The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I’ve known David Guy more than ten years, as a fellow writer and as a friend, and I’ve always admired the candor and clarity he brings to difficult subjects. Not everyone is willing to speak as honestly as he does about sex, especially about sexual fantasies. Readers who object to plain talk about these matters stand forewarned.
A part of this essay recently appeared in a Whole Earth Review on how people play. The rest is being published for the first time. (Whole Earth Review — consistently one of the nation’s most thoughtful and provocative journals — is $20 a year from WER, 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965).
I think that my life as a writer began when I started to type up the stories.
As a boy I had dreamed about being a writer, and had written a few stories in some spiral notebooks that I still have, but they had seemed inept to me afterward and I didn’t go back to them. I had written stories for class assignments, and for two years I had written a column for the school newspaper, but I did not consider those to be real writing. For one thing, I had done them on assignment; they had not come up spontaneously, as I thought real writing must. For another, they were written for an audience, for the people in that school who I knew would read them, and said things those people would find acceptable. They were what I think are called tours de force; they showed my writing skills without being about anything that vitally interested me. My real writing, I knew, would be about another world, an inner world, a serious adult world. It was a world I felt I was learning about as I read the great works of literature. It would have been presumptuous of me to write of that world in the school literary magazine. I didn’t know enough about it. It would also have been unacceptable to my audience. At the heart of that world were forbidden subjects. Sex, in particular.
At the same time as I felt that world to be developing and growing in me, I also felt it had always been there. I was a dutiful child, cheerful, friendly, seeming to accept his circumstances, but inside me was a severe critic who had his own view of things. He had strong doubts, for instance, about the educational system in which he had been raised. He had his own peculiar views on religion and psychology. He had his own ideas about society. In the writing of rebellious artists and social critics, he recognized kindred spirits. He was the part of me who would do my real writing, who had written in spiral notebooks stories that were inept, quite specifically, because he didn’t know enough.
It was one thing to do that kind of writing in notebooks and stuff them into a desk drawer. It was quite another to show them to people, to work on them until they were as finished as I could make them. The summer before I went to college, I got a letter asking if I wanted to submit a piece of writing to get into a creative writing class there. I felt that in going off to college, I was leaving the circumscribed world I had grown up in for a larger one, where nobody would know me or be interested in monitoring my thoughts. I was both scared and excited at this prospect. I felt that I would be able to start writing with my inner, truer self. In finishing stories and typing them up, I was committing myself to them in a new way. I submitted a piece and got into the class, and writing became a major part of my life.
Every day I went to the library right after lunch. I generally went to the medical school library, where I could sit in a small, open carrel in the stacks and not have to look at people, where I could smoke (only in the medical school library could you smoke) and drink coffee. For two hours or so, I would write. We would have perhaps three weeks to finish an assignment, and for the first two and a half I would work on the first page, writing it again and again. (In the last half-week, despairing once again of composing a good story, I would quickly write the rest and type it up.) I rarely changed the details of the story; I just changed the way I wrote the sentences. Instead of starting a sentence with a phrase, I’d start it with a clause. I’d move the clause from the beginning to the end. I’d find a way to stick it in the middle. I would take the first three sentences of the story and make them into one long, elaborate sentence. “I’m going to the store,” a character would say in one version. “Guess I’ll go down to the store,” he’d say in another. “Goin’ to the store,” he’d say, gruffly, in a third.
What are you doing? my friends would have asked me, if they had known how I spent those afternoons. What are you doing that for? Most of the people in the class, even the very talented ones, waited until the last few days before they started a story, then wrote it up very quickly. (In a way, of course, that was what I did too. Except for that first page.)
I would have no answer to those questions. I knew a great deal about writing habits — I had read every writer’s interview I could get my hands on — but I had never read of any as bizarre as mine. I didn’t think they were really the habits of a writer; they were just what I neurotically had to do while I was getting started. Someday I would more competent and professional. I just had to blunder through this difficult period.
I was playing with language. I don’t think I have ever done anything more important to my development as a writer.
If I had expressed my deepest doubts about what I was doing — as I often did — I would have said: you can’t do this. You’ve got to work.
What I believed about writing in those days was that it all had to do with language, that somehow the truth in writing, truth in general, was contained in language, words on a page, and that if you fooled around with them long enough, you would find the truth. You’d know it when you saw it.
I had not yet found it in my own writing. I had faith that I would someday.
My early stories were well-formed and technically skillful, but they lacked a certain fire. I was allowing myself to explore that inner world only cautiously, at its outermost boundaries. I went further into it in my reading than I did in my writing. (Part of the reason for my caution was that my father had died two years before, and I was afraid of that inner world, afraid of the grief and rage that might suck me in and destroy me.) Also, for all the fooling around I did with language, the voice in my stories was oddly flat, as if I had taken all the life out of it. I had adopted a Flaubertian standard of art which held that an artist’s personality should be utterly absent from his work. I could argue for such a theory in the abstract, but I think my belief in it had a lot to do with my self-image in those days. (Nowadays it is just the personal voice that I do look for in a work of art.)
