Lust: The Literary Courtesan

Theme Essay by Lorraine Berry

Getting Paid to Write Erotica—and Loving It

 


To read Pablo Neruda’s love poetry is to feel possessed, hungry, feral.

I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps….

In 2003, when I was forty, I lived in a tiny apartment—my post-divorce abode. On the nights that I had custody of my two girls, we’d be jammed into the place, the three of us sharing a space really intended for one person.

I copied out a few Neruda poems, pasted the white pages against dark construction paper, hung them where I could see them. Poetry was a comfort, but it also implied what I couldn’t have: the poet himself.

I wanted a man who would write me poetry, woo me with his words, and make me want him simply because he whispered in my ear.

Writing this now, at nearly fifty, I’m embarrassed. I can see how incomplete I was. I was not Venus arising perfect from the seashell; I was Quasimodo, the half-formed.

At least I’d discovered that writing was one route to feeling whole. For two years after my divorce, I was unemployed, so I used the seemingly endless and banal jobless days to practice my craft. Unable to work, I wrote, and as I wrote, parts of myself were exposed. Some were long-forgotten stretches of my childhood; others surfaced after something I’d done the night before.

But there was another aspect to writing, I found, one I was unwilling to reveal to anyone else at that point. When I was having a really good day—a day when I felt as if I were taking dictation directly from the muse—I got high. At first, I attributed it to an endorphin rush, as if I’d been exercising hard. Then I realized what I was feeling.

Writing made me horny—not something I was eager to share, even with my writing friends.

One good friend became the recipient of this newfound erotic-writing connection, however. Thomas (not his real name) and I had dated in college and then lost touch. We connected eighteen years later through the Internet, discovering that we still had fond—and lustful—feelings for each other. Thomas had made it big in the business world; we lived thousands of miles apart. But we corresponded almost daily by email—and in email, I poured out some of my longing to him.

As Neruda’s poetry seeped into my consciousness and affected my style, I tried, almost as a writing exercise, to woo Thomas with words. At some point, my letters became more and more erotic, steeped in the brew of my own sexuality.

And trust Thomas to see a financial opportunity for me. “You know,” he wrote back, “you’re really good at writing this stuff. Did you ever think about making a business of it?”

Not the answer I wanted, but an idea had been planted.

 

Sex Sells—Sort Of

Soon after this conversation, I queried the erotic book market, read through the submission guidelines for erotic magazines and websites, and discovered something unexpected. While erotica and porn are billion-dollar industries, it's not the writers who are getting rich. Erotica anthologies or websites offered pittances as recompense for writing, if they paid at all.

But if Thomas told me he found my letters arousing, I knew I could do this kind of writing. The problem was, I needed to make enough money to address my far-from-sexy monthly struggle with putting food on the table. So I opted for setting up a private service, one in which I wrote for individual clients willing to pay for customized erotic stories.

First, I needed a nom de plume. I asked Thomas what he thought I should call myself.

“Enya Mouth,” he replied in a two-word text.

Ha ha. That’s subtle. I played with it until it became “Enya Bouche.” I got Enya her own email account and arranged for payment on one of the websites that handles such things. I didn’t want any clients tracking down the non-Enya me who had two kids.

I imagined clients who bore some resemblance to the kind of man I was seeking: intelligent, intellectual, funny—someone who didn’t think of himself as the average Joe. I also thought the service would be perfect for women who longed to say things to their lovers but felt too inhibited to do so. I could be their voice.

But some of the magazines in which it would have made sense to advertise—such as Esquire—were simply too expensive to consider. The free websites that listed services were not likely to attract people willing to pay the prices I needed to charge. After some research, I hit on advertising in a leftist political magazine with an intellectual clientele.

And so Enya Bouche made her debut in The Nation.

  

Will Write for Lust

From the start, I saw Enya as a separate person. She was like the courtesans of Renaissance Italy. They had been educated women who entertained learned men both with their conversation and their bodies. I would substitute my pen for my body. Enya's nickname became "The Literary Courtesan." I promised my clients doctor-patient confidentiality. I didn't tell most people about my new venture. Even with Thomas, I didn't reveal any details of what I'd been asked to write.

Still, I’d already decided that “icky” would be my touchstone for deciding what I would not write. It didn’t matter to me if I’d never partaken in an activity I was asked to describe, but I refused to write about anything that made my skin crawl.

Establishing some boundaries was easy: I would not write rape scenes. Nor would I write about children (and animals, after the guy who loved dogs—and not in a good way—showed up). But I was willing to write about bondage and spanking and other forms of light S&M or homosexual sex or…well, I’d see what happened.

