Every Experience You Have is Potential Material

by Greg Herren

Many years ago, I picked up a single author collection of erotic writings by a very respected name in the field. I’d read some of his work over the years and been favorably impressed by it, and was very happy to be able to read more of it in one sitting. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I sat down with it on my couch and started reading the introduction.

In a matter of a few paragraphs, I was so deeply offended I stopped reading—and have never picked up the book again.

You see, this author opined that in order to write about hot sex, you had to have hot sex with hot men. Otherwise, you could never, under any circumstance, be a good writer of erotica. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you were not fucking hot men, you could never write about it.

Bullshit.

I now realize that this was nothing more than another way of stating that incredibly tired truism of write what you know, which every writing instructor and every book on ‘how to write’ tries to shovel down the throats of writers. I’ve always had a problem with this; obviously, Kathleen Winsor had not been a courtesan at the court of Charles II before she wrote Forever Amber; Isaac Asimov had never been to outer space, and I doubt very seriously Agatha Christie ever solved a murder. Ergo, how could such writing advice be valid? It also does not take into consideration that some of my absolute favorite writers of gay male erotica are women.

This advice was something I hated and thought would never truly apply to my own writing. It discounted imagination and creativity; two of the most important tools of any writer.

Yet, older and wiser as I am, I’ve had to rethink my stance on this bit of writerly wisdom. The vast majority of my published work is about gay life in New Orleans; something I know very well. A lot of my erotica is built around the eroticism of wrestling; something else I know quite well. Obviously, I had unconsciously been following that advice in my own career and with my own work. Yet there are also stories I’ve written which required a bit more imagination: I am not an empath, nor do I know one, yet I wrote the story The Sound of a Soul Crying. I am not a merman, but I wrote The Sea Where It’s Shallow. I’ve never had a pool boy, but I wrote a story about fucking one. So, where does write what you know stop and imagination begin?

I believe that life experience does come in handy when you are a writer. When I write in the first person, generally what I do is simply take myself and put myself into the character’s mind. My character Scotty Bradley (Bourbon Street Blues, Jackson Square Jazz, and Mardi Gras Mambo) couldn’t be more different than I am; he’s much more in tune to other people’s feelings, he’s kinder, sweeter, and overall, just a better person than I am. However, when I created Scotty, I had a definite idea in mind of what kind of character I wanted to write about, and the best way for me to define him, to get inside of his head, was to imagine myself to be him; and the rest of it came together from there. What kind of family would I have had to have in order for me to grow up into this person? What kind of experiences? And thus, he was born.

When I write about sex, I do draw from my own experience. What did this feel like? Did I enjoy the sensation? Where was I in my head as I experienced this?

So, yes, all these years I’d been writing what I know. Yet this advice needs a caveat; one they never give you in class or in those ‘how-to” tomes. Experience is where you start; and then you let your creativity and imagination take over.  As I said, I’ve never been a merman nor have I ever fucked one, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t write about one.

Besides, coming to the realization that everything in life is fair game and possible material makes the shitty stuff easier to deal with. Just shrug and think, “ah, this would make a good story.” Someone’s an asshole? That’s a possible character in another story or in a novel. Emotional or physical pain? Again, you can funnel that into a character to make them breathe and come to life.

Write what you know is just a place to start; not a place to finish.

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