“Not a very nice story”: Susie Bright Interviews Me for “X: The Erotic Treasury”

Please note: This piece discusses my sex life — specifically, my sexual fantasies and my tastes in porn — in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t read this piece. Thanks.

Sex, religious cults, atheism, spanking, pen-names, astrology, being made an example of, and the process of writing porn… what do all these have to do with each other?

X the erotic treasury
Susie Bright (of Best American Erotica fame, and of Susie Bright’s Journal fame) has put together a new erotica anthology, X: The Erotic Treasury. It’s a beautifully- edited book, as Susie’s books always are… and for once, the production values are worthy of the content: a cloth-bound hardcover book, gorgeously printed on non- crappy paper, all in a sensuous- to- the- touch die-cut slipcover.

I have a story in the collection… a rather disturbing erotic story that I thought I’d have a hard time ever getting published, so I’m thrilled that it’s not only seeing the light of day, but is being showcased in this beautiful format. The story, “Deprogramming,” centers on physical and sexual abuse in a religious cult… and a couple who escaped from the cult and are now consensually re-enacting it.

Susie interviewed me recently about my story, and we talked about — you guessed it — sex, religious cults, atheism, spanking, pen-names, astrology, being made an example of, and the process of writing porn. Here’s that interview. Enjoy!

SB: You were raised as an atheist, but when do you remember being fascinated with the “cult” experience?

GC: I wouldn’t describe myself as fascinated by cults, although I do find religion in general to be a compelling subject.

But it sounds like what you want to know is what inspired me to write this piece. It’s not a very nice story, but it is a true one, so I’ll tell it.

Jonestown
I was watching a documentary about Jim Jones (of Jonestown fame) and his People’s Temple. At the point in the story where things were starting to go wrong in the church, it said that members of the church who disobeyed the rules were punished by being spanked.

It’s a terrible story. They described the incidents, and what they called “spanked,” I would call “badly beaten.” But there’s a deeply ingrained part of my mind and my libido that almost inevitably gets turned on when I hear the word “spank,” and that starts to conjure erotic images and stories. So I found myself having sexual fantasies about this scenario… while at the same time being horrified by it, and feeling ashamed for being turned on by it.

That’s where “Deprogramming” came from. I was trying to capture that feeling of being simultaneously horrified and turned on. I decided to have the survivors of the abuse in my story re-enact it in an erotic way: for the characters, this was a way for them to reclaim the experience and move past it… and for me, it was a way to give myself, and my readers, permission to be turned on by it.

My story isn’t specifically about the People’s Temple. It’s about a fictional religious cult that I made up. But it’s definitely influenced by real cults that I’ve read about…

Does your family know about your erotic writing? Have they read it?

Window
I’ve asked my family not to, actually. My porn is like a window into my libido, and
it crosses a boundary for me to have my family looking through that window. I don’t want my family to know what I think about when I jerk off. Call me old-fashioned.

Have you written any manifestos?

Definitely. Many times. In my blog. Probably the best known and widest read is Atheists and Anger — an attempt to answer, in detail, the question, “Why are you atheists so angry?”

PenHave you ever used a pen name for your erotic work?

No.

This was a conscious decision I made very early on. It’s very important to me to keep my identity integrated; to resist the tendency to present one face to some people and a completely different face to others. Writing under my own name is an important part of that.

I totally understand why other writers use pen names, I’m certainly not critical or judgmental about it. But it would be wrong for me. I want to stand behind what I write 100%.

Has your work ever been “made an example of”?

Oh, yes.

Skeptical inquirer
The best example: I wrote a piece a few years back for the Skeptical Inquirer, called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God.

The piece talks about how, although it might seem that an atheist philosophy has no comfort to offer in the face of death, in fact this is not the case. And it offers, as examples, some of my own atheist thoughts about death that I find comforting and hopeful.

I started ego-Googling my name and the title of the piece… and found that several Christian ministers were quoting from the piece out of context, as an example of how even atheists admit that life without the promise of life after death is bleak and hopeless.

