Sunday, February 3, 2013

How to Write a Sex Scene, a short story by Mary Steer

Everyone was nervous and fidgety in class that night. They were in Week Ten of a sixteen-week creative writing course with a stern professor, which was bad enough. What made it worse, was that last week’s homework had been to write a sex scene. Then there was the professor’s parting shot, as they had shuffled miserably out the door:
            “And we will each read our piece aloud and I will tell you what you did wrong!”
            At first, some of them had been annoyed to find their instructor was a Russian ex-pat. What could such a person teach them about creative writing in English? It didn’t help that Professor Bogdanov was an imposing presence, a huge bear of a man, with enough facial hair for all the male students in the class put together. It wasn’t his wiry beard and mustache that were so alarming, as much as his bristling eyebrows. Clara, the elegant blonde, had once whispered to Millicent, the petite mousy thing with the straight lank hair and Coke-bottle glasses, that those eyebrows were bushy enough for braiding and might even be tidier that way.
            Crazy hair follicles and Russian accent notwithstanding, Professor Bogdonov turned out to be quite a competent teacher. He really seemed to know his stuff, and students began noticing his name on short stories in litmags they had been forced to subscribe to when entering short story contests. Millicent saw a story by him in The Antigonish Review; Chuck, the reserved football hunk, saw one in Grain. They could see he could write. They were learning he could teach. But it didn’t make them like him any better.
            This week’s assignment assured them of his sadistic side. He had sneered a little when he said, “And I am available for help, if any of you need it. If? Hah! When any of you need it!”
            Now here they were, shifting their papers on the table in front of them, refusing to meet each other’s glance, and everyone a degree of red, from the lightest of pale pink blushes to a high unyielding crimson that started at the neck and ended at the hairline.
            Professor Bogdanov was maddeningly late. He strode in, ten minutes after class was to have begun, just when everyone was beginning to think that perhaps they were reprieved and could escape into the night. Some of the students had even slipped their papers back into their backpacks, ready to go.
            “Hah!” said Bogdonov by way of greeting, glaring from under his bushy eyebrows. “You were thinking perhaps you would not have to read your sex scenes? Well, here I am, as you can see, and so we begin. You will each read, and I will help to make it all better, okay? Many, many people write sex scenes all wrong, as I said in class last week. Some people get them right. You will all be ones who get them right, after this lesson. Chuck! You first.”
            Chuck dropped his head behind his page and began. No one ever dared to shilly-shally, once they had been called on by Professor Bogdanov.
            “He, he, he pulled her clothes off and they fell onto the bed, groping for each other in the darkened room. Swiftly he entered her—”
            “Stop!” commanded Bogdanov. “We do not use adverbs like ‘swiftly’. This is nonsense. And you must set the scene. We must know a little bit about these people before we see them—what do you call it? ‘Boinking’? Why are they in such a rush? Where are they? Somewhere with a bed, yes, but where? His place? Her place? A hotel room? A cruise ship? A cave with a bed in it? Tell me! How much more of your piece is there?”
            “Just a couple of lines,” Chuck muttered, his head still down.
            “Give me more next week,” Bogdanov said. “Eric!”
            Eric shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Mine’s too much like Chuck’s,” he said.
            “Read!” cried Professor Bogdanov.
            “She stood before him, naked in the light—”
            “Already is different,” said the professor. “Continue.”
            “She stood, oops, um, and beckoned to him. ‘C’mere, big boy,’ she said. ‘I’m gonna rock your world.’ He stumbled towards her, tripping over the clothes she had left strewn on the floor—”
            “Good, good,” murmured Bogdanov.
            “—and together they fell on the bed. Now she was ripping his shirt off and tugging on his jeans as he fondled her breasts. Swiftly—oops, sorry, er—he, um, he entered her and—”
            “Stop!” roared Bogdanov. “This is not sexy! Sex scenes must be sexy! These men are all alike! Do they have problems with premature ejaculation? Take your time, develop the scene, give it some mood, not always only urgency! Does anyone have a scene that is not so fast?”
            Everyone promptly looked down through the table to the floor. Eventually, Millicent timidly raised her hand.
            “Millicent, yes! Read, please!”
            Millicent cleared her throat and began.
            “It was raining that day and the bus was late. Jessica stood, hunched and shivering, the collar of her coat turned up, and wished she hadn’t forgotten her umbrella. She was dreaming of home, the lights on and a cup of tea brewing, when a man appeared at her side. He clearly had remembered his umbrella, and now he wordlessly held it over her head. She had to—”
            Professor Bogdanov had begun to drum his fingers on the table. Millicent looked at him anxiously, then continued.
            “—er, had to stand very close to the man to share his umbrella. ‘Thank you,’ she almost whispered, and—”
            “Stop! This is too much setting! How long does this go on?”
            Millicent cringed. “It’s, um, it’s eight pages, double-spaced.”
            “Eight pages! No no no. And how long is the actual sex?”
            “Er, two pages?”
            “Six pages of set-up!”
            “Actually, there’s some, um, post-coital stuff.”
            “Give me the sex.”
            Millicent went dark pink, but paged dutifully through her story to the appropriate place.
            “Ahem. It was warm and dry in the bed, and the tea had spread warmth through all her limbs, so she felt deliciously contented. The stranger above her was so roughly hairy, she imagined herself mating with a cave man. Despite his craggy appearance, he was delicate, he was tender, and she felt herself melting into him. They moved in a slow, beautiful ballet, intricate and graceful, twining and writhing—”
            Millicent put her head down on the table and began to cry. Clara patted her gently on the back.
            “This is too poetic! I said write a sex scene, not a love scene and not simple premature-ejaculation quasi-porn! Does anyone here have a sex scene?” He was shouting now.
            Clara, who always seemed able to withstand Professor Bogdanov’s fury, raised her hand.
            “I have one,” she said, and added, smoothly, “but it’s fast. I based it on the time you and I did it.” She flicked her long eyelashes slowly down and up again and adopted a most demure and innocent look that completely belied what she’d just said.
            Bogdanov turned purple and some in the class feared his eyeballs might actually pop right out of his head. Clara took a breath, ready to begin.
            “STOP!” Bogdanov roared, before she could utter a word.
            Millicent had raised her head and was staring at Clara.
            “You went to him for help too?” she asked.
            “Well, I had some ideas, but I thought I’d find out what exactly he wanted,” said Clara. “What made you do it?”
            Tears still coursed down Millicent’s face. “I’d never actually had sex,” she whispered. Suddenly, nobody knew where to look. “I thought I should know what it was like before I tried to write about it. And I’ve had a crush on him for ages.”
            Now, remarkably, Bogdanov was rendered speechless. Eric started quietly singing the Police song about the schoolgirls who fantasized about their teacher. Chuck kicked him in the shin and he stopped.
            “You poor thing,” Clara was saying. “But it sounds like he made it sort of nice for you, did he? I mean, from what you wrote?”
            “Oh yes. I had to stretch it out a little for the story though. Well.... Actually, I made it more like I thought it should be. It was kind of strange.”
            “Mmm hmm. Sex can be kind of strange sometimes. But you should try Chuck. He doesn’t write it like he does it. I don’t know why he wrote it that way. Why did you write it that way, Chuck?”
            Chuck made a strangled noise.
            “You’d have sex with Millicent, wouldn’t you, Chuck?” said Clara.
            “Stop!” cried Bogdanov, but he had lost his former stridency and Clara, the woman everyone had previously thought couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag, was taking over.
            “I think more research is required,” she said. “Why don’t we reconvene next week? So far we’ve learned to do our sex scenes not too fast, and not too slow, with some setting and motivation. I think next week we can concentrate on language, don’t you? Let’s try to avoid playground synonyms like ‘boobies’ and ‘wiener’ or ‘thingy’. Don’t bother with the medical terminology like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ either. Boring! Stick to the good stuff that really gets you hot and bothered. And don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be just the obvious body parts. A tongue going in an ear or a bellybutton can be pretty exciting too. Class dismissed!”
            Bogdanov now looked like a trout out of its stream, his mouth opening and shutting but no sound coming out. The other students, after a brief look to see if he was going to try to make them stay, gathered up their papers and fled. Chuck was right behind Millicent. Bogdanov goggled after them. Clara was the last to go.
            “You’re welcome, you big lug,” she said, and she dropped a kiss on top of his head before she left the room.

Mary Steer enjoyed a brief period when she made most of her living at writing for newspapers and magazines. Then, somehow, she lost her writing mojo. A friend suggested taking a course with Brian Henry. Because Mary always does everything her friends tell her to do—she has jumped off several cliffs in her time, taken a few long walks off short piers and even attempted a flying leap through a rolling donut—she signed up for Welcome to Creative Writing. Now she is a writing-class addict and her mojo is slowly but surely reawakening. On December 13, 2012, Mary gave a reading or “How to Write a Sex Scene,” complete with Bogdanov’s heavy Russian accent, at CJ’s Café.

See Brian’s full schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Milton, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Orillia, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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