Recently STET, a website about writers and books, asked me to write a short essay about a piece of writing that changed the way I think about my own work. Below is what I wrote.
Before I tell you about the piece of writing that most influenced me, I feel compelled to tell you the story behind how I ended up reading it:
It was December of 2008 and I was on a plane from Heathrow to JFK, traveling from my then home of London back to the States to spend Christmas with my family in upstate New York. Seated next to me was a tall, handsome, 30-ish blond guy in a baseball cap. I usually loathe when people try to make small talk with me on planes, but this was a red eye, and he was cute, and after a mini bottle of Merlot I became uncharacteristically receptive to his flirtiness. Naturally, our conversation reached the point where he asked, “So, what do you do?”, to which I unattractively responded, “Uh… well, I don’t know… I write some stuff, but not very seriously, I guess.”
I had begun writing my blog, Slutever, the year before on a whim, with no real plan of what I would be writing about and unsure of whether I would even have enough motivation or ideas to post even somewhat regularly. One year in, I was surprised to have gained a semi decent audience, but I still didn’t consider myself a “writer” — I didn’t make money writing, I didn’t have an area of expertise, I didn’t write fiction, I wasn’t a journalist in the sense that I was reporting on anything… all I had was a poorly-designed blogspot. I filled that blogspot with funny and sometimes dark anecdotes about the various people who I lived with in our South London squat — prostitutes, drug dealers, drifters, artists who rarely made any art, and just generally colorful people who seemed to be floating through life without much direction. I also occasionally wrote about their relationships and sex lives, as well as my own, but not very often because the idea of writing about sex seemed kind of cheesy and cheap to me, like I was the semi-ironic blogger version of a romance novelist or something.
Turns out plane guy worked at Simon & Schuster and was quite the literary nerd, and the more he drank the more encouraging he became about my writing, giving me examples of the many people who had turned their blogs into successful, legitimate literary careers. We ended up drinking enough wine that the stewardess actually cut us off, and then we made out for a while (embarrassing?), and when the plane landed he asked me to give him my address in New York, adding, “not because I’m a stalker, but because I want to send you a care package.” I gave it to him.
A week later the box came in the mail — five books, a few magazines, and a mixed tape (accompanied by a very self-aware “I’m literally sending you a mixed-tape” handwritten note). One of the books in the box was Mary Gaitskill’s book of short stories, Bad Behavior. I was instantly drawn to the title, and to the book’s cover — a fuzzy image of a girl down on the floor on her hands and knees, looking like she had either just collapsed in despair, or was about to begin some ominous sexual game — it was unclear. I opened it, and the first lines of the first page read: “Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him. He liked the idea in fact. It had been a long time since he’d felt his life was in danger of further ruin, and it was fun to think it was still possible.” With those three sentences, I was hooked.
Bad Behavior is largely about sex, but it’s not cheesy or cheap. In her stories, Gaitskill writes about women in the sex industry, people in power play relationships, S&M, and the general psychology of people who engage in these so-called “bad behaviors” in a way that’s honest, sometimes brutal, and always beautiful. (For example, the darkly erotic film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, was adapted from a story in the book.) Her characters tend to be unconventional, broken, wandering, curious people — characters who reminded me a lot of the people who I wrote about on my blog. Ultimately, the book gave me confidence that writing about sex, and about the various people who wander in and out of your life, was a legitimate pursuit, and could be seen as intelligent, meaningful, and maybe even poetic.