In the second installment of her column, Megan Pillow examines a short story by Carmen Maria Machado to demonstrate how some of the best examples of contemporary writing craft can be found in writing about sex.
This is the second installment of Megan Pillow’s column FUCK ME UP: The Craft of Sex Writing in Critique and Practice, which explores the craft of sex writing through original creative nonfiction and analyses of sex writing by contemporary authors. You can find the first installment here.
You’ll get here when you get hereBut you damn well better get here
The door’s unlockedWait for me in the living room.
Machado is brilliant at writing speculative fiction and delving into the heart of queer terror. But this story also illustrates her deft approach to writing kink. By rooting the reader and her narrative in a piece of Parisian history that’s both storied and horrific, Machado teaches readers how to interpret her use of kink, specifically BDSM. Machado’s descriptions of BDSM, breadcrumbed throughout her story, both titillate the reader and suggest a host of associations from outside the text. Much like BDSM in real life, in Machado’s hands, BDSM scenarios function as a narrative archive that conjure up particular literary, historical, and affective or emotional associations that both enrich characterization and deepen the reader’s sense of intimacy.
Machado’s use of BDSM as archive is illustrated particularly well in one scene about halfway through the story, a moment when Maxa and Bess are on a bridge over the Seine:
Maxa begins her seduction on page 204 by telling Bess a seemingly random story about a child who gets bitten by a dog with rabies and goes mad. Twenty-first century readers, however, are reminded of both Stephen King’s Cujo and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. By using this brief anecdote to set the scene, Machado infuses the scene with the terror of Donna Trenton’s entrapment in her car by Cujo and of the moment that Janie is attacked by her lover, Tea Cake, after he’s been bitten by the rabid dog. Threaded through simultaneously is the overwhelming love and protection that Donna feels for her son Tad and the profound love and pain that Janie feels for Tea Cake in the moments before she kills him. This gives the scene an unsettling emotional tenor: Bess is both an object of affection and under threat, and because of the archive of associations Machado builds into this story, both the anecdote and the scene take on the heft of myth.
Machado introduces readers to additional archives of association as the scene progresses. On page 205, for example, when Maxa “wrapped her hand lazily around [Bess’s] throat, like a sleepy man clutching his member to piss” and that grip becomes firmer and more intense, it triggers a host of memories of Maxa’s dominance and Bess’s submission. First, we think of all of the times previously in the story where Maxa has put her hands on Bess, intent upon control. On page 190, for example, when Maxa “walked behind [Bess] and gripped [her] shoulders in her powerful hands, and [Bess] felt blood rushing into the muscles that had been like a stone,” and on page 200, when Maxa uses a scarf to tie Bess to a chair, cuts her hair, and makes her up so that she no longer looks like herself. This moment on the bridge feels exciting and inevitable and also terrible, because although Bess’s interiority in the previous scenes suggests she is thrilled by Maxa’s attention, Bess never says yes, which calls her consent into question.
Machado’s decision to assign masculine characteristics to Maxa’s behavior also conjures up the memory of the scene just prior on page 203, when Bess overhears Marcel, Maxa’s male lover, striking her and discovers that Marcel was “hitting [Maxa’s] glistening cunt. At every beat, she gasped and writhed, and tears leaked to her pillow.” Clearly Maxa is a switch: She’s submissive to Marcel but dominant with Bess. The domination she receives, she then passes on. Like BDSM enacted, Machado’s descriptions of BDSM are instruments that trigger both insight and intimacy: Readers understand Maxa and Bess more deeply and experience the connective relational fibers between Marcel, Maxa, and Bess through their explorations of sex, power, and pain.
In Machado’s hands, BDSM scenarios function as a narrative archive.
The next moment in the scene when Maxa pulls up Bess’s skirt and begins to “stroke [Bess’s] sex with her fingers” is also revelatory and an archive of its own: Bess describes the feeling of being gripped by the throat while her gentials are pleasured as being “hung there like a strung-up game bird, blood vascillating between my legs and my head.” This simile, although a fleeting moment in the text, is rich with association. It serves as a call back to Bess’s encounter with the crow on her first trip to the theater, which conjures up a host of macabre references, from Greek and Norse mythology to Shakespeare to Alfred Hitchcock. Bess’s comparison to a dying game bird and her liminal state as she hangs in the air also reminds readers of Maxa’s recollection from page 188 that “men occupy terra firma because they are like stones. Women seep because they occupy the filmy gauze between the world of the living and the dead.” In this story, BDSM helps us understand Bess intimately as prey and spirit, hardy survivor and harbinger of death.
