Monday, April 17, 2006

The Starlight Ballroom

I’ve talked in the past about that mysterious psychological phenomenon, the animus, and mentioned how he seems quite autonomous and often very helpful in times of need. Well, I have a little anecdote to share that illustrates this point quite well. I recently referred to this fellow as Etrae’u, sharing the name with the hero of my most recent fiction work, so I will call him that here as well.

Yesterday was kind of rough in that my mother is suffering some serious health problems, and my dad and I are very worried about her. It was one of those occasions when you stop ignoring the idea of death for awhile and have to face your fears. I have a harmless but sometimes annoying heart condition myself, and as I lay in bed last night, my heart was bumping crazily all over the place. I really had to get a grip so I could get some rest.

As I am wont to do in such circumstances, I sought the help of my animus. I had no idea what would make me feel better and I could only trust that he would guide my imagination to come up with something. He took me by the hand and we found ourselves in the middle of the huge, black expanse of the Universe, sprinkled all over with stars. He led me up a long spiral staircase for a long time, till we got to the top and looked out over the Universe. It was huge and scary and made me feel small and very transitory. I was really pretty terrified contemplating it all.

But Etrae’u just grinned at me as if he weren’t disturbed in the least by the vast emptiness of space. He stepped off the edge of the top of the staircase and strode a few steps and turned around. To my surprise, he wasn’t floating or flying, he was standing. He held out his hand to me to come to him. His cheerful confidence convinced me it was okay to try, so I stepped off the staircase too. Then I realized I wasn’t standing on empty space at all, but on a huge black marble floor that glinted with stars, like tiny bits of mica in rock. It held me up as substantially as any floor would.

It was amazing how comforting it was to have a floor. That sort of made half the hugeness of space shrink to normal earth proportions. There was still infinite sky above, but then, that’s always true if you think about it.

Then I heard an orchestra begin to play a waltz, the song “Out of My Dreams” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Oklahoma!”. Etrae’u took my hands and we waltzed to the song, and as we danced and whirled around on that vast black marble floor, he told me, “This place is called the Starlight Ballroom.”

Little by little around us I could see things appearing: tables lit with candles, and people sitting at them having drinks, the orchestra, other dancers, and eventually a sense of walls and a ceiling. I looked down and I was wearing a black formal gown with a full skirt studded with little gems like diamonds, set in constellations like the sky. And my companion was in a black tuxedo.

When the music concluded, we applauded politely, and Etrae’u led me to our table. I sat down, confused and full of wonder, and a waiter came and brought us drinks in martini glasses. The cocktails were clear black liquid that also twinkled like the night sky. I looked at my escort with confusion, but he just toasted me with a smile. I drank, and looked around at the place, and it was just a very lovely and elegant club full of people enjoying themselves.

“It isn’t bad at all, now is it?” asked Etrae’u.

“Not when it’s the Starlight Ballroom instead of the Universe,” I told him.

“And what’s the difference?” he asked.

I thought about this for a minute, and the words he spoke next all rang true. Etrae’u told me, “The Universe is frightening because it makes you feel like you don’t matter. Whether you live or die, what difference does it make? You’re not even a speck in all that vastness. It doesn’t care, it offers no comfort. But this club, this ballroom, is different. It belongs to you. I mean, you can comprehend it: the music, the space, the pleasant things happening in it. You can get your mind around it and make it part of what you understand and control.”

“That’s all very true,” I agreed.

“But you see,” said Etrae’u, “the Universe is the Starlight Ballroom. That’s what you need to understand. Don’t feel that because it’s big and mysterious that it doesn’t belong to you. It does. Life, now and beyond life, belong to you. The Universe is your place to dance in, that’s the reason it’s here.”

“I’d like to put this in my blog,” I told him. (See, I’m thinking of you, readers!) “But I guess it doesn’t have anything much to do with sex.”

“Actually, it does,” he said, laughing. “I’ll show you what I mean. Take a good look at me, and if you’re still feeling a little bad, it might help.”

So I did look at him, sitting across the table from me in his tux. You have to understand he’s the most attractive guy in the world to me. So of course, I felt a little tug of desire for him. And it did make me feel better.