I submitted all my stories to the campus literary magazine, and they were all turned down. I no longer did any journalism; all my ambitions were as an artist. I continued to write through my years at college, and thought of writing as my vocation, but I got nothing published. By the time I graduated, writing seemed an entirely personal activity for me, with no connection to success, money, or a career.
The work I had done during my four years had been in the study of literature, and it occurred to me I might make a career of that. Since the age of fifteen I had been an avid reader, the kind who could spend a summer reading, ten or twelve hours a day, who was glad when he couldn’t find a job or (once) when he was laid off from one, so he would have more time to read. Reading was virtually a physical need for me.
There was therefore something about the professional study of literature that repelled me. It would turn into work something that I had always felt as a deep pleasure. I was afraid the pleasure would vanish. Academic criticism — writing or reading it — not only bored me, but was almost physically painful. It seemed to take all the life out of literature. I decided to try teaching in a secondary school, a low-key form of the profession I thought I might be able to stand. As it turned out, teaching literature to adolescents had much more to do with paying attention to them — as they quickly let me know — than with a close attention to the text. Eventually I gravitated toward younger kids.
I was a dutiful person who would never have allowed himself to do an inadequate job of teaching. I spent eight hours a day at my job and many more hours preparing for it. But at some other level it meant nothing to me. Writing was still the heart of my life. It was on my mind constantly, and I spent what spare time I had on it, mostly vacations and summers. In my third year of teaching, when I no longer needed as much time for preparation, I began going to bed early, getting up before 5, and writing until 7. I was still a slow writer, a compulsive rewriter, though I had come a long way from that eighteen-year-old who couldn’t get past the first page. But I still couldn’t get my stories published, and over the next couple of years I wrote a novel that also didn’t get published. I had always thought my first novel, which I would write in my mid-twenties, would be published to enormous acclaim. When it wasn’t, it was an earth-shaking experience — including stomach pains, insomnia, temporary impotence, and a general nervous collapse — that made me stop and look at things.
Partly there was a problem of energy. I had to get a certain amount of sleep. There were only so many hours in the day. The emotional energy I used with my students was the same energy I used in my writing, and there was only so much to go around. (I’m not sure this is true. I sometimes think that creative energy feeds on itself, that only some external force can block it, that the major drain on my energy at that point was my disappointment over my book. In any case, I seemed suddenly not to have enough.) My duties at school were expanding, as were my duties at home; I had a two-year-old son. I couldn’t continue to live as I was. I would fall apart.
The choice I faced was a profound one. It wasn’t just a choice between two kinds of work. I wasn’t just a choice between a career where I was established and one where I hadn’t made a dent. It seemed also to be a choice between work that was socially acceptable and work that had no place in society at all. (The successful artist has a place in society, that of a celebrity. The unsuccessful or apprentice artist occupies roughly the position of a street person.) Between serving my fellow man and indulging myself. Between being a respectable member of society and being an outlaw.
For the first time in my life I chose to be an outlaw.
One of my favorite children’s books is Leo Lionni’s Frederick, about a field mouse who sits around all day while his friends are gathering nuts. “Frederick,” they say, “why don’t you work?” and he says, “I do work. I gather sun rays for the cold winter days. . . . I gather colors. For winter is gray. . . . I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”
Frederick is bullshitting. He is playing with words. He is one of the major con artists of his day. Sitting around gathering sun rays and colors and words — however valuable an activity that may be — is not work. It is play. Frederick does not have a job. He has rejected the values of his society. If Frederick were a realistic story instead of a utopian fable, the other field mice would have thrown that worthless welfare cheat out on his ass. He would have had no nuts for the winter. He would have become an alcoholic and cut off his ear.
We moved to a new city. My wife got a part-time job — she had been wanting to do that — and I did too, at a university library. It was perfectly respectable work, but it wasn’t a career. I no longer had a career. I dressed in grubby clothes, happy to have discarded my jacket and tie, and rode around on a second-hand bicycle. We rented a small house (when I was a teacher I had owned one), and I wrote at the library. The freedom of my new life felt wonderful. For a while, at least, it overshadowed my guilt at having abandoned a respectable place in society.
There were gradual changes in my writing. My near nervous-breakdown at not publishing my first novel had changed me, as had my new position as a renegade from society. I had once thought I would do important work as an author. I had been quite solemn about it, at least to myself. I had tried to write the kind of thing that might become important. Now it looked as if nothing were going to come of my writing at all. It was just me and the paper. Anything goes in such a situation. My rhetoric began to loosen up. My writing grew more personal. I began to take up subjects that seemed small, close to home, the opposite of important. I started learning to let my sentences go where they wanted rather than where I wanted to lead them. I still rewrote a great deal, but I wrote successive drafts quickly, as if to allow things to jump up and surprise me. I trusted that my years of sweating over the page had taught me to write a good sentence, and that I didn’t need to worry about it anymore.
I decided to write a novel about my adolescence and my father’s death.
That afternoon, for the first time in my life . . . I saw a connection between a sexual fantasy and an attitude in my life.
That afternoon, for the first time in my life . . . I saw a connection between a sexual fantasy and an attitude in my life.
