by April Bradley
Sex reveals and lays our characters—and our writing—bare. As with any element of craft, sex in flash serves the narrative, and due to the brevity and compression of the genre, becomes its narrative lens. This “territory of feeling and drama” Garth Greenwell says, “…is a kind of crucible of humanness, and so the question isn’t so much why one would write about sex, as why one would write about anything else.” He adds that “[T]o write something, to make art of it, is to make a claim about its value” And, “…To write about the queer body not just explicitly, but with all of the resources of the literary tradition, to write it in a way that foregrounds beauty and lyricism is, I hope, a way to cherish that body. It’s a way not to argue for its value but to recognize and proclaim its value, and to lavish it with the peculiar, ennobling dignity art can bestow.”
When we write and publish sex, we expose our characters to the experiences and critiques of embodiment, consciousness, desire, intimacy, longing, lust, connectedness, ambivalence, joy, delight, tenderness, love, rawness, pain, grief, hostilities, cruelties, commerce, consent, gender, sexuality, romantic expression, as well as politics, morality, religion, culture, history—being in its intense and staggering, complex vulnerability.
I’m pleased to share five selections from SmokeLong Quarterly’s archive that risk the sweetness and despair of that wonderful territory.
In Michael Don’s “Listening,” a man learns about intimacy, relationships, and sex by listening to his neighbors as they “reunite[d]” through unavoidable voyeurism. Their apartments connect with poorly insulated, shared walls, and, of course, everyone involved is aware that everyone else can hear every little thing. The lonely narrator looks for connection among these moments, wishing to learn how to satisfy his lovers, and to figure out how sex and people and desire work.
Prompt: Write a story that involves three people: at least one is an eavesdropper on a sexual conversation or situation. All three, however, are aware of one another but pretend not to be. Explore how the element of a third person influences or alters the mood and dynamics.
“What We Do For Work” by Caitlyn GD chronicles the story of two sex workers in their mid-20s, Melanie and the narrator, as they fellate a client and how the narrator feels and acts afterward. Much of what the narrator describes and conveys is through the language of naïve psychology, the sort of psychoanalysis gleaned from advice columns. What the reader encounters is that space between autonomy and the labor aspect of sex work. In her author interview, GD comments, “What we’re willing to tolerate is really what we’re willing to excuse.” This is transactional sex, the veneer of intimacy for the sake of commerce. The relationship at stake is not the one between sex worker and client and its power dynamics but between the women and how they regard and judge each other.
Prompt: Contrive an advice column question and response to a sexually-charged situation that fits into GD’s description, “What we’re willing to tolerate is really what we’re willing to excuse.”
Ellen Parker’s “Metallic” is a bittersweet and powerfully erotic story about a couple who makes out through the chain-link fence near their trashcans. We don’t know how this couple met or how they arrive at the point where they fantasize about fucking through metal under the moonlight—it’s so breathtakingly rendered we readers don’t care. We arrive at the moment when it’s about to happen.
Prompt: Fast draft a paragraph about a sexual encounter with another person without inhibition or fear, without worrying about how it reads. Then, add emotional responses, insecurities, some non-sexual, mundane, or out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, objects, and language. Humanize the experience.
“Not Louise” by Sutton Strother is a fairy tale about a girl who recognizes a childhood friend as an extraordinary girl with a secret name. We learn about Not Louise’s habits, talismans, a familiar, and an odious brother as her life and story becomes mythologized. We follow the two girls and their romance through a lush, suburban summer and into the shade of a glorious tree and a magical, reverent shared first kiss.
Prompt: Write a story about kissing. Bonus: add surreal elements.
“A Matter Between Neighbors” by Jennifer Wortman is about a recently widowed mother and her neighbor, who are each drowning in grief and despair. This is a story about how people reach for one another’s bodies in an effort not to lose themselves; how sorrow, desolation, and loneliness spill over when our bodies cannot contain it. Sex becomes the way these characters ground themselves and still their world when chaos threatens to overwhelm them.
Prompt: Write a piece about a situation when bodies cannot contain emotions and seek out other bodies.
Additional SmokeLong Quarterly Flash incorporating sex and sexuality:
April Bradley is a Durham, North Carolina-based writer. Her fiction and essays appear in Blink Ink, CHEAP POP, Heavy Feather Review, Narratively, Smokelong Quarterly, and numerous others. Her work has been honored by residency support from Vermont Studio Center and Rivendell Writer’s Colony. She serves as an associate editor for fiction at Pidgeonholes and as a submissions editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. April is a recent Pushcart Prize, Best of Microfiction, and Best of Small Fictions nominee, and a graduate of Yale Divinity School.