“How to write a sex scene:
1.) Clinical — all the body parts are named — clitoris, penis, vagina — best used in a story where nothing is hidden or shamed. Straightforward.
2.) Metaphoric -- sex acts replaced with imagery (reference to the natural world, powerful forces).
3.) Euphemism/Colloquial -- use of metaphors and/or cute names (His 'Johnny Jump-up.' Her Buttercup' or His 'Soldier,' Her Maidenhead').
4.) Hard Core/Graphic — raunchy, procedural, use of words like 'gash and snake'."
*Creative Writing and Literary Arts MFA, Lecture Notes, Instructor -- Jo-Ann Mapson 2002 or 2003
I don’t remember completing the sex scene writing assignment. And despite ripping apart my file drawers, I couldn’t find my original notes (neither could my former professor, Jo-Ann Mapson, when I asked her for them over a decade after giving that lecture and assignment — no, we cobbled this list together a few weeks ago based on what we both recalled). And I never wrote a novel, even though I started one and abandoned it after 200 pages.
Nearly every writer has to come to terms with the sex scene, because if your characters are alive, they’re having — or at least thinking about having — sex. It's true. You’ll have to describe it if you want believable characters. The point of Jo-Ann’s lecture was this: make sure the style of the scene is indicative of the type of story you are writing.
Years later, she would send me an old yellow quilt -- not particularly well put together, not loved or cared for, but obviously used hard. Maybe like the unknown woman who made it, or laid beneath.
And it -- she -- spoke to me.
"Fatigue Threshold," made from that quilt, is my sex scene.
I can’t define the style. It’s hard core, but metaphoric. It’s specific, but oblique. Like the construction of the final piece, the style is layered.
But I can tell you this much: it was terrifying to create.
Not the slicing, or the construction or the use of fragile fabrics. Not the time I knew it would take, or all the ways it could go wrong. Not the technical finessing of a sheer border element, or the handwork.
I don't know why this bothered me so much. It happens to fiction writers all the time — readers assume a writer’s characters are autobiographical, and sometimes they are, but most of the time they aren’t, or at least wholly aren’t. Something similar happens with film actors and the roles they portray. It’s difficult to separate the maker from the made.
For me, the distilled quality of a piece and the choice to make what I make, relies on emotional truth.
Emotional truth is the reason why some non-fiction is better represented as fiction, and why some authors will complete one narrative only to repeat it in another genre (think Alice Sebold).
Sometimes the literal truth is too close to the surface of an idea, and it’s better to poke and prod at that fire from a distance, circling from a point where you watch all the sparks disappear into the night. You sense the full scope of flame. You see how it lights up the surrounding foliage.
Stand too close to a fire, and you blister your boots.
“The voice of this cloth is so strong I wanted you to have a piece of it. Amelia was incarcerated in the Detroit House of Correction for killing her abusive husband…”
— Helen Geglio, Vintage Linen Contributor, Inheritance Project (The 7th box of mystery)
So I found a longer stick, and I duct taped another stick to that one, and I whacked the coals from my vantage point somewhere in the trees until I saw the moment, that spark rising and becoming the wisp of a path to the emotional truth: a woman’s breaking point.
Her fatigue threshold.
“In the study of materials — iron, steel, wood, plastic — fatigue refers to a component’s failure after repeated and excessive loads. It is the crumpled beam, the snapped lever, the bowed wall. This piece explores the landscape of women’s work through the use of abandoned cloth, the female form and traditional handwork, to portray the moment before collapse. The burdens are emotional, physical, sexual, literal. We hoard, we discard, we mend, we make do because despite our destruction, some scrap of beauty can always be salvaged.”
—Amy Meissner, Artist Statement, Quilt National 2017, “Fatigue Threshold.”
"Fatigue Threshold" is about sex. It’s about abuse. It’s about a moment. It’s about a lifetime. It’s about one woman. It’s about all women. It’s about the monotony of tasks and burdens and the domestic realm and exhaustion and birth and life and despair and the slow death of something once precious.
And it is, to me, incredibly beautiful.
Working with old linens is tricky, because focusing on their beauty alone feels nostalgic. The alternative is to destroy them, but that feels self-indulgent and pointless to the work I’m trying to achieve.
I will always strive to balance the beautiful and terrible. It’s hard, and it’s always on my mind.
I’m one of 85 artists accepted into Quilt National 2017. I’ve never submitted before, but I have 3 hardcover catalogs dating back to 2011, so I’ve been following the exhibition for a long time.
I recently traveled to Athens, Ohio for the exhibition’s opening. I’m incredibly honored to show with such a talented group of artists.
The work will travel until September 2019, so I won’t have this piece for my solo exhibition, which is a shame since it’s an important component to the Inheritance Project. But more people will see it this way, and hopefully they’ll be moved. Maybe they’ll contact me.
If I had to write that sex scene now, at 45 instead of 31 or 32 years old when it was originally assigned, I’d opt for balance. Some raunch, some metaphor, some matter-of-fact language.
Zero cute names.
And I'd do the assignment.