Bess’s dream at the end of this scene offers one final moment of archival association and revelation. After they return from the bridge, Bess recounts that dream, which also carries remnants from earlier in the story, referencing the sky and stars that make an appearance earlier in the scene, before hearkening back both to the scene on the bridge and to the sex scene between Maxa and Bess on page 205. “Maxa sat down before me, and began to swallow me like a python, and I was gripped by the muscle of her until she’d taken me in entirely.” The python is a shadow of the serpent from the Garden of Eden as well as Maxa’s body: first Maxa’s kiss, which was “as if extracting snake venom from a wound,” and then Maxa’s vagina, which “circled [Bess’s] fingers, all muscle and fold” and felt like Bess was “pushing into a closed fist.” By the end of the scene, Bess is climaxing, and the reader knows that the archive of associations Machado has built using the language and descriptions of BDSM are crafting not just the scene but the characters and the story itself as mythic.
Reading Machado’s story taught me a lot about how kink and specifically BDSM can function as an instrument of archive in our bedrooms and in our writing. It was one of the things that made me reconsider how I interpreted and wrote about the last time I saw Brian. Like in my first column, I’ve written the story about that final experience with Brian five times now. When I wrote the first draft, my defensive instinct kicked in, and I focused on my power as his domme because, more than anything, I wanted those months with him to have given me strength and to have given him insight. But the reality is they did not.
This, finally, is what I wrote:
I recover from my orgasm and sit up in the bed. Brian is on the floor, tears streaming down his face. I pull down my dress and I open my arms to him. He climbs into the bed and puts his head on my chest. His tears, hot and wet, slide down my breasts.
“I want to fuck you, but I don’t think I can this time,” he says.
“Shhh,” I say.“It’s all right.”
This is a familiar script for Brian and me. There’s something about the moment of climax, sometimes mine, sometimes his, that breaks something loose inside him, and I’m always there to hold him together. I’ve agreed to this. I understand my responsibility as his domme is to administer aftercare.
But it has been six long months of this. Brian is smart enough, but disorganized, inconsistent, grappling with issues of identity and futurity that he can’t even admit to himself. He’s in an open marriage and sought me out because he thought a domme would give him the discipline he needs to get his life together. I had liked the idea of consistent kink with someone who would respect my boundaries and who wasn’t interested in romance. I knew it could be a good sexual release, help me refine my communication skills and my ability to navigate consent, challenge me to become a more inventive writer.
But I was still largely an amateur. And I was way too egotistical. I truly thought I might have the therapeutic sexual prowess to change someone. And yes, Brian is definitely opening up in unexpected ways. But getting his life together? That ain’t happening. Surprise, surprise.
The little voice inside me reminds me that domming was never this way with Jenny or Alfa. Because there was reciprocal care. Because they saw through the performance to the whole of me. But when I’m with Brian, I’m not a person. I’m a fantasy, the conflation of all the kinksters and dommes he’s ever seen on-screen, an instrument that delivers his pain and his catharsis. A kink clinician. And when I hold Brian against my chest this time, I finally admit it to myself: The scripting and the costuming and the paddling and the cuddling is no longer fun. The emotional labor I expend on Brian is tremendous, and he isn’t a partner or a lover or even a very good friend. He is an obligation, and I’m tired. I’m tired of always holding Brian while he cries. I want someone to hold me for a change.
After a while, Brian quiets.
“I can go down on you again, if you want,” he says.
“We’re done for today,” I say. “But we’ve established enough trust now that I’m going to give you a reward. I’m going to let you tie me up next time.”
Brian lifts his head. I can see from the look in his eyes that what I’ve just said makes no sense.
“I’d prefer to just keep things the way they are.”
And honestly, I understand. In his mind, I’m there to make him feel better, and he gives me an orgasm in exchange. For him, this is adequate currency. It was for me once too. But I’ve grown tired of these transactions.
I walk him to the door.
“Till next time,” he says. I don’t answer, and he doesn’t notice. He just walks away, whistling.
On Your Own:
Write the story of one of your kinkiest fantasies or real-life experiences. Write it first with as many visceral details as possible, pulling from as many associations as you can, similar to Machado. Then put away your draft for at least twenty-four hours. When you return to it, look at it with a critical eye. Where are you folding in assumptions about what kink should be based on movies and films? Are those assumptions imagined or accurate? If accurate, is that how your scenario actually played out, or simply how you wanted it to? If based on fantasy, how might your fantasy change if you allowed yourself to want something different than what you saw on-screen? Consider how those assumptions about kink make your writing about the experience better or worse. How can you revise in a way that addresses those assumptions, and your feelings about them, on the page?
Write about a sexual experience that isn’t necessarily kink-related but that captures a moment where pain and pleasure were intermingled for you and/or your partner. How did that combination feel to you? Try writing about a moment in your life where the commingling of pain and pleasure also occurred that’s unrelated to sex. Can you weave some of those associations from the non-sex experience into the piece about sex? How does it change the nature of or illuminate your sex writing if you do?
Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is co-editor of The Audacity, a new newsletter by Roxane Gay, and founder of Submerged: An Archive of Caregivers Underwater. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, in Electric Literature, The Believer, TriQuarterly, Guernica, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children."