Q&A with Deborah Willis


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This Thursday, February 13 will be our Writing Intimacy Workshop with MacEwan writer-in-residence, Deborah Willis. With that in mind, we asked Deborah a few questions about the challenge of adding intimacy into our writing.

BTC: What is it about intimacy/sex that makes it difficult or uncomfortable for many of us to write about?

DW:  We are at our most vulnerable when we are intimate with someone: We put our bodies, minds, and spirits into the care of another person or of other people. Our health and well-being is very much at stake. So it’s not a stretch to see that writing about this extreme vulnerability is uncomfortable; writers worry about betraying their own desires, or coming across as “fucked up,” or shocking their loved ones. I remember worrying about my parents and grandmother and even my friends reading my first book, because it dealt with various types of intimacy, and I felt it betrayed too much of my own psychology. I’d also been raised to view sexuality as something that parents keep shielded from their children, and vice versa; that taboo is very strong. So it was interesting for me to note that my parents and grandmother weren’t shocked by anything I wrote—that was a good reminder that they had all been adults a lot longer than I had been! I keep this in mind as I’m writing now.

BTC: Does it ever get uncomfortable for you?

DW: To be honest, when I write, I’m never embarrassed. That only comes up when I publish, and suddenly realize that the world (well, a tiny portion of the world) will actually see what I’ve done.

BTC: Do you think writing intimacy is a “write-what-you-know” thing, or is there value in writing out of your comfort zone (in terms of gender/sexuality, etc.)

DW: I am in favour of writing what you want to know, meaning that a writer should feel free to discover and not feel limited by his or her own experience. Writers can embrace the human capacity for empathy and imagination, and these powerful tools, coupled with hard work, can allow them to write beautifully and truthfully about what they know, or about what they don’t.

When it comes to writing about intimacy and sex, the fact is that most people have something in common: whether queer, poly, straight or identifying as anything else, most of us are seeking connection with other humans. So a writer who begins from the understanding that people may have different experiences, but have deep similarities too, shouldn’t find it impossible to imaginatively embody a character of a different gender or sexual preference than themselves.

That said, I think there is a danger when it comes to writing about this topic. We are all raised to adopt unconscious attitudes towards sex and intimacy. A good example of this is the way our society views people who seem to indulge in “too much” love or sex: women who do this are often called “sluts.” Conversely, our society discriminates against those who indulge in “too little” love and sex too; this is what Carrie Jenkins calls “amatonormativity,” the idea that being single is somehow abnormal. Single people don’t get the same tax breaks as people who live as couples, and they may also find themselves subtly made to feel lacking, particularly if they’ve chosen to be alone. Another instance of a prevalent unconscious bias is the way that monogamy has been utterly normalized in our culture, despite the real possibility that monogamy is a fairly recent, colonial import to this continent. I’m giving all these examples to show that just because you’re a progressive, open-minded writer, it doesn’t mean that you’ve thoroughly interrogated your biases. It’s difficult to do so—I’m doing it still—but worthwhile if you plan to write about intimacy.

BTC: What’s the one most important tip you can give for writing about intimacy/love/sex?

DW: We’ll talk about whether or not there are “rules” for writing sex scenes in the workshop. But the most important piece of advice I have is that when you write a scene that contains sex or intimacy, it is like writing any other scene: it has to be driven  by character, conflict, and theme.


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