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Creative writing Q&A: Nicole Markotic on the delicate art of teaching sex scenes

CCWWP conference presenters Nicole Markotic (Photo: Don Denton) and Suzette Mayr

This weekend, creative writing practitioners and educators from across the country will descend on Toronto for the Creative Writing in the 21st Century conference, hosted by the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs organization and held at Humber College.

One of the conference’s most provocatively titled presentations comes from creative writing teachers Nicole Markotic and Suzette Mayr: He put his what, where? Or: How to teach students to write plausible sex scenes, prevent them from winning the Bad Sex Fiction Award, while not suffering from fear, alarm, dread, or embarrassment in the process.

Q&Q spoke to Markotic about the ins and outs of teaching sex scenes.

How did this presentation originate?
Suzette and I decided we want to write a paper together. We teach creative writing in different cities and in different ways. A friend of ours had either asked her students to write a sex scene or they covered a sex scene, and she was appalled by the discussion. I remember thinking I would never encourage writing sex scenes for class, and Suzette said the same thing.

Why had you avoided teaching sex scenes?
The students write such horrible things. The worst we get are these rape scenes that are really horrific, but the students think they are really realistic and gritty, and show they can take on the tough topics.

At least one girl in the class just shrinks into herself when we’re discussing these stories. The last thing you want to do is force someone to read awful things, on the other hand, awful things happen in the world. The problem though, is they’re seeing those scenes as sex scenes.

What made you decide to tackle such a delicate topic in your own class?
I’m teaching a full-year course on poetry and fiction, and thought maybe I can deal with this head-on. And Suzette had a situation where a student came to her and wanted to write erotica. You can’t say to students that you’re not allowed to do something “ the attitude is you can write what you want, but it has to be a literary work. So she did a bunch of research on literary erotica and writers from the modernist period, and it grew from there.

I think the trigger for us was the contest for the worst sex scene. There are so many writers that I admire who write terrible sex scenes. A lot of them, even if they’re not violent or offensive, are just really boring: he put his thing there, and she stroked this, he moaned, and he said, Oh baby, baby.

Is boring the biggest pitfall?
A lot of our students are in their early twenties, and like many young people they think they’ve discovered sex, so just writing about it all they think is radical. One of the things we cover in the paper is that, in my class of 18 students, all of them wrote heterosexual scenes. None of them considered anything but the heterosexual couple. Just the idea of an active male character and a passive female character “ not that they would see her as passive, which is a problem, too “ is something they want to describe. For a lot of them, they don’t understand it’s boring because we’ve been reading this for a couple thousand years.

What did you learn from the experience?
In my class there was a lot of poetry and fiction where the woman was very unhappy and unfulfilled. Usually there’s intercourse and the guy falls asleep. When we were workshopping the pieces, one of my male students, who is really very lovely, surprised me by asking about all the frigid women. Wow. There are still a lot of horrible clichés out there that come out without any of us realizing it. When you go to write a sex scene, a lot of the presumptions you have about bodies come out, too.

Can you teach someone to write a compelling sex scene?
I think so. One of the things I’ve done for my students is to bring in sex (or sexual) scenes from Canadian literature and poetry. Michael Ondaatje writes very sensual scenes in both his fiction and poetry.
There is a history in Canada of really disturbing sex scenes, but not necessarily in a violent way, like the Leonard Cohen scene where one of his characters has sex with a vibrator and the vibrator seems to be in control.

One of my students asked if there were any “normal” sex scenes in Canadian literature, and so we talked about it. They enjoyed the discussion “ they want the sex scenes to matter to the narrative as a whole, to teach us something about the character.

What do you hope to achieve at the conference?
I’m curious to find out if others have deliberately taught sex scenes or deliberately avoided them. I do know that when you teach Canadian literature “ when you teach Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, or Leonard Cohen and Robert Kroetsch, you can’t do it without discussing the sex scenes. So we’ve taught it a lot, but rarely to creative writing students.