Recently, as we sat around having a few drinks after a book launch, the poet Jennifer Compton asked the question, ‘Do you find writing to be an erotic act?’. My instinctive answer was ‘yes’, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. How did I interpret the question? And why was my answer so sure?
In a structural sense, the process of generating creative ideas and seeing them through to their execution can be compared to the experience of sexual arousal. I write in ‘bursts’, often after material has grown and ripened inside my head. I write when it is juicy and luscious and ready. This readiness before writing is accompanied by feelings of fullness, excitement and frustration, and definitely longing. When the ideas have ripened, but before I’ve written them down, I wonder: When will I get a moment to play this out?
Writer Anne Connor tells me that for her, the ‘idea or spark can be compelling, and a tantalising driver for me to take it further and further until there is a wonderful new story or idea. Then I go back to it and massage it until it becomes even better than before.’ That initial spark: a clavicle, perfume, Fassbender, a Snapchat – mostly, you don’t know when or where it will hit you.
I’m referring specifically to creative writing, here, the kind of writing that not only draws upon an idea but taps into previous ‘stores’, conscious and unconscious: images, words heard, memories. Sometimes it’s surprising what comes to the fore, the same way a sexual fantasy’s focus can surprise you. ‘Oh, that turns me on? Well…’
In the brain – that sexiest of organs – the pre-writing stage could be accompanied by a similar rise in dopamine as that attached to sexual arousal. As Carl Zimmer writes in Discover, scientists have discovered that certain regions of the brain operate when a person feels sexual desire, from the amygdala, which ‘orchestrates powerful emotions’, to the hippocampus, which ‘manages our memories’. But regions of the brain that light up in fMRI scans when a person is aroused also include those ‘associated with some of our most sophisticated forms of thought’. Again, I imagine that for many writers, some of the same regions are engaged, particularly in the pre-writing phase: emotions blending with memories, then stories being shaped through complex thought processes.
Writers often speak about finding their voice. Similarly, it can take years to develop your erotic self, to find out what kinds of characters, tastes, words and images make you hot. As both writing and desires evolve, repeated themes begin to emerge. Again, these may come from similar erotic and creative places (via the amygdala and the hippocampus, or the psychoanalytic id): some seminal moment of childhood or adolescence (as with Humbert Humbert’s early love Annabel Leigh, in Lolita), or a particular film or book that unlocked something within you.
And then there is the act of writing itself, when you sit down and form the words. Writer Janine Mikosza says that ‘writing can be long, hard, occasionally dull work, with so much delayed gratification that any moment of flow feels like desire’. Writers often talk about this flow, or going into ‘the zone’, when they become lost in their work in such a way that the outside world can barely reach them. Perhaps here I can compare writing to a sex act (paired, solo or otherwise) which is engaged with physical sensations, and a drawing from the outside to within, to breath, skin, imagination and memory. Similar to the writer’s ‘flow’, a person can be fully engaged in a sex act to the exclusion of all else: regrets, responsibilities, shopping lists, tomorrow.
Mikosza continues: ‘I fall into ecstasy every single time I get into the writing zone, fall in love again and again with the act, the process, feel mentally and physically exhausted at the end. I see writing as a sensual process, not only for the physical and emotional sensations that arise when making my thoughts and feelings concrete (tingling skin, can hear my heart beat, intense focus, lots of eye contact with the computer screen), but also the way I can get under my characters’ skins, which to me is an intimate act.’
So, with both writing and sex there definitely seem to be neurotransmitters involved, like dopamine (which helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres) and epinephrine (adrenaline). Senses and emotions are heightened, and with both acts the experience may be improved with the presence of empathy. Imagining yourself in the body of another – your character, lover, or fantasy object – can help to heighten what you experience in your own, and enable you to build a genuine language of expression. To put it another way, inhabiting others ultimately helps us to better understand ourselves as writers, and as erotic beings. Even with masturbation, it could be the thought of another’s desire that brings you to your denouement. The follow-on effect of this empathic experience can be a confidence of voice that allows you to produce work (or a touch) that connects, or which simply provides you with pleasure and fulfilment in the moment.
Writers also know that when a strong idea has your blood pumping, but you don’t have the time or space to play around with it (forgive me), you can experience a mental version of blue bean (to use the feminine). You may become irritable, withdrawn and distracted, until you get that chance to be alone with your pen.
I find writing an erotic act in a metaphorical sense, but also, instinctually, in a bodily sense. I was going to say that one difference between the two forms is the ephemerality of what is produced at the end of each, but no, all writing will disappear one day, too. Alternately, all sex acts are embedded in a collective, ongoing humanity (we would not exist without them, after all) just as culture is sustained by creative works. So there is a broad and ceaseless backdrop, a feed of sex and words, but in micro there are only the fleeting moments of ‘flow’. Susan Johnson ends her beautifully sensual book My Hundred Lovers with a c’est la vie, an embracing of letting go: ‘Every day unique in its details, already passing, vanishing, like breath.’ That orgasm, this piece of writing: already passing.