have love and sex in it, and might be an excellent novel and important read, but it’s not romantic or erotica. Right? I take consent very seriously, so some of my stories show irresponsible tops and subs learning a lesson in ethics, but I always worry about inadvertently endorsing a behavior along the way to the lesson.
So do the research. You don’t have to have a particular kink to learn about it -- know what is considered extreme, and why. And ask why extreme is necessary: is it the idea that massive suffering is the measure of depth of love or of kinkiness? In that case, think harder about what’s going on with your characters or partner. It might be valid, but a spanking may be as profound for some of us as a flogging is for others. A blindfold may seem vanilla, but others may freak at that level of sensory deprivation. So beware of the spectator sport aspect of writing kink and D/s -- you’re not putting on a spectacle in the coliseum! (Yes, some Scenes are for the pleasure of watchers as well -- I mean here the tendency in writing to create extreme scenes to titillate readers vicariously without a consideration for realism or for the character and plot needs. Don’t abuse subs OR fiction, please.)
The leather and D/s community has its own etiquette and terms -- know them even if your characters don’t use them in their relationships. There’s plenty of room for your characters to be individuals in how they set up their service and relationship, and to adapt terms to their own relationships. It’s the old ‘know a rule before you break it’ advice. Know what’s myth and what’s lore. The hanky code, for example, is more a piece of lore than an intensely followed set of signals. It’s often tongue in cheek -- especially when you see some of the massively specific charts on the web! But, it is a piece of shared language and history -- so it can be used as a nod or a tease in a contemporary story. The common choices -- a black hanky or a red -- can be used as a shorthand. Tommy, my dancer/rent boy, uses bandanas in a teasing Seven Veils dance and allows his client to select a color -- more as a sales pitch for what he will allow than a signal of preference. And, oh, heads up: D/s is not the same as S&M or even as B&D. There sure as heck is a strong common thread and, for convenience, you’ll see me use “leather” as a collective term in this discussion, but D/s , M/s, B&D, and S&M are not interchangeable.
So: research, yes, but all the research won’t mean a damn thing if the emotional core isn’t there.
I think a lot of my ethos comes down to earning it. Earn your leather. Earn your story. Writing and D/s for me have a common area -- you earn your story and role through craft and service. The D/s community takes the ideas of mentors and the old guild ideas of learning as first as an apprentice and journeyman to become a master. Writing and D/s take passion and skill -- and these, to me, are formed best through practice, training, devotion, and yeah -- discipline. Learn the rules, learn the expectations, internalize them, and pay your dues. Do your duty whether you feel like it or not. Get your ass in the chair and write.
You owe yourself, your readers, your story, your master, your boy -- there’s a loyalty between participants and a duty to each other. To me writing about D/s isn’t simply writing about kinky sex as such -- although sure as heck it does show up! It’s about honor, love, service, and loyalty -- in both directions. There’s a conscious formalized attention to the other’s needs. The idea that a top is gaining all the benefit or is some how “free” strikes me as a profound misread. Or that tops are strong and subs are weak -- physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever-ly. (Insert outraged snort here, D/s community.) Subs are strong! The idea that a sub is servile or squirmy sits wrong, and calling an obsequious or unctuous person ‘subby’ is just so bogglingly offensive to me. A sub is exactly opposite of craven or spineless. And to top that strong person? You’d better have your shit together! For a start, appreciate the honor done to you. You have another’s safety and care and well-being as your responsibility, and the duty to be on the alert for “no!”
Now, I realize I am talking ideals here -- we’re still all people who fuck up. We also lead every day lives -- unless we are a fantasy rich dom with a mansion and a stable of boys, we can’t escape the mundane. As one of my WIP characters says, “hey, socks get washed, bills get paid.” However, my stories are romances and the flaws of real life can be worked in or not as needed! I’ve made one of my central characters, Dr. John Fell, a man who is perennially broke and cobbling together a living. It does impinge on his ability to adequate care for at least one boy, and the responsibility sits heavily on him.
For me the fantasy and romance aspect is the joys of D/s without the BS that comes along in real life. I can process some of my contradictions about the world through it as well even as I deal with contradictions about myself as a D/s person. For example, I’ve been a vegetarian for over thirty years, and, boy o boy, do I love leather! D/s is also a good spiritual path for the atheist in me, and a good means of discipline for someone who rebels against conformity and groups. Among the many reasons that I’m an expatriate Brit is my intense dislike of monarchy and privilege hierarchies. I am also fiercely monogamous -- I am quite the possessive / jealous one.
I would argue that respect for others and a shared concern for true needs (and voluntary submission!) is the reconciliation between my issues and what I find in D/s. Much of what I dislike about, for example, hierarchies, loyalty, rules, and so on -- such as the bureaucracy, the fascist overtones, the abdication of individual responsibility, and paternalism -- are absent in D/s -- at least in theory! To me, D/s is the platonic form of the older (European perhaps) values that all too often get jettisoned (from being inextricably tangled with old vices) when new countries form (waves at 1776) or cultures change.