As I look back on all this now, it seems a natural progression. I was learning the things an author needs to know at the times I was able to learn them. (By “learning” I am not referring to what goes on in a classroom, where one person says something and another hears and remembers it. I mean the kind of learning that takes place in the bones, that comes about only through the heart-wrenching experiences of life. Seen in that light, the question of whether creative writing can be taught is preposterous. Of course it can’t. It can be learned.) I had written myself off too early. I published my first novel in 1980, at the age of thirty-two. I have published two more since.
Because of some lucky circumstances — my second book earned a decent advance because it looked like a possible commercial success (it turned out not to be), my third earned the same advance before the returns came in on the second — I don’t presently have a job. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I write fiction and book reviews. I mention what I’ve published. This answer satisfies most of them. Occasionally someone who knows a little about publishing raises an eyebrow and says, “You make a living at this?” I say not really, that other circumstances in my life have contributed to the fact that I don’t need to work at the moment, that I don’t really make a living at writing, but just now I have enough money.
If I were to speak from my deepest feelings, I would say that I don’t work. Haven’t done a lick of work in years. Teaching felt like work, as did being a clerk in the library. Cleaning up around the house feels like work. Writing does not, though it is sometimes more difficult than the other three put together. (Degree of difficulty has nothing to do with whether or not something is work. Nothing is easier than housework, and nothing feels more like work.) I write the things that come to me, never sure where they come from; I sit and free-associate, my pen racing across the page; once I have a rough draft I spend hours fiddling with the language. I did these things when I was fifteen and neglecting my schoolwork. I did them more habitually in college when neglecting my academics. I did them when I was a teacher and had to get up before dawn. I did them in the morning when I had an afternoon job in the library. The association is too long and goes too far back. I can’t change it now. Writing is what I do when I’m not working.
There is guilt involved in being a person in this society who doesn’t have a job. There are various kinds of guilt involved in being a writer. I take them as occupational hazards.
Writing is also not work in the sense that it doesn’t belong in that whole context of doing something you have to do to make money. To call writing a job trivializes it, even for some people who work for publications and are paid a salary. Writing is like psychotherapy, or a spiritual discipline. It is a way of encountering reality. It teaches me about myself and the world around me. I’m not sure how it does that, just as I’m not sure how the revelations of religion and psychotherapy happen. People who don’t “believe” in writing don’t know what I’m talking about. To them I call it my work, putting it in a context they can understand.
I don’t question — as I lie in bed with a woman friend, idly kissing — why a particular fantasy drifts into my head. I just let it unfold. She, for her part, enjoys going along with most of what comes up. It usually takes her to an interesting place. It is like inhabiting someone else’s dream.
I pull back from a kiss and look at her.
“I’ve got to tell you something.”
“I know this will sound strange. I mean it’s kind of surprising. Because I got in here like it was nothing. And we’ve done all this kissing. I have done a lot of kissing. I’ve kissed a lot of girls. But this is the first time I’ve ever been to bed with a woman.”
A very slight — almost imperceptible — look of surprise crosses her face. A small smile appears.
“I see,” she says.
“I know it must be a shock.”
“Oh well. Everybody has a first time.”
“So you’ll have to tell me what to do. I don’t know anything.”
“I’m kind of scared.”
“Everybody is, the first time.”
“I always wanted to go to bed with a woman. I just never had the nerve.”
“You’re here now. You don’t need to worry anymore.”
“I never thought the first time would be with my French teacher.”
Five years ago, in the midst of a larger crisis I was having about my life, I began in a new way to question my sexuality. Until then I would have said sex was a mystery, one to be delighted in. The fact that somebody might get off on fondling a shoe or dressing in leather was something not to be horrified or disgusted by, but simply to be accepted with a shrug. For the rest of the world I still felt that way, but for myself I no longer did. I couldn’t understand why certain acts, scenes, or situations were so entrancing to me. There were things that for various external reasons I didn’t want to do, but I still felt compelled to do them. I didn’t think they were wrong, but I didn’t like being in the grips of a compulsion. I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
I began to talk to my friends about this subject. What is it in sex, I would say, that you like? Are there one or two things that you’re really after when you’re doing everything else? What is behind the things you like to do? What’s behind the whole transaction?
A friend proposed a simplified form of these questions, one almost dizzying in the abyss it opened up: What is sex?
I looked into myself and realized to my astonishment that what I was trying to get at was not what I had always assumed. All my life I had been told — if not directly, then certainly by implication — that what sex is involved one major act: a man got a hard-on, put it inside a woman, and came. When that happened, sex had happened. When it didn’t, it hadn’t. (People who are smiling — or grimacing — at my shallowness should ask themselves what they mean by the statement, We had sex.) I realized that in all my sexual encounters with women, whatever else might be happening and however much I might be enjoying it, in the back of my mind was the thought that the encounter had to end in a certain way. The need to have a hard-on at the right moment loomed as an enormous preoccupation, one that could take over my whole consciousness. Because if the encounter didn’t end in that certain way, we hadn’t “done it.” We hadn’t, to the adolescent male inside me who had formed my sexual attitudes, done anything.
