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?

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!

But First, A Brief Pledge Break

And now, I’m going to try doing something new on my blog.

I’m going to ask for donations.

(And just like any good pledge drive, I’m going to offer goodies in return!)

As many of you know, I’m working very hard to get to a place where I can make a living as a writer. And I’m coming to the conclusion that donations and subscriptions to my blog may be an essential part of making that happen. I’ve been blogging for over three years now, and while I’m having more fun with it than I could ever have imagined, I also devote a huge amount of time to it, with no income from it other than a few ads and book sales. The reality that I’m beginning to accept is that this blog isn’t like a magazine, or a publishing company. It’s more like public radio.

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

If you’ve enjoyed great new posts like “Evangelical” Atheism and The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus — or classics like Atheists and Anger — won’t you consider supporting this blog?

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

Anyone who subscribes to my blog — $5 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

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.

And the important but intangible thing you’ll get with your support is a better blog. If I can get a decent income from subscriptions and donations, I can start focusing on my writing to a greater degree than I’m doing now. And that means better blogging. I won’t promise to blog more — my friends have already told me they can barely keep up with my blog as it is — but I can promise to blog better. I can spend more time on it; I can do more research, more profrerading, more rewrites. A well- supported blog will be a better blog.

Plus, of course, you get the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re helping support a writer who you presumably like. You get to feel like a patron of the arts. Heck, you would be a patron of the arts.

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.

I promise not to bug you too often with these pledge drives. I definitely promise not to interrupt your programming for it. (Although it is tempting. “We’ll continue the rest of this theological argument shortly. But first, have you considered supporting Greta Christina’s Blog? For just a few dollars a month, you get quality atheist rants like this one — plus sex advice, political opinions, movie reviews, recipes, and so much more — almost every day of the week!”) But I love blogging — not just my blogging, but 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.

Let’s see if we can make that work.

If you can, please donate or subscribe. Thanks!

Site Map: An Index of my Favorite (and Most Popular) Posts

Readers of my blog will have no doubt noticed that I keep a list of my favorite blog posts in the right column of my blog, so that newcomers to my blog can easily find the old good stuff. (My blog isn’t usually topical or time-sensitive, and it seems a waste to have some of my best writing disappear into the mists of the archives.)

But readers of my blog will also notice that said list is getting a bit, shall we say, unwieldy. Hence, the introduction to my blog of something that’s long overdue:

A site map.

This is an organized index: not of every single post I’ve written in this blog, but of the ones I consider reasonably important, interesting, or in some cases just funny. (I’m still going to keep the “favorite posts” list, but I’m trimming it considerably.) The posts are listed in reverse chronological order, with more recent posts at the top of each category. Posts that belong in two or more categories have been put in two or more categories. Go figure.

Important note: The fact that a post appears here doesn’t necessarily mean that I still agree with it. In some cases I changed my mind about a post weeks, months, or years later; in others, you can see my mind actually changing in the comments thread. Especially when it comes to atheism. My ideas and opinions have been evolving, and this blog should be read as my “thinking out loud” place — not my “final word on the subject” place. Posts that I consider unusually important or good are marked with a *. Posts I consider super-duper important or good are marked with a ***.

BTW: I don’t expect anyone to actually read this through. (Although if you do, you win the Devoted Fan award.) I’m just posting it now so I can link to it later.

[Read more…]

HTML Enabled!

The people have spoken!

I asked your opinion, I listened to your comments… and the vote, while not unanimous, was pretty much a landslide. Most commenters in this blog (at least, most commenters who expressed an opinion) want to use HTML in comments. And almost all the people who voted against it either don't care very much or had concerns that, while valid, have been addressed by TypePad.

So I've now enabled HTML in comments. You can use italics, bold, strong, emphasis, strikeout,


and a couple others, which I don't know what they are so I'm not listing them here. Preview your comment if you're not sure. Go nuts, everybody!

Just an FYI: This means that, from now on, URLs that are posted in comments will no longer automatically get turned into live links. You can either use HTML to convert your URLs into live links, or just leave them as they are and let people copy and paste.

Greta’s Largely Unsolicited Advice on Blogging

Computer keyboard
Every now and then, I get an email from someone who’s starting a blog, or is considering starting a blog, and wants advice from me on how to go about it. I’m not quite sure why — my blog is moderately successful, but there are many others that are much more so. But asking advice is the sincerest form of flattery, and I’m always happy to be flattered.