I’m not idealizing the past, but I’m seeing D/s as reclaiming the values (not the reality of the involuntary nature) of the mutual bonds, obligations, and rights between people that a social hierarchy at its best could offer. (‘Back in the day,’ many older school leather groups would be roundly criticized for their elitist / conservative / borderline fascist views -- I think there’s some justice in that as the nostalgia for these values can lead to an unfortunate romanticizing of some very unpleasant social movements.)
In general, the leather community is a deeply moral community of people. Respect and rules matter. But, and this is an important but, these are rules that have been agreed upon and that are born of the community. It gives the strength to say no to social injustice or a corrupt rule because there is a bone deep understanding about the importance of the consent to be governed. I am serious when I say that D/s is about the social contract. Take a peek at how involved most leather-related communities are in charitable causes and how they look out for their own. Further, D/s gives a social contract where civil rights are denied. When people are denied the civil right to formalize bonds, I think the ideas of personal responsibility for fealty are elevated. In a world where few legal bonds are available, our own bonds matter more.
A love of older ways and a hearkening back to guild models also ties to my main trait in common with Dr. John Fell. We are both Luddites at heart -- that is we hate machines doing for man what craft and skill should do -- not that we hate technology as such as is commonly thought. We miss the dignity of craft and deep knowledge that comes from submitting yourself to a trade (or a person) -- being freed from back-breaking, mind-numbing labor by technology is grand, but losing our connections with the world and the ability to do and learn is another thing entirely. That John Fell loves Renaissance Literature is not accidental. A sonnet (a strict structure and form shaping and disciplining words of deep emotion) about the trials of loving? Especially when that love is so often impossible or beloved is stern or cruel? In fact, Shakespeare’s sonnets 57 and 58 are almost clichés in the leather world. (Of course, they are so swooningly beautiful that they are impossible to over-encounter -- I’ll add them to end of this entry!)
So, then a core that Fell and I share is the idea I discussed earlier of earning a place through apprenticeship. The word ‘master’ shouldn’t be a light thing -- and the path to being one should pass through the stages of apprentice and journeyman -- all of which are paces of honor and worthy and should be relished and intrinsically valued. This does not mean that a sub is someone who never progressed from being an apprentice or that all tops must start as subs. It means the paths to self-mastery diverge. A true D/s relationship is deep forged -- unique and crafted -- not a mass-produced cookie cutter romance. This is where my own monogamous streak comes in. I’m not offended or against those who play, are poly, or are cheerful sluts. It’s just not me -- these days. But I’m of the opinion that a path (not THE path, please note) to an abiding deep partnership is via D/s.
Let me close and attempt to finish this writhe and meander with some words from the a far better thinker about D/s: leatherman, Larry Townsend. In The Leather Handbook he covers some of the issues my ramblings have tried to address: the essential questions about how to be. (Page numbers are to The Silver Jubilee Edition.)
“There are few times, if ever, that a man can be truly himself, when his outward demeanor is not biased by circumstances. Your own introspective search, then, must devolve into a serious quest for that place and that time when you come closest to being yourself” (159).
He explores “Which is the role, and which is reality?” and that, for me, is a perennial question. I discussed my contradictions earlier (and really, as Christopher Hitchens says, what serious person is without them?) and this thought from Townsend offers me some clarity. “To begin with, you do not exist in a schizoid parameter, where you leave a portion of yourself outside when you enter one or another of the various areas of your life. Regardless of where you are or what you’re doing, you still retain within you that same set of needs and drives and motivations. All that changes is the manner in which you control or express them. As a human being, you have an infinite range of possible responses” (160).
“This ‘role’ you assume as a leatherman may come closer than any other phase of your physical existence to being a true expression of your ego” (161).
Thanks, Mr. Townsend, for saying in a sentence what has taken me pages and years to stumble toward.
Something practical lessons from D/s for writers, and these hold true for any genre I think!
- Read -- a lot and anything. Read the bad to recognize it.
- Know your genre’s past and conventions. Then own them / make them yours.
- Listen to the conversation in your craft and then join it -- humbly and openly.
- Trust your gut -- not what you want your gut to want or what might work for the story -- but what it really wants.
- Say no when you really mean it -- to contracts, deadlines, ideas, sex, kink, service -- but otherwise push yourself. .
- Ass in Chair!
- Write what you know! (And if you are female who has never done anal, and plan on writing ‘teh buttsecks,’ get a set of butt plugs in increasing sizes, some lube, and find out what it’s like to have something relatively small there. Seriously!)
Play safe and live dangerously!
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.
That god forbid that made me first your slave
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand th'account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal bound to stay your leisure.
O, let me suffer, being at your beck,
Th'imprisoned absence of your liberty;
And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each cheek
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list; your charter is so strong
That you yourself may privilege your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
Not blame your pleasure, be it ill or well.