I realized that fucking wasn’t what I was after. It wasn’t what I really liked. It often followed from what I liked, but it wasn’t the thing itself, and the pressure to fuck often distracted me from what I wanted.
What I was after was the long, naked embrace, top of the head to tips of the toes, soft bellies pressed together. Bellies were more important than genitals. That wasn’t the only thing I liked, but it was the rock-bottom thing. If I didn’t get enough of that, the encounter felt incomplete.
That embrace could say various things. I like you. Doesn’t this feel good? I love you. I accept you: round belly, chubby hips, funny hair. It could be deeply personal, but it could also be human in a way that transcended the personal: We’re doing this. We’re going to accept each other. We’re going to love each other. (Or as Paul Goodman once put it, “I love you. It’s nothing personal.” ) There was something deeply moving in even the most sordid embrace if it expressed this simple thing, the willingness of human beings to come together, this delight in and acceptance of another physical body, an acceptance I find so hard to feel for my own body.
It was really the hug I wanted, all those times I thought I was trying to get laid.
“I think the first thing you should do is suck here.”
“Like a baby.”
“Did your babies suck here?”
“Did you like it?”
“Did it seem sexual?”
“You’re not supposed to talk about that.”
“Here, we can.”
“Yes. It did.”
“Do I suck hard?”
“However you like. I’ll tell you if it’s not right.”
“Do I bite?”
“I notice you let the hair grow under your arms.”
“Why is that?”
“So men can lick there.”
“Come on. Men don’t lick there.”
“They do. You’re going to lick there, when I feel sucked enough.”
“Doesn’t it taste funny?”
“It tastes . . . different. You’re going to have some new tastes here. It tastes funky. Sexy.”
“You have to lick there to get ready for something you’re going to do later on.”
Some years ago, I was troubled by a persistent sexual fantasy. I thought about it all the time, wanted it very much. It became an obsession. The woman I was with didn’t want to act it out, so it became a problem between us, but even if I did enact it, it didn’t go away. Doing the thing didn’t make it vanish. It had countless variations, but its main feature was that a woman would come to me — I wouldn’t have said anything, made any advance — and suck my cock. There might be an elaborate situation surrounding this event. She might do a languorous strip. She might fondle and caress me. She might whisper dirty little words into my ear. But she always went down on me.
My lover couldn’t understand why I wanted her to do something she didn’t like. To her this imagined scene had nothing to do with what was between us. She felt demeaned by being asked to do it. She wondered if I wanted her to do it just because she didn’t want to, if what I really wanted was to give her pain. I didn’t think that was so. I wasn’t sure why I wanted this thing. I just knew I thought about it all the time.
The therapist I was seeing at the time, a good but limited pastoral-care counselor, talked with me about this problem. He wasn’t squeamish about it, and he could certainly understand me wanting to get blown, but he felt my lover’s objections closed the discussion. He saw nothing more in it than a simple conflict. “If she doesn’t want to,” he said, “you’ll just have to do without it.”
I saw my life stretched in front of me, barren of blow jobs. I wasn’t sure I could abide such a fate.
It was at about that time that I was leaving my teaching job. I had been at the school for six years, ever since it had been founded. I had been chairman of the English department, and I thought — or at least imagined, with my vivid imagination — that some special notice might be taken of me at the awards ceremony in the last week of school. Perhaps I would receive an award for outstanding service. Parents would rush up to me — tears in their eyes — to thank me for all I had done for their children. The more attractive women might hug and kiss me. (Maybe one would sneak me off to an empty classroom for a blow job!)
I thought to myself — and it was like a vision of paradise, or of perfect health — what if I allowed myself to live without punishing myself? What would that be like? It was almost unimaginable.
I thought to myself — and it was like a vision of paradise, or of perfect health — what if I allowed myself to live without punishing myself? What would that be like? It was almost unimaginable.
On the actual day, though, it was an awards ceremony like any other. Students were excited because the year was coming to an end. Parents were there because their children were getting awards, not because they wanted to speak to a teacher. Other teachers were also leaving the school, and it wouldn’t have done to single one out. There was no special award in the ceremony, and no one so much as spoke to me about the fact that I was leaving.
I was crushed. I had been looking forward to that ceremony for weeks. I had put in years of hard work at that school, with many students, and I was getting no thanks. The truth was that I was very ambivalent that day. I felt that I had to leave my job, but I was scared. I would miss my students and my colleagues. I was leaving a small community for the cold, cruel world. It was a major moment in my life, and I wanted some notice to be taken of it. I longed for an emotional connection that hadn’t been made.
That afternoon, for the first time in my life — as I walked up a stairway back to my empty classroom, cars pulling away in the parking lot — I saw a connection between a sexual fantasy and an attitude in my life. I had been puzzling for days over my obsession with that fantasy, and the connection finally hit me. What I had been longing for that afternoon was exactly analogous to my fantasy. I wanted people to look at me and know my need. I wanted not to have to speak. I wanted them to come up and lavish their attention on me. I wanted them to shower me with affection.