The first thing I noticed was that all the responses to my ad came from men. So much for my idea that women would flock to this business. (For the three years I worked as an erotica writer, I never wrote for a woman.) On the other hand, with rare exceptions, the men who inquired about Enya’s services didn’t ask for stories that made me feel icky.

In fact, my very first client—a young man in love with an older woman—had an old-fashioned crush. He was a graduate student, and she was his advisor’s wife. (I’ll call them Adam and Pam, although Dante and Beatrice would work, too.)

As far as Adam knew, Pam had never, and would never, notice him. Adam had only met this woman once or twice, but she’d seized a place in his imagination. So he asked me to write an erotic story, told from her perspective, about what would happen if someday they became lovers.

All my work with Adam was done through my Enya email account. I questioned him about what he found so fascinating about Pam. (I also did it to assure myself that Adam presented no threat to Pam.) It turned out that he was a sweet guy who wanted to fantasize about her having a mutual crush on him. He wanted a sexual story, but, really, he wanted a romance—and I wanted to give him the literary happy ending he dreamed of.

 

Playing With Words

 The first time I set out to write for Adam, I’d been awarded a fellowship for a weeklong writers conference in upstate New York. I brought a couple of projects that would keep me writing through the days. When I tired of writing, I hiked the trails atop the steep hill that shadowed the campus.

But on that first day, I had my assignment for Adam—my first commissioned piece for pay. Late June brought scorching sun, always welcome after months of winter. I took a blanket, a liter of water, my fountain pen, and my journal up to a campus-mown hillside, adjacent to a cemetery where many of the school’s professors lay buried.

The heat raised a sweat that rolled across my back and along the skin of my waist before soaking into the blanket below. I twitched my feet or crossed my ankles to flick away the ants or spiders that wanted to use my body as a bridge.

The motion of pen across paper hypnotized me, as the ardor about which I wrote and the languor I felt combined to arouse me—and I was surprised. I wasn’t trying to lure a potential lover. This was a commercial enterprise. Someone was paying me to write his fantasy, and yet, there I was, becoming a part of it.

I threw myself into the writing. As Enya, I felt myself growing to fill the space she was creating. A young man in love with an older woman’s body? I could do that.

Having sensed that Adam felt shy and awkward with women, I made Pam his teacher. Her body became my body; what she would like was what I liked. Pam, it turned out, was my age, and so I could write the story from the perspective of a woman who was rediscovering what it was like to be sexual again in her early forties. And the way she acknowledged how time had changed her body—breasts softening, taut skin of the belly loosening, scars accumulating with all that life brings—became part of the story, too. 

 

 

Writing Is Sexy

 I won’t deny that I sometimes questioned what, exactly, I was doing

In order to craft a story for Adam, I had earnest email discussions with him about everything from the amount of hair on his chest to things he’d done when making love with his girlfriends to his favorite smells. But he gave me enough information to construct a fabulous tableau of the senses.

I felt as if I were performing a feminist service.

I felt like a voyeur.

Most of all, though, I indulged my own sense that knowledge is sexy and that writing is sexy. I kept playing with the image of the pen’s stroke, wondering if I could use that sensory experience—of what it’s like to write with a good pen on fine paper—to create sexual tension on the page.

Adam was the first, but not the last, of my clients. (He came back for two more Pam stories and told me how much he loved what I’d done.) My favorite clients were a married couple who asked me to write erotic stories to mark special occasions in their life together. I felt privileged, as if I were sitting by their bedside, reading them tales of the many sexual adventures they had shared over a long and happy conjugal life.

Now I no longer write erotica as a paying gig. I save it for the privacy of my own relationship. But my stint as a literary courtesan brought a richness to my writing that had previously been missing. I’ve learned to notice the tumescence of summer, the slippery days of a rainy spring, the ripeness of autumn fruit. Sex surrounds us year-round, and my writing hums with sensuality. I love to bring the textures and tastes of words to the page.

And Neruda is still never far from my bed table. His poems brim with a profound love for the female body, his pen inviting readers to partake in the dance of desire that moves through us all. I never again want to keep such knowledge to myself.

Kiss by kiss I cover your tiny infinity,
your margins, your rivers, your diminutive villages,
and a genital fire, transformed by delight,
slips through the narrow channels of blood
to precipitate a nocturnal carnation,
to be, and be nothing but light in the dark.

 


Publication Information

  • Opening poem excerpt: "XI" from One Hundred Love Sonnets (Cien sonetos de amor) by Pablo Neruda, translated by Stephen Tapscott (University of Texas, 1993).
  • Closing poem excerpt: "XII" from One Hundred Love Sonnets (Cien sonetos de amor) by Pablo Neruda, translated by Stephen Tapscott (University of Texas Press, 1993).