No, really. Here’s how they did it.

They would quote the part at the beginning, where I talk about how atheism seems to offer no comfort in the face of death. And they would completely ignore the entire point of the piece… which is that, while that might seem on the surface to be the case, it most emphatically is not.

FYI, when I find that happening, I write to these ministers; point out that they’re quoting me as saying the exact opposite of what I’m actually saying; and remind them about the commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor.

What is your astrological sign? Any other signs and symbols regarding the occasion of your birth?

What’s the astrological sign that thinks astrology is bunk? That’s the one I am.

Seriously. Of all the religious/ spiritual/ metaphysical beliefs out there, astrology is one of the few that actually makes testable claims (namely, that people’s personality and behavior are affected by the time of their birth). These claims have been tested. Extensively. And they’ve been conclusively found to have absolutely no basis whatsoever.

Happy new year
The only thing special about the occasion of my birth — apart from my being born, of course — is that it was on New Year’s Eve. Which meant (a) my parents got to take me as a tax deduction for the entire year, and (b) I got a great excuse for throwing a big birthday party every year.

When you think of your recent writing, for “X,” and then consider your recent sex life in reality, what comes to mind?

I think, “I really hope people understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Otherwise, they’re going to think I’m a total nutjob.”

“X: The Erotic Treasury” is available at Powell’s, Amazon, Last Gasp, and fine bookstores everywhere. If you’ve enjoyed this interview, a PDF of other interviews with “X: The Erotic Treasury” writers (most shorter than this one — I took the liberty of posting the longer version of mine here) is available online.

Brief Blog Semi-Break

Hi, all. Sorry for the unscheduled interruption in service. Ingrid and I had an insanely busy weekend with no time for blogging, and I am now battling a nasty cold that’s left me physically unable to do anything but sleep and watch “Law and Order.” I’ll be back on the blog when I’m feeling better. See you soon!

A Patchwork of Income: Making a Living as an Artist

Writing
I had this revelation recently about making a living as a writer. It came to me kind of absurdly late in my career, given how obvious it’s now seeming. And it’s occurred to me that, if it took me almost twenty years to figure this revelation out, there might be some other struggling writers and artists who haven’t figured it out yet, either.

So I’m going to share the wealth. If you’re a writer — or any kind of artist — trying to make a living at it, here’s the advice I wish I’d gotten ten or fifteen years ago.

OceansEleven
For years, I’ve been thinking about making a living as a writer in terms of the One Big Score. The major- publisher book deal. The regular gig for the big-name magazine. That sort of thing.

And as a consequence, I’ve had a tendency to think of littler scores — moderate bits of income from smaller publishers — as a low priority. I’ve always been happy to get them, of course; but I’ve tended to look at the littler scores as stepping stones, ways to get my name more widely recognized, so I could make bigger and bigger scores… which would also be stepping stones, on my way to the One Big Score.

(I should know better. I’ve seen enough crime/ adventure movies to know how dumb it is to stake your life and career on One Big Score…)

But I realized recently — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m actually making a fair living as a writer. I’m not yet working full- time at it, or making my full living off of it. But I am making something that vaguely resembles real money — a substantial portion of my income, money that I use to pay actual bills and stuff — from my writing.

And it’s coming from lots of small and moderate -sized payments, from lots of small and moderate -sized publishers and sources.

In no particular order, it’s coming from:

Advertising income from my blog
Donations and subscriptions to my blog (thanks, everybody!)
Regular columns for online periodicals
One-time projects for anthologies or other publications
Royalties from book sales

(And I’m not counting the fact that about 75% of what I do in my day job is copywriting and book editing.)

Calculator
No one piece of this is hugely substantial. But it all adds up: not quite to an income, not yet anyway, but to a genuine part-time job. (And a nice side benefit of a patchwork income is that, if one piece of it falls through, it’s not a disaster. It’s a temporary annoyance.)