So I thought I’d write up my advice on blogging here, so the next time I get one of these inquiries I can just send them the link. This advice isn’t meant to be definitive, btw; it’s just what’s worked for me, and since some people have asked I figured I might as well answer. Other readers — especially other bloggers — please feel free to add your two cents in the comments.
1. Be a good writer.

You’d be amazed at how many bloggers skip this step. But it’s essential. You can hustle and plug your blog all you want, but if you’re not a good writer, people won’t come back. (Quick and dirty advice on how to be a good writer: Write as often as you can; don’t worry too much about the wording on the first draft, just spew it out and come back later to polish it; do as many revisions and rewrites as you can stand; trust your instincts but also get feedback from people whose opinions you respect.)

2. Blog regularly.

You don’t have to blog every day, or even almost every day. Many of my favorite bloggers only blog once or twice a week. But you do need a semi-regular schedule, and you need to stick to it unless you’re sick or traveling or dealing with an emergency or just need to take a break. (And if you are taking a break, say so on your blog.) Personally, if a blogger isn’t posting something new every week, I don’t visit very often; if a blogger hasn’t posted something in over a month, I assume that the blog is dead.

2a. On the other hand, don’t just blog for the sake of blogging.

I’d much rather visit a blog with something thoughtful and funny and insightful once or twice a week, than a blog with something thoughtful and funny and insightful once or twice a week and a bunch of pointless filler three times a day. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.

3. Keep it brief.

It’s a shame, but people simply do not have the same patience to stick with a long piece online that they’d have with a book or a magazine article. There are different theories about why this is: some people say it’s the light from the computer screen; others say it’s the lower resolution of a screen as compared to the printed page; others say it’s just a different set of expectations that people have about the speed of the electronic world.

But whatever the reason is, it’s still true. Even I give up and move on if I see that a blog post or online article is going on for pages and pages. And I should know better. I’m a writer who often likes to write long-format pieces, and recognizes the value of them. And I still groan and hit the Back button if I see that an online piece is very long. So keep it brief. If you want to write a longer piece, consider breaking it up into a multi-part series. (Also, make your paragraphs shorter than you would if you were writing for paper. Long stretches of unbroken text on a computer screen are very daunting.)

4. Use images.

I’m a bit reluctant to share this piece of advice. The extensive use of images has become one of my blog’s distinctive signatures, and if everyone started doing it I’d lose my edge. But honestly, I don’t know why more bloggers don’t do this. Especially the bloggers who are writing longer pieces (see #3 above). You don’t have to go as crazy with the pictures as I do… but the use of images can liven up a text-heavy medium and keep people reading. And this is especially true in a longer piece. With a long piece of online writing, images make it much easier on the eyes, and much easier to stick with it to the end. (You can get copyright- free images from Wikimedia Commons and Stock Exchange.)

5. Be prepared for it to take time.

I guess this is just another way of saying what I said in #2. But what I’m really trying to say here is: Make a plan for how you’re going to find the time to blog. Think about what you’re doing in your life that you can drop. Do you really need to read the whole Sports section every day? Watch “Law and Order” reruns? Go shoe-shopping? Get eight hours of sleep every night? See your friends and family?

Blogging take time. Blogging well takes more time. If you don’t figure out a way to set aside time for it, you’re going to find yourself either fucking up your life or writing a half-assed blog. Or both. (I personally was going the sleep- deprivation route for a while, and am convinced that it contributed to my getting pneumonia.) If you’re going to blog well, you have to make blogging something of a priority… and that means giving up something else. Think now about what that’s going to be.

6. Participate in the blogosphere.

Your best source of readers, other than your immediate circle of friends and family, is (a) other bloggers, and (b) people who are already reading blogs. So visit other blogs and comment on them. Mention other blogs in your own blog posts, and link to them. Keep a blogroll, and keep it up to date. The number one way that I drew traffic to my blog in the early days was simply to go into other blogs and write comments. (I wasn’t doing it on purpose to draw traffic, btw; it just turned out that way.) Most blogs give you the option of including your URL with your comment, and if people like your comments, they’ll come check you out.

And take part in blog carnivals. Some of them are weak, but the good ones are widely read and are a good way to get your blog on the map.
6a. Do NOT, however, write comments in other blogs that are transparent efforts to draw traffic to yours.