What I had been hoping for was a dream. In the perfect world that existed in my head it had happened, but in the real world it hadn’t. I could sit around and eat away at my stomach in disappointment or I could enter the real world. I could go up to people and say, “This is a hard moment for me. I’m feeling very emotional.” I could say, “I’ve enjoyed working with you.” Or, “I’ve enjoyed teaching you.” I wanted an emotional connection and I could make it come about. Nobody was going to refuse me if I showed what I was feeling.
Suddenly I was seeing the passivity that permeated my whole life. I had been blaming the world for not being what I wanted, instead of being another way in the world myself. Too often I had sat around waiting for something to happen that I could have made happen. My disappointment was not only at what hadn’t occurred, but also (secretly) at my failure to act. I saw that this passive attitude toward the world — lying there waiting for it to come to me — was an old habit of mine. I saw that by making myself aware of it, I could change it.
My sexual fantasy had been telling me not just what I wanted in bed, but something about who I was as a person. It wasn’t just that I wanted to get blown. It wasn’t just that I wanted the woman to come to me. It as a sexual wish, but also more than that, so that even when I acted it out, it returned. The larger wish that underlay the fantasy hadn’t been touched.
I still enjoy being passive in bed sometimes. Especially when I have had to assert myself out in the world, I like the feeling of lying there and taking it. Of being in the hands (or the mouth) of a woman who knows just what I want. Out in the world that wish has led to a lot of disappointment. But when I know what it’s about — and knowing seems actually to add to the pleasure — the bedroom is a safe place to act it out.
“All my life I’ve wanted to lie here and look at this. Always.”
“Look all you want.”
“Even just yesterday. I’d have done anything to look at this. Paid any price.”
“If I’d only known.”
“Can I touch it?”
“Can I put my finger in?”
“Does it feel good?”
“Something bigger would feel better. Do you have anything bigger?”
“I have something that’s getting bigger all the time.”
“I’ll let you know when it’s really big.”
“Please do. Listen. I want you to kiss that.”
“What you’re looking at. I want you to suck and lick and kiss it. I want you to love it.”
“Come on. People don’t do that.”
“They do. They’re doing it all over the world.”
“That’s not true.”
“This very moment. Sophisticated people. Great lovers.”
“Isn’t it dirty?”
“Not in the least.”
“It has a taste. Some people like it. I like it.”
“Everybody’s scared the first time.”
“I’ve thought of this, to tell you the truth. But actually to do it. . . .”
“It’s a big moment.”
“Hey. I like this.”
“I thought you might.”
“I like it a lot. I want to do it some more.”
“I want to do it for a long time.”
From as far back as I can remember, I have had fantasies of spanking. Doing it and — especially — having it done. My father occasionally spanked us as children, and that was not a happy experience, but in grade school the teacher spanked the bad kids, and that definitely had its attractions. I longed for physical contact with those women (any women!). They never touched the good kids, but the bad kids were clutched, shaken, thrown over their knees, and spanked. Sometimes the bad boys were taken into the cloakroom to be punished. I was thrilled at the thought of that intimacy. I wanted to be alone with those women, to have them speak only to me, even if their words were angry. I wanted them to touch me, even if that meant hitting me. I wanted to be thrown over their warm thighs in the hush of that dark, private cloakroom. I probably also wished I were daring enough to be bad, though I wasn’t conscious of that wish. I had been raised in a household where, especially as you got older, you (so to speak) disciplined yourself. You were made to understand why something you had done was wrong. You were to keep that understanding in your head to keep you from transgressing again. Another word for that understanding was guilt. I envisioned a sharp, swift punishment that would wipe the whole slate clean.
I remember acting those fantasies out with a friend when I was six years old. He was a kid who had been bad at school and had been spanked (already I was into rough trade), so it was thrilling to hear from him what it had been like, and to act the scene out. Through the years such fantasies would come and go. By the time I hit puberty they seemed distinctly weird, and I would have told them to no one. I read a sex manual in which an attraction to spanking was discussed as a perversion. The fragmentary description in that book of a boy being caned by his governess — just her words as she told him what she was going to do — turned me on as nothing ever had. I masturbated with it so many times that I committed it to memory. I searched other books for scenes of spanking. I longed to see spankings take place. I looked for pornography that featured it, but was often disappointed by how poorly it was written. I wrote my own scenes, and stashed them in a box under my bed. I would wait until it had been long enough for me to forget a scene, then take it out and masturbate with it (my scenes were well written). Spanking was not the only thing that turned me on in those days. Lots of things did. But there was a qualitative, as well as a quantitative difference. It touched me in a deeper place.
It is sad to me to look back on that boy who wanted to be punished so much.
Year passed. When I first started having an active — rather standard — sex life, I enjoyed it so much that my fantasies diminished. Eventually, as fantasies will do, they returned. Sometimes I masturbated with them. I told them to women. Some understood; others had no idea what I was talking about. A few acted them out with me. More important than what we were actually doing was the fact that they were acknowledging my fantasy, allowing it to be. I still felt a little weird about it. I discussed it with a new therapist, and could see the place in my life where it had come from. I still felt I hadn’t gotten to the bottom of it.