Oh. One more essential thing. (She said sneakily, saving the zinger for last.)

Many of these little pieces?

I wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for the blog.

Money
And not just the obvious pieces, either: the ads, the donations. Both of my current regular gigs for online publications — the Blowfish Blog gig and the FriendFinder/ Alt.com gig — I got, at least in part, because publishers or friends of publishers knew about my blog. Some of my anthology pieces and other one-time paid gigs are reprints of blog posts… and that’s becoming increasingly true as I build a larger body of work here. And the blog — and the fact that I can do ad trades with other blogs — is becoming one of the primary ways that I promote my books.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: If you’re writing, you have to blog. You just do. I — don’t look at me that way. Point that gun somewhere else. Get off the window ledge. I know that blogging is a time suck. I know that it feels like you’re giving away for free what you’re trying to make a living at. I know that a blog takes a lot of work to do right… and an insane amount of patience to stick with for long enough to get any kind of traffic and traction out of it.

But here’s what I’ve said before, and will say again: If you’re a writer in the early 21st century, and you don’t blog? It’s like being a pop musician in the mid 20th century, and refusing to let your songs be played on the radio. You’re denying yourself what is probably the single most powerful outlet currently available for publicizing your work.

That’s all something of a side point, though. It’s an important side point, and one I’ll continue to evangelize about; but it is a side point. So let me get back to the main point.

Which is this:

Patchwork quilt
Building a writing career, or any sort of artistic career, is very rarely about getting the One Big Break, scoring the One Big Score. It’s more like sewing a patchwork quilt. No one piece of a patchwork quilt is going to keep you warm… but all of them sewn together can do a pretty decent job of it.

By all means, keep trying for the Big Score. But don’t neglect the little scores while you’re at it. If you can get enough of them, the little scores can add up to a genuine career.

Brief Blog Semi-Break/Open Thread

I’m going out of town for a long weekend, leaving Thursday and coming back Sunday. Our neighbors are looking after our home and our cats while we’re gone, but I may or may not have reliable Internet access. If I do, I’ll do a blog post or two; but if you don’t see me until Sunday or Monday, don’t be surprised.

In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves. Let’s pretend it’s a job interview. Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you think is your greatest weakness? And if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

And Now, A Brief Pledge Break

Pledge_thermometer
We’ll return to our program, “The One Inescapably Convincing Argument That There Is No God,” in just a moment. But first:

Won’t you consider supporting this blog?

We have some wonderful gifts for those who do!

After over three years of blogging, I’ve come to the conclusion that blogging isn’t like any other publishing medium. And it doesn’t earn income like any other publishing medium. As much fun as I’m having with it — and as much fun as y’all seem to be having with it — the “time spent/ income earned” ratio for it is kind of insane. This blog isn’t like a magazine or a newspaper or a book publishing company. This blog is more like public radio.

Which is brought to you by generous donations from readers like you.

If you’ve enjoyed great new posts like Blind Men and Elephants, John McCain and the “Maverick” Snow Job, and The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God — or classics such as Broccoli or Tofu? Sexual Differences in Relationships and The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — then won’t you consider supporting this blog with a small contribution?

And if you do donate or subscribe, here’s what you get in return!

Anyone who subscribes to my blog (an automatic $5 donation a month for 12 months) — or who makes a one-time donation of $60 or more — will get a signed copy of their choice of any of my three books:

Bec_2008_smallBest Erotic Comics 2008

ThrkinThree Kinds of Asking For It

Payfor
or Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for their Clients.

Just email me (greta at gretachristina dot com) with a name and mailing address when you make a donation. I’ll even take requests for how to sign it, if they’re not unreasonable.

You can go the subscription route, which spreads your donation out in small increments over a longer period. (A subscription to my blog is $5 a month for 12 months.) Or you can make a one-time donation, and that can be for any amount. Even small donations would be very much appreciated. You can use a credit card if you don’t have a PayPal account, or your PayPal account if you do. And if you don’t want to use the PayPal system at all, you can send a check or money order to:

Greta Christina
PO Box 40844
San Francisco, CA 94140-0844

(And if you’ve donated in the past, but never gave me your address so I could send you your book — please do that today! I’d love to show you my gratitude.)