This is a big breach of blog etiquette, and will turn people off very quickly. Your comments in other blogs should really be about, you know, whatever’s being discussed in that blog. Obvious self-linkage is like spending an entire party handing out business cards: you won’t have much fun at the party, and everyone’s going to think you’re a jerk.

If you really have no better choice but to link to your own blog in other people’s — if, for instance, something you’ve written really is the best illustration of a point you’re making — have the decency to be a little sheepish about it. (When I self-link, I usually write something like, “Sorry about the self-linkage, but it really is relevant.” And I make damn sure that it really is relevant. And I still hardly ever do it.)

And don’t be a comment hog. Other people’s blogs are not all about you.

7. Be willing to engage in conversations with commenters… but also be willing to drop pointless arguments with trolls.

I have a very hard time with this one. Engaging in discussions and debates with readers is one of the great joys of blogging. It gives you a direct relationship with your readers that few other formats offer you as a writer. And more than once I’ve found myself clarifying my thinking or changing my mind based on conversations and arguments with commenters.

But I’ve also more than once let myself get sucked into stupid, pointless arguments with people who weren’t worth arguing with; bigots, sloppy thinkers, people who were just trolling for a fight. It’s hard to let stupidity and injustice go by without responding to it, and it’s easy to fall prey to the “someone is wrong on the Internet” phenomenon. But sometimes you have to bite the bullet.

Here’s the thing. Comment threads are part of the time commitment you make to your blog. But part of your time management involves deciding which threads are worth pursuing and which ones need to be dropped. I’m not a very good role model in this department, so this is sort of a case of “do as I say, not as I do”… but I’m working on it.
8. Have a theme — but don’t stick to it like glue.

This is probably less important than my other pieces of advice. But personally, I’m not a big fan of the “What Pat thinks about everything in the world” mish-mash sort of blog. Unless Pat is an astonishingly good writer, that is (or a friend or family member I just personally want to keep up with). I can come up with my own thoughts and feelings about everything in the world, thank you very much. I don’t have much motivation to read someone else’s random musings.

On the other hand, if a blog is too focused on just one topic — just atheism, just sex, just politics — that can get a little repetitive. So mix it up a little. Even largely single-topic blogs like Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist get into side topics: politics, pop culture, philosophy, life in general. Some blogs get away with a very single-minded focus — Cute Overload, for instance, does great with “just photos and videos of cute animals” — but in general, a little variety is very helpful.

The blogs I like best tend to focus on one or two main themes — science and atheism, for instance, or sex and politics — and explore them in depth. But they also stray into other topics near and dear to the blogger’s heart, like sewing or cephalopods. (I think of my own blog as being primarily about atheism and sex, with a fair smattering of politics and occasional forays into whatever’s on my mind that day.) A primary theme or two offers readers a hook; variations away from those themes keep both you and your readers from getting bored.

9. Be patient.

When I first started blogging, I was getting, I don’t know, maybe 100 hits a day. Maybe less. I’m not sure, since I didn’t figure out how to check my stats until embarrassingly late in my blogging career… but it was very slim, and for several months I felt like I was whistling into the wind. I got almost no comments, and the ones I got mostly came from my ICFF (Immediate Circle of Family and Friends).

So be patient. Keep plugging away, and give it time. If your blog is good, and you do a decent job of getting it into the blogosphere, people will come. Stick with it, and have fun.

I’m sure there’s more I should be saying. Stuff about Technorati and Digg; stuff about using feeds; advice on giving your blog a snappy name (which I’m clearly not competent to give); pieces of netiquette that should be obvious but often aren’t. But I’m going to take my own “Be brief” advice and leave it at that. If anyone else has anything to add, I’d be very interested to see it.

Happy Blogday To Me… and an Exhortation to Writers About Blogging

Happy blogday to me!

I started blogging three years ago today. Loki H. Thor on a raft. I had no idea. What started as an attempt to publicize my writing career has turned into the centerpiece of it. It has totally taken over my life. Who knew? (You can look up that first post if you want to, but it's not very interesting — it basically says, "Hi! I'm blogging!" My second one is a bit more interesting — it's a review of Richard Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow." Funny how certain themes of the blog have been there from the beginning…)

A few quick self- aggrandizing stats before I get on to the meat of this piece, since self- aggrandizing stats seem to be traditional with a blogday post. As of this writing: 553 total posts, including this one. 4,832 total comments. 613,626 total hits. Average traffic: right now, between 1000 and 1500 hits a day. Whoopie for me! And I have to give a huge, grateful shoutout to Susie Bright, who convinced me to blog in the first place. Susie, you were so right. I never should have doubted you.