Quite recently, after the Christmas holidays (those faultless producers of regret), during a gray, bleak January, I passed through an intense period of guilt. I looked back on a marriage that had ended a year before — I had just spent my first holidays as a single man — and all I could see was how I had been at fault. I saw the ways in which I had cut myself off emotionally from my wife. I saw how inadequate I had been to her needs. I saw the way in which my obsessive wish to be a writer, and my depression at my failures, had come between us. I berated myself for not being the lover she wanted. In my head I could see her shortcomings as well, but they never got down to the level at which I was feeling this guilt.
What kind of world would it be if people gave themselves to what they’re doing the way children give themselves to play?
What kind of world would it be if people gave themselves to what they’re doing the way children give themselves to play?
I told these things to my therapist, speaking from a cavernous pit of guilt from which I thought I would never emerge. He listened until I finished, and said, “You’ve put a mask on that person from the past. You’re seeing him as evil and wicked. I want you to look back, and take that mask off him, and see him as he really was.” As I looked back, the mask he was wearing seemed one of pain not of evil, and as I lifted it off I saw a man — and a boy — who only wanted to be loved and accepted, who had twisted himself into various contortions because he didn’t believe he deserved love, who had looked for love and acceptance in the wrong ways and in the wrong places and had often found something that wasn’t love at all, that didn’t begin to touch his hunger. But he wasn’t wicked. He didn’t deserve blame, but I had been blaming him. I had been speaking with the voice of conventional society — the world I had been brought up in — and I had been blaming him for everything that seemed to have gone wrong in his life. I had been beating the shit out of him.
What I actually saw at that moment in the therapist’s office — and if my mouth wasn’t agape literally it certainly was figuratively — was so vast that it took weeks to sort out. I saw that the guilt I was feeling, and my existence as a guilt-feeling person, went way back, before any memory, certainly before that six-year-old put himself over his friend’s knee to be spanked. I saw that my guilt didn’t really have to do with the failures of my marriage, or with anything I was feeling it about; it was as nameless as the anxiety you feel in the small hours of the morning. My spanking fantasies reflected that guilt; they were a mild and exciting way to feel it without tying it to something painful. There was some strange shuttlecock effect in my life about feeling bad and feeling good; I was a afraid to let myself feel too good; if I was feeling too good I would use my guilt feelings to make myself feel bad. This dynamic was reflected in the rhythm of my work: I would get down on myself, make myself feel bad, in order to make up for it with the work I did; it was a method for getting work done. Other ways of getting myself down reflected the same general strategy: psychosomatic ailments, hypochondria, endless worry over things I couldn’t change. My consciousness was jammed with the these things; they had crowded out everything else. And in all these ways — like the governess brandishing the cane over the boy’s bare buttocks, whose white flesh was already criss-crossed with a network of red stripes (I can still write this stuff; it’s like riding a bicycle) — I was punishing myself.
I thought to myself — and it was like a vision of paradise, or of perfect health — what if I allowed myself to live without punishing myself? What would that be like? It was almost unimaginable. It was frightening. What would fill my consciousness, if it were emptied of all those other things?
What would fill it, of course, would be the present moment.
For the second time in my life, many years after the first, I had seen a way in which my sexual fantasies were inextricably linked up with who I was as a person. In this case — and it is still a recent revelation, which has not necessarily played itself out — the connection seems more problematic. The strongest feeling I had as I sat in the therapist’s office and watched this revelation unfold was that I wanted to stop punishing myself. I wanted to feel pleasure and joy without punishing myself with guilt. That would seem to mean, for instance, making love without acting out or fantasizing scenes of punishment. Not that I want to scorn such fantasies if they arise, as if there were something wrong with them: that in itself would produce guilt. In that moment in the therapist’s office, when I saw what was behind those fantasies, it was as if they were a giant inflatable toy that I had just stuck with a pin. They had loomed so large and bright that they seemed real. In a matter of seconds they went utterly flat.
They have disappeared before. I won’t be surprised if they return. Fantasies that have been with you for most of a lifetime don’t often vanish in a matter of seconds. I do think that, if they return, the place to face them will be in a context of play. There, they can be exciting. They can be held up to the light and seen for what they are. The guilt they reflect, however, is not to be played with. It plays with you.
“I love this part on a woman.”
“Most men do.”
“The little hill it forms when you lie on your belly like this.”
“The little valley down the middle.”
“What does it make you want to do?”
“Put my face there?”
“I’d like to kiss.”
“Isn’t that weird?”
“Of course not. It’s soft and smooth. Lots of men like to kiss there.”
“I’d like to bite.”
“I want to run my tongue . . .”
“That is dirty.”
“Not on me.”
“Does it feel good?”
“I’d like to give it a little smack.”
“Not too hard.”
“Of course not.”
“Oh! That was nice. A little smack is nice.”
“Ow! That was too hard.”
“How dare you treat your French teacher that way!”
“I kind of . . . forgot where I was.”
“You won’t forget again. Come up here this instant.”
“I didn’t mean it. I just forgot.”
“Whether you meant it or not. I won’t be treated this way. Turn over on this bed.”
“I’ll never do it again.”
“You certainly won’t. Now do as I say.”
Sex is thought to be an adult activity. At least adults do it a lot — often in a very serious, adult way — and children, when they do sexual things, are often punished for them. But when I think of what sex involves. . . . Bare bodies. Big hugs. Smacks. Tickling. Giggling. Caresses. Whispers in the dark. Licking. Sucking. Squishy noises. The mess it makes. It all seems childish to me. It seems innocent.
A major part of sex is physical, and that part is very good. Yet it is never, even in the most casual encounter, just physical. Nothing in life is just physical. It is also psychic. Emotional. Spiritual. It teaches something. (Not the way one person in a classroom says something and another person hears it. The way an experience teaches you something. It becomes a part of you.) It is a psychic playground. You can try whatever you like. The fact that many people — terribly adult people — don’t notice this aspect of sex doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Those people fail to notice a lot of things.
I am well aware that my wish to be hugged from head to toe, belly to belly, that warm close embrace that says I love and accept you, that vision of acceptance that has sent me into the arms of numerous women and caused me a great deal of anguish, really expresses my need to love myself. No woman can give me that acceptance. The very fact that I’ve gone to so many for it — repeated the scene so many times — lets me know that I’m seeking something that can’t be found there. The wish to lie back and get blown expresses a tendency toward passivity on my part, and also a wish for acceptance of my sexuality — she likes it so much that she takes it in her mouth! she lets me come! she swallows the come! — that I need to give myself. I need to love my cock. The wish to be thrown over a woman’s knee and spanked expresses a longing to be freed from guilt that only I can free myself from. No woman can do that for me.
It is sex — what some people would call my obsession with sex — that has taught me these things.
Knowing them, I still love to be hugged that way. I love to lie back and get blown. I may well enjoy being spanked again.
I was walking down Park Avenue in New York not long ago with a writer friend — the perfect place to have this conversation — when he said, “Sometimes I think if I get my novel published I’ll go on the college lecture circuit and get laid a lot. Do you ever think a thing like that?” Absolutely. Most men would understand that fantasy. I’ve had similar ones since my earliest youth. After all these years of having such a dream myself, though, I don’t think my friend really wants to get laid a lot. That is a metaphor for what he wants. I think he wants to have written a great and wonderful novel, to be loved and admired for it. That is the wish that seems presumptuous. The desire that dares not speak its name. It strips you bare to admit such a thing. So you say you want to get laid.
A woman friend tells me she thinks you bring everything you are feeling to an act of sex, that it all comes out in that moment. It is just as true that you bring your whole life to it. What you do in bed might show you as you are. It might express things that you can’t express elsewhere. You might find things there that you want to take out into the rest of your life. A woman raised in the middle of this century, taught always to defer to men, always to please them, might find it hard to express her own needs and stand up for them. In bed, with a man who understands, she might have a chance to do that. A man raised in the middle of this century, taught that he was always supposed to know things, to take the lead, might wish to abrogate that responsibility, to go back to the time when he took up this burden, and hand it back to the woman. Not every time they make love, but sometimes. It’s a chance to change the way things have always felt. It’s a game a couple can play.
He can even pretend it’s his first time in bed, with his French teacher.
“Do you think it’s big?”
“Do you think it’s very big?”
“As a matter of fact I do. I think it’s enormous. I’ve never seen one like it. And you’re still just a boy!”
“Have you seen a lot?”
“Hundreds. Thousands. I haven’t kept count. Check my memoirs.”
“What do I do now?”
“You put it in me.”
“The whole thing?”
“Every last inch.”
“Do I ram it in hard?”
“No. Gently. Slowly. When it gets real hot and wet, you do it hard.”
“You bang me. You bang my box.”
“Jesus. What if I do it too hard?”
“I’ll tell you.”
“Should I do it now?”
“I’m not sure where it goes.”
“I’ll show you. If I can get my hand around this enormous . . .”
“All my life I’ve wanted to do this.”
“I’ve wanted to find a woman who would show me.”
“I still can’t believe it’s happening.”
“I can’t believe that for once I’ve been so lucky.”
“You’re going to believe it now.”
The activity in my life that most reminds me of sex is writing.
Some years ago, around the time I quit my part-time job, I would sometimes be writing in my study and hear my son in the backyard with a friend.
“Let’s say we’ve just gotten out of the Enterprise and we’re checking our phasers. . . .”
“No! We’re in a land rover and we left our phasers back at the ship. . . .”
“OK. We’re riding along and at first we don’t see anything. . . .”
The neighborhood would be quiet, people off at work. The boys’ voices traveled across a mild breeze. I would smile, and think to myself, I’m doing the same thing they are.
