Monday, October 3, 2011

My First Time: Mary Lambeth Moore

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Mary Lambeth Moore, author of the novel Sleeping with Patty Hearst.  She has worked as a government bureaucrat, freelance writer, corporate consultant, fiction editor, speech writer, and property caretaker in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.  In her current job with a non-profit research and advocacy group, she translates policy papers and ghost-writes for national policy leaders and community advocates.  Moore graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.  She lives in Raleigh with her husband and son.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Sex Scene

When the late writer Tim McLaurin taught creative writing at North Carolina State, his curriculum included an unusual twist.  McLaurin would come to class carrying a cooler.  From the cooler, he would pull out a pillow case, and from the pillow case, one at a time, he would lift out two or three large, writhing snakes.  He handled each snake with ease, then offered his students a chance to hold them, too.  Needless to say, not everyone accepted.

I’ve heard Tim didn’t say much about the point of this show-and-tell.  Like any good writer, he did more showing than telling, but the lesson was clear.  If you want to write fiction, you must take the risk of examining uncomfortable things up close.  As Akira Kurosawa said, "To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes."

For me, writing fiction is an act of voyeurism.  Much of the impulse stems from curiosity about parts people usually keep hidden: their thoughts, motivations, what they do behind closed doors.  This includes their sex lives, of course—probably one of the easiest situations to conjure in the imagination and the hardest to write about without sounding trite or ridiculous.

Like many people, I started writing about sex as a teenager.  I actually used a code, one that anyone with a fifth-grade education could have broken in five minutes.  I’m not sure where those old notebooks are now, which makes me nervous.  I suspect they would be highly entertaining, but not in a good way.

When I began writing fiction, my characters had love interests, but what these couples did together remained veiled.  It wasn’t that I was squeamish about sex per se, but I avoided any direct description because the task seemed too daunting, and what could I possibly add to the canon?  Sex has been portrayed in print millions of times, sometimes well but usually badly, as affirmed annually by the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

The story that emerged in my novel Sleeping with Patty Hearst, forced me to move beyond safe literary sex.  The book has several themes—absence, the clash between generations, the ripple effects of the past—but in a more literal way it’s about the consequences of illicit sex in a small Southern town during the mid-1970s.  The story centers on sixteen-year-old Lily Stokes, who looks for her missing sister with the help of her mother’s lecherous boyfriend.  At some point in the novel, all three of the main characters—Lily, her mother and sister—take on a secret lover.

I’ve come to realize that, in large part, my book is about sex.  Not in a Nicholson Baker way, but in a more conventional my-child-isn’t-old-enough to-read-this kind of way

As I worked on Patty Hearst, several rules emerged about the two or three sex scenes that survived after editing.  One was to focus less on physical mechanics and more on details that illuminated the character in some way.  For example, when the normally reserved and meticulous Joseph rips Lily’s coat off, you know he is temporarily out of his mind.

Another rule is that I wasn’t done with a sex scene until it physically aroused me, at least for those scenes that are supposed to be sexy and not sad.  This is a criterion I learned from a writing mentor, and it seemed to be a pretty good barometer for me.  Note that this standard might not work for everyone, especially male writers who have a low threshold for getting turned on.

The most important rule goes back to Kurosawa’s line: don’t blink.  I found it especially hard to write about the tawdry sex between a minor and an older man.  For me, this was snake-handling time (no Freudian reference intended).  I got through those scenes by writing with amnesia, temporarily forgetting that I’m a married parent who attends church and PTA meetings.

There’s a balance between not averting your eyes and staring too hard—between revealing too much and showing too little, between being free and being indulgent.  For a fiction writer, too much information is an occupational hazard.  I don’t know how well I walked these lines so far, but I’ve promised myself to keep going.  Before I write my next book, I’m daring myself to pick up a snake, just as a reminder to keep taking risks.

Photo by Catherine S. Davis


  1. Be indulgent! Enjoy it! Don't fall under amnesia -- married churchgoing PTA parents love it as much as everyone else.

  2. What a great post! I like that you've revealed what makes a sex scene work. It does have to titillate the writer while writing it. Comparing the writing of sex scenes to handling a snake is a wonderful analogy. You've given me courage to be more explicit in my future writing. I also know I'll have to walk that tightrope of saying enough, but not too much.

  3. Thanks, Diana, I appreciate your note. Fyi, just read a piece by Cheryl Strayed that, to me, represents a great example of not averting one's eyes. The sex scenes aren't all that explicit, but the emotions are revealed in close-ups -- sometimes nearly unbearable, which I believe is the point. Here's the link: