“I like guys’ butts. I look at a lot of the other stuff first, but there’s just nothing like a good butt.”
I composed those sentences as a college sophomore. My plan all along had been to study writing, but despite professors’ noblest efforts during my first four quarters, I wasn’t writing well. By “well” I mean authentically, with a voice that wasn’t pompous and stiff. I could put together grammatically correct sentences, but they didn’t pop with verve and personality. They resembled a perfectly coiffed hairdo set with ten too-many puffs of hairspray. They lacked movement. They hadn’t been lived in.
Then in winter quarter of my second year, I took a contemporary literature course. One of our assigned texts was Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and our prof told us to pick any five of the book’s vignettes and write imitations of them. Unpracticed at true imitation, I retyped the first sentences from five different vignettes and used them as springboards into imagination. One such sentence, from a chapter called “Born Bad,” was “Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there.” In my “Born Bad” edition, I made a salacious confession: I had a thing for the male butt. For the first time ever, I wrote with glee. I had fun. I found freedom in writing about something that felt improper. Suddenly, I was voicing what I meant and sounding like I meant it. After reading my “imitations,” my prof said, “Whatever happened, keep it up.”
Now I’ve got a graduate degree in creative writing. I teach college composition to new faces every quarter, and several times during each course I tell my students, “If you accomplish anything in this class, I want it to be a paper with authenticity. Be yourself. Sound like yourself. Try to shake off that formal, five-paragraph-essay writer that high school made you become. Relax your verbal muscles. Speak onto the page.” Of course I want to be that inspirational coach or army general who in movies always says the right thing at precisely the right time, eliciting fist pumps and “Hell yeahs.” I want my students to magically write their own versions of “Born Bad.” Usually it doesn’t happen. Occasionally it does.
And while I’ve learned a lot about how to write since my own “Born Bad,” I still see that early vignette as a kind of holy grail, a standard that even now I try, and often fail, to reach. My current writing projects include essays about reverence and womanhood, and they’re worthy topics to explore, but as I revise drafts about such serious stuff, I can feel my writerly muscles tense, the old, formal, impersonal voice seep in. I don’t mean to say that somber topics can’t be written about with comedy or ease, but by nature of being weighty, they’re the most susceptible to that high-school writer who resides in most of us with annoying longevity. So during this Writer’s March, I’m trying to maintain momentum but also stay in hot pursuit of what keeps my words mine.
I’ve seen better.
Very soon, I plan to revisit “Born Bad.” That’s right: I’m a grown, lettered woman who teaches college students and folds clothes, and I plan to write a full-out essay about my love for the male butt. The life and playfulness should stay the same, but I’ll develop it, include some whimsical research, update it, mention how I’m lucky enough to have married the guy with the nicest ass I’ve ever had the pleasure of ogling. Maybe someday you’ll read the finished draft in the magazine that’s crazy enough to publish it, and maybe you’ll blush. I hope so.
But writing about lascivious topics, or anything else that loosens your writing voice, isn’t just about making your audience blush or about penning an extended “dear diary” entry. It’s not just a confession that wallows in self-indulgence. If it’s to become art, it will have to do more. Through revision, it must come to mean something to someone other than yourself. The bothersome quandary is, the craftier a writer gets about infusing her work with meaning, the more contrived–and therefore less meaningful–it becomes. Put authenticity first, and once you’ve written a draft about which you can honestly say, “This sounds like me,” you’ll have a potent clump of clay to form into what you and your readers need.
In the meantime, though, try writing about something naughty, something that you haven’t dared put to paper. Start with the same sentence I started with years ago, “Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there,” and write what comes next. Or in prose or verse, write about what body part you find sexiest. Write about what turns you on. Write about the weirdest, sincerest crush you ever had. But whatever your topic, enjoy the slightly wicked feeling it brings and write your way toward a natural, real voice. And once you’ve found it, hold onto it as firmly as I would to a damn fine ass.