People sometimes questioned, in those days, the way I brought up my son. “You let your son play with guns?” they would say, in open-mouthed astonishment. “Don’t you realize that leads to violent behavior later in life? Someday he’ll think if he’s having trouble with a friend the answer is just to take a gun out and vaporize him.” This statement ignored the fact that I had played with guns as a child, but didn’t resort to violence in my adult life (though I was sorely tempted at that very moment). I would try to explain that I thought my son, in his play, was confronting his fears about the world, real dangers and imaginary ones. He was bringing them up in a context he could handle, and dealing with them as best he could. When he was young, and the things he feared seemed large and overwhelming, it was important for him to believe he could vaporize them. Otherwise he couldn’t face them, and facing them was important. Later he would learn things weren’t so black and white, that you couldn’t identify the bad guys so easily or deal with them so simply. The phase he was going through was an important step. He was using play to help him deal with reality.
That’s what I was doing too. Using play to help me deal with reality.
Was it important, what we were doing? Was it worth our time? Just playing, people often say. We were just playing. I have often thought that a measure of an activity’s value is how it holds one’s attention or captures one’s energy. It sometimes seems that activities that the world regards as vastly important don’t rank very high on that scale (it is said, for example, that our President falls asleep at his Cabinet meetings). I have noticed, in places where I’ve worked, that people often leave their place of employment with much more energy and enthusiasm for what they’re about to do than for what they’ve just done, even if they’re only going off to have a beer. “What kind of world would this be if people didn’t have to work?” I have heard people say, angrily. What kind of world would it be if people gave themselves to what they’re doing the way children give themselves to play?
Behind all questions about work and play are much larger ones: What should we give our lives to? How should we spend our days? Some years ago, when it looked as if the world of industry might be taken over by automation, people wondered what it would be like if we didn’t have jobs. Would the world become a utopia, or would we all go out of our minds? Would people take up valuable hobbies? Leathercraft? Woodworking? Or would they sit in a stupor in front of the tube all day?
The debate seemed to come down to the question of whether the average person would be better off on the Ford assembly line or down at the bowling alley; the consensus seemed to be that he’d better stay on the assembly line. No telling what he might do if he got tired of bowling. Perhaps. Assuming the camaraderie were about the same at both places (I’m not at all sure that’s true), he might be better off on the assembly line, since that would give him at least some feeling of accomplishment. It seems a shame to be settling for such minimal satisfactions.
Where this debate got off the track was when it grouped all kinds of leisure activities together. You could read or you could play golf. Play an instrument or play croquet. Tennis, bowling, bingo, square dancing are important amusements of a kind that people should have in their lives, especially when they bring friends together, but they are not what I am speaking of here as play. When I think of play I think of the intensity my son had at the age of six when he played Star Trek, of the apparently effortless intensity he has now when he is working on the comic books he produces (a kind of intensity I seldom see in adults). I think of play as a higher activity than work, something that engages a person the way art does, or literature, or music. Intense conversation. A beautiful evening sky. Great sex. I mean the kind of play that could be at the center of your life, the kind of thing you might say you live for. I don’t know what kind of world this would be if people didn’t have to work. I think it would be a much better world if they could learn really to give themselves to play.
David Guy’s essay, “When Work Is Play,” resonated with me. I, too, am a writer, and I have struggled (and still struggle) to turn my back on the external and internal organization that says you must work, you must make money, you must do what doesn’t come naturally. Until age thirty-four, I tried to make a deal: I would do whatever it took to gain status and an upwardly mobile lifestyle. I would get a Ph.D. (in the related left-brain field of linguistics), teach college, do electronics research. With the rest of my time (what little there was after I had a child), I would write. It didn’t work. Playing, serious playing, takes a lot more time and a lot more space than I ever imagined.
Watching my daughter grow, I have learned a lot. Like David Guy, I had a sense of recognition, hearing her in the next room playing dress-up while I was in my study, dressing myself up in the guise of different characters. The connection between sex and creativity resonates too. But I wonder — what about women? A lot of women I know have a much harder time playing than men. Fathers play easily with their children, but women, locked earlier into a greater sense of responsibility for child-rearing, are often stuck in other, less flexible roles.
Women sometimes have greater latitude (although less and less these days) to sit home and not account for their time. But I felt this as an extra burden. I had a good professional job before I gave it up to chase an elusive muse around my study. The way I dealt with some of my fear when I quit my job was to tell people I was now just a housewife. I had avoided this at all costs previously; anything was preferable to being compared to those angry, unfulfilled drudges of my childhood.
But more and more I see myself as just a person, learning how to live. As I learn to play in my writing, I learn to play in other things, too. It helps to satisfy the craving I have for intensity, for meaning, for wholeness in my life. Thank you, David Guy, for illuminating that.
I have been receiving The Sun for the past few issues. I had decided to subscribe because of some advertising I received — I was impressed with the wisdom of some of the messages. I remember how beautiful were the words you wrote which began: “What have I ever craved more than a woman’s arms?” I thought this statement was very romantic and sensual. Then I received the February issue [Issue 147] and was offended by the graphic, mechanical type of sex in David Guy’s “When Work Is Play.” For this I could have picked up a flesh magazine. Somehow I expected something more — and different — from The Sun.
I don’t consider myself a prude and believe lovemaking between two mated souls is one of the greatest wonders of the world. Casual sex, on the other hand, which contains no more depth than a fast-food meal contains nutrition, seems rather empty to me.