Which brings me to the actual, substantive, non- self- aggrandizing point of this piece.

I want to talk to any writers out there who are reading this but who don't blog.

You have to blog.

Don't look at me that way. I get it. Really, I do. Yes, it's an enormous time-suck. Yes, you're giving away for free what you're trying to make a living at. Yes, it's not worth doing unless you're going to do it right — and yes, doing it right is hard work. I felt exactly the same way, and made all the same arguments, when Susie first tried to convince me to blog. And I'm not going to lie to you. All of that is true.

But here's the thing. 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.

Blogging gives you something that no other publishing medium gives you: a direct line to your readers, in which you can reach them directly and without any intermediary — and in which they can reach you back. You don't have to deal with lousy editors who muck with your text without understanding your nuance (a mixed blessing, but a blessing); you don't have to deal with publishers with an insultingly narrow vision of what The People want to read.

You can say what you want, when you want to say it.

Opinions, memoirs, political commentary, fiction, movie reviews, philosophy, recipes, conspiracy rants — anything. If you have archives of old work that you want to get more widely read, you can put it in your blog. If you have work that you like but never managed to get published, you can put it in your blog. If you want to say it, you can say it (assuming it's legal, of course). And if people are reading your blog, they'll read it.

Blogging does something else, too, something very important. Blogging gets you writing. You know how the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing is to just write, a lot? Blogging gets you writing. Every day, every week, three times a week, however often you do it: if you keep to any sort of semi-regular blogging schedule, you'll be writing regularly. And you'll be writing better.

Blogging did something for me that I absolutely didn't expect it to. Blogging turned me into a real writer. Blogging turned me from the kind of half-assed, semi-pro writer who does good work infrequently and erratically…into the kind of writer who writes almost every day, who actually wants to write, who makes writing a priority and makes sure she has time for it in her schedule, who resents the fact that she has to eat and sleep and shower because they're an annoying time-suck away from her beloved computer, who would rather write than do almost anything else. And all it took was doing it several times a week, for an appreciative audience that was able to to give me direct feedback.

It's a nice non- high- pressure format, too, one in which a certain degree of casualness, lack of perfect polish, and thinking out loud is expected and accepted. You don't need to limit your publishing to the works of genius you've spent months rewriting to a perfect gleam. A few hundred words on whatever you're thinking about that day is just ducky. It's like a journal, but with an audience. For someone like me, who's never seen the point of keeping a journal (what's the point of writing if nobody's going to read it?), blogging is a perfect balance between an exquisitely wrought essay or story, and a scratched- in- a- noteboook- to- keep- your- hand- in journal entry.

And it can, in fact, lead to actual paying work. Example: I'm currently getting paid to write for the Blowfish Blog — a gig I probably never would have gotten if I hadn't been blogging on my own. Blogging gets your name and your work recognized in circles that they wouldn't have otherwise. If your blog gets enough traffic, you can even start to take ads if you like, and that brings in a little money. If you have books, you can advertise them on your blog, and hopefully you'll sell some. And, of course, bloggers sometimes get book deals. If you blog with that sole intention, you'll probably be disappointed, but it does happen.

But that's really not the point. Even if I didn't get paid a dime for blogging, I'd still do it.

The point is this: Blogging gets you writing. And blogging gets your writing read.

And that's why you're writing, isn't it?

Tomorrow: unsolicited advice on how to do it.
P.S. If you're worried because you're not a techie, don't be. Blogging software is specifically designed to make it easy for the layperson to do. You don't have to be a web designer or an IT genius to do it. You just have to not be afraid of a computer.

P.P.S. This applies to musicians and visual artists, too. If you're recording, or taking photos of your work, you should be blogging. You don't have to write if you don't like to — music and art blogs are cool, too.

To HTML OR Not to HTML? A Reader Poll

Computer_keyboardA number of people have mentioned this in recent comments, so I wanted to take a reader poll about it and test the waters.

As a number of you have noted, I don’t have HTML enabled for my comments. This means people can’t use italics, or boldface, or create their own live links, or do:


There is, in fact, a reason for this. With a Typepad blog, you have a choice. You can let HTML be enabled, so people can do italics and live links and all… or you can have URLs that are posted in the comments automatically get converted to live links.