Like public radio, donations and subscriptions to this blog are a big part of what enables me to keep blogging. They let me work my day job at less than full time, and free my time up to write. And they free my time up, not only to write, but to write better. (The last time I did a pledge drive, I promised to spend more doing research for my blogging; John McCain and the “Maverick” Snow Job is Exhibit A.)

The world of writing is changing. The old model of print publication is getting less and less viable as a way for mid-level, not- insanely- famous writers to pay their rent… and the new model of internet publication is still finding its feet. But I passionately love blogging — not just my blogging, but all blogging, the basic fact of blogging, the very idea of it — and I want this to be a world where blogging is a viable career option for writers.

Please help make that work.

If you can, please donate or subscribe. Thanks!

And now we return you to our program.

Come See Me Read! Perverts Put Out, Saturday Sept. 27

If you’re going to be in the San Francisco area this Saturday, come see me read! I’ll be reading at the pre- Folsom Street Fair edition of the fabulous and increasingly renowned Perverts Put Out sex reading series, on Saturday, September 27. In addition to ME ME ME ME ME, performers will include Meliza Bañales, Jen Cross, Thomas Roche, horehound stillpoint, Steven Schwartz, and Cherry Terror, emceed by Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard.

The event will be at CounterPulse, 1310 Mission Street in San Francisco, not far from the Civic Center BART station. It starts at 7:30 pm, and you’re advised to come on the early side, since the last edition was standing room only. Cost is $10-15, sliding scale. Hope to see you there!

Blog may be down tonight

Typepad will be doing some maintenance tonight, between 10 and 11 pm Pacific time. This blog may be temporarily down then. Please try to find a way to console yourselves and one another during this difficult time, and find a way somehow to carry on. Thanks.

Brief Blog Break/ Open Thread/ Shameless Self-Promotion Opportunity

Ingrid and I are going to be of town for a few days for the holiday weekend. Our neighbors will be looking after our apartment and our cats, but I may be too busy to look after the blog much. I’ll check in to make sure there’s no horrible trolling, and I’ll post a piece or two and reply to comments if I have time; but if you don’t see me back here until Tuesday or Wednesday, don’t be surprised.

In the meantime, consider this both an open thread and a shameless self-promotion spot. If you have a blog and want to link to a post you’ve done — or if you’re doing something neat and want to tell us about it — go ahead and do it here. Obvious plugs for commercial products will be deleted, but if you have a book or a show or an art project or something, let us know about it.

So talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic. “Firefly” is neither a fire nor a fly. Discuss. Have a happy Labor Day, think kind thoughts about the labor movement, and I’ll see y’all when I get back!

On Not Being a Crank

How do you be a critic without turning into a crank?

Any kind of critic. Social, political, cultural, whatever.

George carlin
When George Carlin died, HBO ran a marathon of all the stand-up specials he’d done for them, from the late ’70s until shortly before he died. We didn’t watch all of them, but we tuned in and out throughout the day, getting sort of a smorgasbord of his career over the decades. And I noticed a pattern.

In his later years, Carlin had improved his craft by leaps and bounds. His mastery of language, his perceptiveness about society, the cleverness of his barbs… all had sharpened to a razor-like edge over the years. (Not that they sucked in his earlier days…)

And yet, his later performances were not nearly as much of a pleasure to watch. The content had become increasingly negative, to the point where the shows got overtaken by jeremiads… not just against great social ills and hypocrisies, but against anybody who didn’t do things the way Carlin did, or who cared about things other than what he cared about. He’d turned from a fiery, uncompromising social critic using his extraordinary skill with language and humor to chip away at the greed and lies of the power structure, into an old man railing about modern technology and how nobody does things right anymore, and yelling at kids to get off his lawn. (Doing it exquisitely, I hasten to add.)