He went on, “The saying goes that love makes the world go round, and it’s true that all good things come out of love. But it’s sex that holds the world together. That yearning for intimacy, that desire for beauty, the union of opposites, the urge to create...all those sex-things hold the ballroom and the Universe together. And no matter how much you feel like death is the greatest power in the Universe, love and sex always win in the end, and life and beauty and joy go on.”

I’m not sure writing this down can do justice to the understanding I gleaned from this thing my animus showed me. But here it is, take from it what you will. I felt better and my heart settled down, and I went to sleep.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

What I’d Want to Be Like If I Were a Guy

I’ve written many times about my belief in the anima and animus, according to the theory developed by psychologist Carl Jung. Here’s the 79-cent, off-the-self-help-shelf definition of the animus: the suppressed “male” aspect of a female’s psyche, with the parallel definition for the anima with guys. Over the years I’ve become intimately acquainted with my animus, his preferences when it comes to guises to take, and the ways he can help (and occasionally hinder) me. He’s done a pretty good job of confirming what Jung taught: that the animus is not imaginary, and really is independent and autonomous. I’ve met a lot of sane, successful women who understand exactly what I’m talking about regarding the animus, because they’ve experienced it all their lives, too.

I’m pretty crazy about this aspect of my psyche, and I think he’s the motivation and inspiration for the majority of my writing. (It’s not like “muse” is a new concept, hey?) The other day I thought about how very cool it would be to be a flesh and blood guy, if that guy were like my animus. If I woke up tomorrow with Y-chromosomes, I would certainly aspire to be like him. If I managed to emulate him perfectly, this is what I would be like:

1. Capable and decisive. I’d know what I was doing most of the time, and when in doubt, I’d find a way to figure out what to do pretty efficiently. I wouldn’t fake knowing things I didn’t know, though. I’d have the ego-strength to admit it and use the opportunity to get smarter by learning from others.

2. Quietly and cheerfully self-confident. I’d enjoy being in charge, being sure of myself, and demonstrating my abilities. I wouldn’t be boastful about it, but good-natured and helpful.

3. Moral and ethical. I’d care a lot about right and wrong and personal responsibility. I’d be capable of getting pretty enraged at people who didn’t care, too, and want to do something about it.

4. Funny. The kind of guy who teases in an affectionate way, and is genuinely witty and humorous in all sorts of situations.

5. Competitive and driven to success. Whatever sports I participated in, whatever work I did, I’d really want to excel. I’d be a gracious loser, but I wouldn’t like it. Using my gifts and abilities to their full extent would be very important to me. I’d embrace hard work if it brought results.

6. Adept at air guitar. The point of this one is, I’d secretly wish I could be front man in a rock band. If I had the talent, I’d try to be front man in a rock band.

7. Not afraid of seeming unmanly. I’d have a good grip on the qualities that demonstrate true masculinity (especially 1 and 2), so I wouldn’t mind appreciating those things in life men sometimes avoid, like watching musicals. (I probably wouldn’t like as many of them as I do as a woman, though.)

8. Wise and a little mystical. I would value wisdom a great deal and try to cultivate it. I’d also have a fascination with life’s mysteries. I admit, in appropriate circumstances I wouldn’t mind indulging myself by playing the shaman role.

9. Able to revert to a “little boy.” That is, I’d never lose my childlike wonder and enthusiasm for those things that really excited me. I’d be able to play, be imaginative, and get crazy once in awhile.

10. Egotistical, balanced with sensitivity. I’d have an ego all right, but a guy can get away with that and even use it to his advantage. Fortunately, I’d also be perceptive enough not to let it blind me to people around me and their needs.

That’s my animus, in a nutshell--you can understand why anyone would want to be like this, hey? And it might well be impossible to do if you were just a flesh-and-blood guy.

But as long as I’m not aiming for the realistic: I guess to complete the wish list I’d want to be 6’1”, muscular but lean, have wavy dark brown hair in some very excellent slightly long haircut, have chocolate brown eyes, and look good with or without a beard. I’d like to have a good singing voice, be a decent dancer, play real guitar and maybe piano as well, be able to do voice impressions, know how to fix cars and do home handyman stuff including woodworking. I’d like to be able to play ice hockey, do some kind of martial arts, and play baseball. I’d be smart with computers, money, politics and pop culture. And I’d be a great cook and a wonder with the grill. Is that asking too much?

Yeah, yeah, I know.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Would You Like Some Sex with That Romance?