When I was first setting up the blog, I decided to go with the second option. It seemed more friendly to your average guy or gal who might not be up on HTML or know how to create live links. My general instinct in matter such as these is to be beginner-friendly, and I wanted people who weren’t tech-savvy to be able to include links in their comments without having to learn HTML. And at the time, a lot of my blog readers weren’t addicts of regular visitors to the blogosphere.

But I’m getting an increasing number of cranky complaints about this in my comments. The last time I did a reader poll on this, there was no clear consensus, so I decided to keep things the way they were since that’s what people were used to. But that was almost a year ago: my blog traffic has tripled since then, and I have a lot of new readers that I didn’t have back then. So I figured I should take another poll.

VoteSo what do you think? Is it more important to you to have HTML enabled in the comments here? Or is it more important to have URLs automatically converted to live, clickable links? I don’t promise to go along with the vote — this isn’t a democracy — but if there’s a clear consensus, I’ll probably go with it. So speak now, or forever hold your peace.

“As honestly as I could”: My Interview with “First City” Magazine

Note to family members and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life: This one you almost certainly want to stay away from. It discusses my sex life in some detail… and discusses aspects of my sex life that you probably don’t want to know about.

First_city_april_2008gifI recently did a very interesting interview with a very unexpected outlet: First City Magazine, the city magazine of Delhi, India. They did a long, thoughtful piece about the new Best Sex Writing 2008 anthology, and they included short interviews with several of the book’s contributors… including me.

The whole article is worth reading. Alas, it’s not currently on the web (they have a nifty blog, but their magazine isn’t online yet — the article is in their April 2008 issue, if you want to order a copy). But they graciously gave me permission to reprint the full text of the interview they did with me. We talked about my piece in BEC 2008 — Buying Obedience: My Visit to a Pro Submissive — along with definitions of sex, people’s expectations of sex writing, “Singing in the Rain,” and more. Enjoy!

First City: Tell us the process of being one of the chosen ones on the anthology. How did it evolve?

Other12coverGreta: The piece, “Buying Obedience: My Visit to a Pro Submissive,” was a piece I wrote for a small, interesting, eclectic magazine here in San Francisco called Other. Actually, I originally wrote it for a different magazine, but it wound up being a lot longer than they were willing to publish — and one of the nice things about Other is that they publish longer, more in-depth think-pieces as well as short pithy ones. That’s increasingly rare in the magazine business.

Anyway, I thought that would be the end of it. I figured it’d run in Other, I’d reprint it on my blog at some point, and that would be that. Then Rachel Kramer Bussel, the editor of Best Sex Writing 2008, asked if she could reprint it in her anthology. I was thrilled. I like this piece a lot — I think it’s some of my better writing — and it’s on a topic that rarely gets talked about. Most writing about sex work is written about the workers; there’s not much being written about what it’s like to be a sex work customer. I’m glad to see it get a wider audience.

In your piece, you describe a visit to a professional submissive. Can you briefly explain what that involves?

Sure. Many people have heard of professional dominants: women (or sometimes men) who you pay to dominate you, spank you, whip you, order you around, etc. A professional submissive is like that, but the other way around: it’s someone you pay so you can dominate them, spank them, order them around, etc. There aren’t very many: it’s not an area of sex work you go into if you don’t enjoy it, and enjoy it a lot.

Paying_for_itLike pro dominants, most pro submissives won’t have genital sex with their customers: largely to avoid prostitution laws, but partly to keep some boundaries. Typically, a customer of a pro dominant or submissive gets off by masturbating at the end of the session. But different people define “sex” very differently. The pro sub that I hired didn’t call what we did “sex,” but I sure would.

“Sometimes I think sex is a code word for every dirty, naughty, perverted thought anyone’s ever had,” is how Rachel puts it in her introduction to the book; how sex becomes like a representative word to use, sort of all-encompassing, even though it can (and does) mean different things to different people. What do you think? (And yes, I have read Are We Having Sex or What? So, is the question redundant then?)

That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’d put it in those words, but she has a point. I do think our culture has a tendency to define sex very narrowly… and at the same time, we see it everywhere.

I definitely think this question applies directly to my piece, since the experience I write about — visiting a professional submissive — is very much one of those “Are we having sex now or what?” experiences. The pro submissive I visited, Rachel, was very clear that “sex” was off limits: I could dominate her and spank her and such, but I couldn’t have sex with her. And yet, even though I completely respected the limits she set, a lot of what we did I would most definitely call “sex.” Our personal definitions of what did and didn’t count as “sex” were very different. It’s one of the things that made it such an odd experience.