He’d become a crank.

A brilliant crank, but a crank nonetheless.

And I want to know: How do you avoid that?

I’m beginning to see crank tendencies in my own self. And I don’t like it. I’m finding myself more and more likely to see, and think about, and talk about, flaws. In everything. Movies, music, food, books, bourbons, blogs, decaf lattes, ideas, people. Even things that I like, I’m finding myself critical of: not entirely negative, necessarily, but hyper-aware of their imperfections… and hyper-willing to talk about them.

And I’m doing it in situations where it’s not always appropriate. Increasingly, I’m having to remind myself that I am not being asked for a thorough, unblinking, rigorously honest analysis of pluses and minuses when I’m asked a question like, “How do you like the soup?”

And I’m wondering: Is this a natural result of the work that I do? Is one of the job hazards of being a professional critic that you start turning into a personal one? Or a permanent one?

Your movie sucks
The way of crankery can be very tempting. For one thing, it makes life as a writer so much easier. Any writer worth their salt can write about things they don’t like, in a way that’s entertaining and funny. Witness the success of the Roger Ebert books, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks”. (Both of which have pride of place in our home, on the shelf in front of the toilet.) The hard job is writing enthusiastically about things that you do like without just stringing together a list of superlatives and sounding like a sap. (And the insanely hard job is writing about things that are mediocre. How many ways are there in this world to write “Formulaic but passably pleasant” without wanting to shoot yourself?)

And some of it is that being critical is a quick ‘n’ easy way to feel smart and superior. Especially if you have any sort of connection to hipster culture, which defines itself by what it doesn’t like almost as much as by what it does. (If not more so.)

And, of course, it could just be that I’m getting older. And for reasons I don’t at all understand, an awful lot of people get crankier as they get older.

And then, some of it may just be that I’m having a very, very, very long year, the sort of year that I hope I’ll be able to look back on one day and laugh grimly about, and my natural perky “glass half full” realistic- optimism has been getting just a tad irritable.

But I think that a lot of it is just habit.

Anatomy of criticism
I’m a critic. Professionally, I mean. It’s my job to, you know, criticize: to look at pros and cons, plusses and minuses, goals met and unmet, goals worth and not worth reaching in the first place. And I’m writing a lot on a topic about which I am very critical indeed — namely, religion.

All of which I’m basically fine with. I’m definitely not of the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” school. I think many not-nice things are important and need to be said.

But I feel like I need to watch this trend. I need to watch the degree to which it affects my personal life. And I don’t want it taking over my professional life completely. Thirty years from now, I don’t want people reading my blog (assuming that I have a blog in thirty years) and thinking, “Wow, she sure is a good writer — but she sure does complain a lot.”

Any thoughts?

Olympics
The best idea I’ve come up with about this is to make an effort — a conscious, disciplined effort — to at least sometimes write about things that I like. I’ve even thought about turning it into a series: the “Things I Like” series. That’s sort of what I was doing with my recent Olympics piece. I could easily have written a piece of that length — hell, longer — about all the things I don’t like about the Olympics and the media coverage thereof. It would have been interesting, and it would have been valid. But it wouldn’t have been all that original — my critiques have all been made before, many times and by many others. And mostly, I just didn’t feel like going there. I was already starting to think about this crank issue (I’ve been thinking about it for a while now); and since I was, in fact, having a good time watching the Olympics, I decided that this time, I wanted to go to my happy place.

But I’m looking for other strategies for crankery avoidance, other than just Occasionally Write About Stuff I Like. And I’m wondering how other incipient cranks deal with this. Writers especially, but really anybody. How do you stay critical of society as the years go by without turning into a curmudgeon? How do you stay realistic about the half-empty part of the glass without getting absorbed into it?

What are your thoughts? What are your strategies?

And while I’m thinking of it: Would you, in fact, like to see a “Things I Like” series in this blog?

I’d love to know. It would take me to my happy place. Thanks!