Yesterday I was talking to an aspiring author who is working on a romance/mystery novel. He said to me, “a love story doesn’t need to have sex in it.” I’d have to agree, of course. A burger can be perfectly tasty without fries on the side, know what I mean? My favorite love stories, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind, do not include graphic sex. The question made me reflect on why exactly I prefer to write love stories that do have sex in them.

A lot of erotica authors like to write about sex, period, and there may or may not be a love story, and it may be quite secondary. Personally, I think the best way to go is both, because of the nature of romantic love. In my view (and Carl Jung’s, at least according to my interpretation), romantic love is borne of the deepest cravings of the psyche. It’s about unmet needs and yearning for balance and fulfillment. The psychological hungers that inspire people to have infatuations and fall in love are intense and powerful and usually uncontrollable. Just like sexual desire and lust.

Love stories can be memorable for a number of reasons, but I believe they work best when the two people involved are drawn to each other in a way that is uncontrollable and also frustrated by circumstance. Mr. Darcy craves Elizabeth Bennet in spite of believing her to be beneath him. It’s quite titillating to watch his desire struggle with his intellectual beliefs. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester yearn to be together but his marriage to his mad wife stands in the way. When in a fit of desperation he attempts to marry Jane anyway, his insane determination has very sexual undertones. Scarlett O’Hara’s longstanding infatuation with Ashley Wilkes is the one thing that can drain her of all her spunk and render her helplessly submissive.

In short, these fictional folks all experience desire of extreme intensity. They don’t take off their clothes, but the same factors that drive people to lust and sexual interaction are present and intensely active. These characters and their emotions resonate with readers. We’ve all felt like that at one time or other, and emotions like these were all tangled up with the sexual desire we experienced.

So that’s the romantic love part of the picture. To the writer who wishes to communicate most powerfully about sex, it’s the set-up you’re required to do to achieve that effectiveness. Leaping right into the bed with the naked bodies and the thrusting and moaning can get a rise out of a reader, sure. But the stakes—and emotional engagement—are raised greatly if the psychology of arousal and desire has been brought into play.

So, if that’s the important part, do you really need to go into the sex itself? Why is the explicit love scene so necessary?

Personally, when I write the sex scene I do it not so much to describe a series of actions, but to say more about each character’s reaction to achieving intimacy with his/her heart’s desire. How they touch each other, what they say, how they engage in the physical act, all tell us more about romantic yearning and the satisfaction of same.

I picture Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth on their wedding night, mixing wild passion (in contrast to the restraint required by Regency society) with exchanges of delightful wit. It is primarily their shared wit that brings them together, and it would have to be an integral part of their lovemaking. That’s a scene I’d love to write.

Mr. Rochester is obviously a fiery soul, which is no doubt part of his charm to the reserved, meek Jane. I’m sure he would be likewise in bed, while at the same time exerting a paternal tenderness that is balm to the soul of the orphaned girl inside Jane. Also a lovely encounter…sigh.

And as for Scarlett, she ends up with Rhett Butler, who is definitely more of a kindred spirit than Ashley. But I’ve always felt the reason Scarlett and Rhett didn’t make it was that they are too much alike. It is because of Ashley’s quiet, serious nature that the passionate and wild Scarlett yearns for him. Would I like to try putting those two in bed? Only if I got to write Scarlett succeeding in breaking down Ashley’s reserve. That’s why the incident in the film when she gets him to kiss her is so memorable; you gotta love a scene when sexual desire is so powerful it gets someone to abandon his principles.

So to me, writing in the sex just cranks the romantic love up a notch. You get to paint the picture of two people’s adoration of each other with some additional, intense colors. You get to use their sexual encounter as an illustration, or a metaphor, or both. Just as bedroom behavior is an intimate glimpse into the psyches of the lovers, a bedroom scene can say things about characters that no amount of PG description, action and dialogue can.

The guy I spoke to about his book admitted to me that he simply doesn’t know how to write sex scenes. I say, better to know that about yourself and write other fiction, than force it when you just don’t have that particular knack. Because unlike most everything else that happens in life, very seldom is real life sex something you can base your fiction on. It’s fun enough, don’t get me wrong, but not often anything to write home about, as the saying goes. So writing sex puts demands on the imagination like little else.

Nevertheless, if you can pull it off, it’s like adding fries to your burger. Only with more heart palpitations and less trans fat.