I thought the book (title and cover) might attract readers on the lookout for great sex writing, in the sense of this being a pick of the act of sex, described well by writers? Which it’s so not, right? What do you think?

Best_sex_writing_2008I do think people who are purely looking for a naughty thrill may be disappointed by the book. There is sexually arousing, erotic writing in it — I think my piece is sexually arousing and erotic (a lot of it anyway) — but that’s not the main thrust of the book.

But even the pieces that aren’t naughty and exciting are very mind-opening. And that’s arousing and erotic in a different way. Having an open mind is key to having a great sex life.

What’s the response you’ve got so far to the book/your piece?

Positive so far. Mostly people are curious and interested. I haven’t gotten any angry “How could you oppress that poor woman by giving her money to spank her?” letters so far. Maybe I will, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Is there an ideal reader or audience you’re expecting?

Not really. Anyone who’s interested, I’m happy for them to read it. I would like it to be read by people who think paying for sexual pleasure makes you either a sleazy exploiter or a pathetic loser. But the piece isn’t just a pro- sex- work- customer polemic. Anyone who just wants to know what visiting a pro submissive was like is my ideal reader.

I think Buying Obedience gives us perhaps the best post-good-sex description in the book (‘loose, rumpled, hormone addled strut people get when they’ve just gotten it good’), besides making you wonder about paying for sex (and not just how weird/surreal it can be) vis-a-vis “pro bono sex.”

Thank you! What a nice thing to say.

Would you say you set out to achieve something for the reader, with the story? Bringing the anxieties you felt out into the open, so readers could identify? Or was it just about the writing of a personal experience for you?

My goal with this piece was just to be as honest about the experience as possible. Like I said before, there’s not a lot of writing about sex work from the customer’s point of view. So I just wanted to write it as honestly as I could. I didn’t want to demonize it, of course — I do think sex work can be a valid way to have sex, both for the worker and the customer — but I didn’t want to sugar-coat it, either. I just wanted to be as honest with my readers — and with myself — as I possibly could, about every aspect of the experience: good, bad, and just plain odd.

Other than that, I tried very hard in this piece to be both personal and analytical. I definitely wanted to describe the physical, emotional, sexual flavor of the experience as vividly as I could… but I didn’t want the piece to just be descriptive, either. I’m a very analytical person, and for me trying to understand an experience is a big part of capturing the flavor of it.

Any personal favourites from the book?

Iran_tricoloursvgI think my favorite is “Sex in Iran.” It’s such a perfect portrait of how powerful the sexual impulse is. Sex completely defies any attempts to repress it. It makes me both angry about the terrible sexual oppression
that goes on in Iran and elsewhere in the world… and optimistic about the possibility for sexual pleasure despite it, and even for the oppression to someday be overturned.

Finally, just for fun: One song/book/film (all or one) that translates as ‘sex’ to you?

I don’t know about just one book or movie or song. I’m a very sexual person, and so many of them translate as ‘sex’ to me!

Cyd_charisse_gene_kellyBut I’ll tell you what’s leaping to mind right now: The dance scene between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in “Singing in the Rain.” The one where she’s wearing the green dress and is slinking around like crazy. She’s just so brazen, so open about her sexuality, so blatantly seductive… and she’s so beautiful and graceful doing it. They’re both such beautiful, graceful people, completely sensual and comfortable in their bodies. I’ve always thought that was one of the hottest sex scenes in the movies… even though there isn’t any sex in it!

Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in First City Magazine, New Delhi, India. Reprinted with permission.

Come See Me Read! Perverts Put Out, Sat. April 19

CsclogorgbIf you’re going to be in the San Francisco area this Saturday, come see me read! I’ll be reading at the vaunted and notorious Perverts Put Out series, Saturday, April 19, at the Center for Sex and Culture. Other sex writers reading that evening will include Jim Provenzano, Kirk Read, Steven Schwartz, horehound stillpoint, Fran Varian, and emcees Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard. In celebration of tax season, this will the the very special FTIRS edition of Perverts Put Out.

The Center for Sex and Culture is at 1519 Mission Street, near Van Ness, in San Francisco. It’s very close to the Van Ness MUNI stop and to many Market Street buses, and not that far from the Civic Center BART stop. Perverts Put Out starts at 7:30, and admission is $10-15 on a sliding scale. Hope to see you there!