That story I mentioned in my last post, “Challenges (yoga, writing, sex),” the one that is about a sexual encounter, is still a work in progress. For now I am calling it “Gwen’s Window.” I asked my boyfriend to read it–he reads almost everything–and he suggested a few word changes. Some of my euphemistic words he assured me no teenaged boy (i.e. my narrator) would ever use, including words that are simply correct. For example, he said no teenager he’s ever known says penis. Grown-ups say penis. A teenaged boy would say dick or cock. Thus educated, I changed the word accordingly.

He also said the euphemism “wetness,” would never be used by any male he knows, teenaged or grown-up. He suggested “pussy.” I hate the word “pussy” unless it is followed by “-cat.” I told him I don’t know anyone who uses that word, including him! Still, I wanted to be faithful to my narrator, not myself, so I rewrote the sentence in question. After all, there is no harm in reshaping a draft, over and over if necessary. And, after all, I have never been privy to the private conversations of teenaged boys.

When I read the revised paragraph out loud, we both paused. I knew I could not use the word “pussy” in my story. No way, no how. And my boyfriend agreed. When he saw the word in print, in context, it made the scene raunchy. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And we both knew, as soon as we saw it there on the page, it was cheap and tawdry. One word, a word that if I believe what I am told is part of the common vernacular of at least half the species, debased my little story.

This exercise raised an interesting artistic question about the relationship between narrative and narrator, an honest depiction and an artful one, and using sex (or violence) to make a larger point versus for its own sake or shock value or titillation.

I have been reading Alice Munro’s short stories this week. Given the formality of her prose, the often rural settings and past era, I was surprised at how often the unseemly occurs. This is something to admire in Munro because it is in these dark corners of life that we explore what it means to be human, of both flesh and mind.

In Munro’s story “Wild Swans,” a teenaged girl takes the train to the city alone for the first time. The man beside her, in his fifties, professing to be a minster, makes small talk and then falls asleep. Soon, with the assistance of her coat lying over her lap and his newspaper lying between them, he touches her thigh. The narrator, Rose, does not object even though the car is full and she could easily say something or shift her body away from him. His hand gradually moves up her leg, over her underpants and to the lower part of her belly, although she keeps her legs pinched together the entire time.

Munro is writing about a girl’s first highly questionable, even objectionable, first sexual encounter, much as I did in “Gwen’s Window.” I wrote the story before reading Munro, by the way. Naturally, I recognized the similarity of theme amongst the completely dissimilar narratives. The thing we are both after is that part of human nature that is both curious and uncertain. That wants something despite feeling the very thing we want might make us a traitor to ourselves. Or it is something we allow because we are confused and do not know what we want. Depending on the narrative that is built around the act after-the-fact, the act (only then) becomes either a comedy or a tragedy, romanticized or mourned. As Munro’s Rose says, “This was disgrace, this was beggary. But what harm in that, we say to ourselves at such moments, what harm in anything, the worse the better, as we ride the cold wave of greed, of greedy assent…Victim and accomplice.”

Some events are born of uncertainty and inaction. They are ambiguous, sometimes damaging, sometimes not. We have the power to accept or reject the advances of another, but instead we simply let events unfold. And then what? Rose chose not to be a victim, to make of it a “preposterous adventure.” And what will Gwen make of her first encounter?

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