Art Information

  • "(she had curious habits, of kissing paper, windows, mirrors)" © Taj; Creative Commons license
  • "I Have a Burning Hot Love Letter 4 U" © Nina Matthews Photography; Creative Commons license
  • "Guest Book Note" © Martin Lopatka; Creative Commons license
  • "Brunch Alfresco" © Jeff Shelden; used by permission

  


Lorraine Berry is an associate editor at Talking Writing.

This essay has been adapted from a chapter in Lorraine's memoir, Word Lovers. It has been optioned for the screen, and she's looking for a publisher.

"Surrounding me were reminders that loveliness can come from loss. I felt at peace amidst the intrinsic beauty of the dead trees, twisted into sculptures; the new forest growing beneath my feet; the flowers blooming under the harshest of conditions. I was in love, and my love sat next to me." — "Old Bones, New Flowers in the Judiths"


 

Comments

Thank you all for your kind words about this essay. While writing about sex is something that is increasingly becoming second nature to me, writing this particular essay was more difficult. It involved other people, and since I still maintain absolute confidentiality for my clients, figuring out how to frame their stories took some thinking about. I feel confident that they are completely unidentifiable, and that I've protected their identities.
I felt it was finally time to write about how I used to write erotica because it had such an impact on me as a writer and as a woman. As I tell my students, you know when you're getting to the good stuff in a piece when you start feeling it in your body. If your chest is getting tight or full, or if, as happens to me, you start feeling aroused, you know that you're bypassing your internal editor and taking dictation from the Muse. (I know. She doesn't really exist. But when I am in the right frame of mind, that's what it feels like to me.)
The fact that you have all responded so well warms the cockles of my heart. I wanted to try to capture the sensuousness of what it's like to write. Period. The sensuousness of writing erotica is like X times two. You can't not be in your body when you're writing it--how else are you going to know what turns someone else on if it's not turning you on, too?
So, yeah. I just wrote an essay about how writing makes me horny. No wonder I'm blushing.
But thank you for your comments that have reassured me that this essay worked for you, too. I'm grateful.
David--I'm especially touched by your idea that this essay may help younger writers.
Phil--painting and moving a pen across paper seem to me to be similar sensual actions.
Ellen--thanks for telling me I rock. It means a lot.
Sarah--I'm glad I made you feel less alone. And I do believe writing erotica brings us closer to nature. It forces us to pay attention to our physical selves, and once we're doing that, paying attention to the physical world seems like a natural leap.

Lorraine, your essay kept me riveted from beginning to end. I'm a vocational painter who enjoys Pablo Neruda's poems and loves the female body and the sensuality of paint. What you discovered in your forays into erotic writing brings to mind the concept that creation is akin to procreation. The sexual impulse is an enriching, driving presence in the act of painting, just as it is in your writing.

Thank you for this honest essay. It never occurred to me to sell what I wrote, but in the heady days of my post-children dating I enjoyed writing to strangers and piquing their erotic curiosity in a genteel way. I kept my distance, always enjoying the lure as much as, if not more than, the encounter. Along the way, I recognized the sensuality of the natural world and responded to it in in my poetry. I thought I was odd in my intensity until I read this essay.

This is a superb essay, Lorraine, in so many ways. What an amazing entrepreneurial idea! But what's best here is your writing and your voice and the insight you make public. I would imagine the erotic charge that writing can bring descends on all writers. I've long felt that were you to dig into the closet or file box of every famous author you would find the stories and pornographic essays that made them quiver with delight. This is a very special piece that should be read by all young authors in training...and all us old heads as well who are not so bold as you and not so willing to admit even to ourselves how horny eros makes us as we play with sexual fictions...

So awesome! And not even a peep about a certain EL James trilogy!

Bravo, Lorraine -- a brave and lovely essay! I'm quite tickled by the idea that you chose The Nation, bastion of progressive intelligentsia, as the advertising venue for your venture. I hope your clients fully appreciated the literary "bang" they got for their bucks.

Oh Lorraine,
I've thought of doing this, having written for a friend as well. I loved reading the impact this work had you, personal and professional. I would love to read your memoir when it comes out. And, I'm off to buy a book of Neruda.
Thank you for allowing us a glimpse....

Karen--Yes. And THE NATION kept in regular touch with me, letting me know about special issues where my ad might get some extra traffic. It was great to deal with them.
Walker--I hope by this time that you've bought yourself some Neruda. He not only wrote amazing love poems, his other poems are equally moving, and he ranks up there among my favorite poets.
Jeff--Thank you. Yes. It was a small audience for whom I was writing, but i felt more than adequately recompensed by the response it received from them.

Thank you all for commenting.

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