That prams and art are not mutually exclusive.

Beneath the sheet: writing about sex and death


Today’s guest post is brought to us by Gillian Harrison, formerly of writing blog Ink Paper Pen. Gill asks the serious question, just how do you write about sex and death, those topics we normally like to keep beneath the sheets?


“The woman was last seen standing on the Perth City platform, talking to a man dressed in blue. Ten minutes later she lay dead on the track, hit by the 6am train to Fremantle.”

Our writing prompt is shoved along with a series of questions: Who is the man dressed in blue? A lover? Why did she not see the train coming? Did she see the train coming? How will you tell the story? Third Person? First Person Intrusion?

The timer is set at fifteen minutes. Ready, set, write…  

WB Yeats once said that only two subjects are of interest to the serious mind: sex and death. This writing prompt serves up both; death with a hint of sex. But my pen hovers above a blank page and I wonder – where is my (serious) mind?

I don’t think about the real woman, the one that died this very morning, less than a kilometre from where we now write. Unconcerned with the truth and fueled by Arnotts assorted biscuits, we speculate, we create fiction from reality because this is what writers do.

This is what writers try to do.

I stumble along my writing journey at the best of times but now the path is foggy. Death has darkened the road ahead and sex is a damn big pothole.

This isn’t the first time I’ve stumbled on sex and death. Two weeks ago, I sensed a character’s need for a bit of bedroom action. But I pushed the sex scene away. If you should ever need an excuse, “I’ve got a headache” works as well for not writing about sex as it does for not having sex.

But I’m getting it… Good writing holds a mirror up to the world and the best writers stare beyond the reflection. Ignore the death and sex and the reflection lacks life’s richness.

So how do I get serious with Yeat’s subjects? How do I write Big?

“Research!” scream the creative writing guides. Research marks the difference between the bare scaffolding of an idea and the finished product. But how far do I go? Especially when it comes to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Years ago, while living in Edinburgh, a particularly gruesome murder hit the headlines. First on the scene, before detectives, medical crews and news reporters arrived UK crime writer, Ian Rankin. Apparently, Rankin haunts the scenes of real life crimes regularly. Research like this comes with the job. Makes sense, right?

I know writers live the life they write. Charles Bukowski composed novels through a drunken daze. Henry Miller combined fiction with his real life sexual exploits. But whiskey, promiscuity and police tape doesn’t gel well with the life of a part-time working, mother of two children under five. Fitting in a weekly Yoga class and a load of hand washing is challenging enough.

Like anything I suspect the answer lies in “just doing it”. Just write it. Create it. And, just read it too. Read what scares you. John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules says “reading [Melville] encouraged me to write about what I most feared, or what I hope never happens to me or anyone I love.”

Death. Sex. Childbirth (The Guardian’s Alison Mercer adds Childbirth to Yeat’s Serious List.). I’m not afraid, but I am ripe. Beyond being the blood and guts of your writing, the Big Stuff breathes life into literature, it dirties your story up.

I am ready to get dirty. I just need to figure out how.

Do you write about life’s messy stuff, normally hidden beneath a sheet? How?

24 Responses to “Beneath the sheet: writing about sex and death”

  1. sarahtsib

    I quite happily immerse myself in the death world both in my writing and in my work. I find that the more I pushed myself into understanding the intricacies of it the easier it got. Watching people on the news, reading true life crime books and just being open to asking the tough questions provides little snippets of insight into the world of loss. Sex…thats a whole other issue. I read too many dodgy romance novels as a teen to not fall over laughing imagining myself weaving the word ‘throbbing member’ into a story. Lovely to read your writing again Gill.

    • Gill

      Agreed. Sex is a whole other issue. I turn into a giggly school girl, trying to find the right words and trying not to sound too prudish. Or too porn-ish.

      It is lovely to be read by you again, Sarah. I have missed blogging. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Lipgloss Mumma (@LipglossMumma)

    Two subjects that are challenging to say the least. I recently entered an erotic short story competition if only just to challenge myself. I think more you emerge yourself the more you learn and better you become.You begin to learn what works and what doesn’t very quickly. Both subjects feature in my current work in progress and the challenge is weaving them delicately into the storyline.
    Great post, thank you.

    • Gill

      Well, I do love the idea of entering an erotic short story comp. It would be absolutely out of my comfort zone of course, but then that is the whole idea.

      • rhythm & method

        Didn’t you do a life drawing class recently Gill? It’s not quite in the same league as erotic fiction, but … it’s all in the name of research, right? 😉

  3. rhythm & method

    Sex, death and childbirth (being the love child of sex and death) do provide the ultimate form of tension in a storyline, so I’m with Yeats and Mercer; there is much to lose or gain for characters, and so they have gravitas to pull the reader in.
    I avoid writing sex scenes like nobody’s business. Going with Anne Lamott’s advice to ‘open doors that you feel shouldn’t be opened’ in your writing, I’d say the more you avoid the topic, the more it probably needs to be written.
    Thanks for guest posting Gill, so great to read your writing again. x

    • Gill

      I have been avoiding attempting a head stand at my weekly Yoga class all year. Last night, I gave it a crack and I can’t tell you how good it felt. Not just defying gravity for a few moments but because I finally stopped hiding from something I was afraid of. So your comment is timely, Karen. Avoiding some things is like ignoring a hungry child. It will follow you around until you feed it.

      And thanks again for providing me a comfy place to crash. I had not realised how much I missed blogging until now.

  4. Magda

    While a little research never goes astray, I truly believe that you don’t need to live in darkness in order to write about it. Look at Murakami — he writes about absolute devastation and depression and instability so well, yet makes it his life goal to lead a stable and a balanced life. I’ve read that he believes this is the only way he’ll be able to produce truly great work.

    • Gill

      I felt a real pull to that darkness in my early twenties. Music, art, books. I was fascinated with exploring the grittiness of life and scoffed at rom-coms. I sometimes wonder how becoming a mother has altered this side of me.

  5. Torre DeRoche (@FearfulGirl)

    Readers notice when you’re being stingy with scenes that are uncomfortable to write. Test readers called me out for sidestepping sex scenes in the first draft of my manuscript. This was particularly awkward because I was writing a memoir! I really didn’t want to write in my sex scenes (um … Hello, Mum and Dad). But once it was called out, I realised I needed to go there, even if it was uncomfortable.

    I found a way to approach it subtly without any throbbing manhoods or blooming orchids, but I did use metaphors and insinuations to avoid being explicit. Raunchy, literal sex wouldn’t have fit the tone.

    However you approach this, it needs to fit with the voice of your character or narrator. If your character is soft, then treat these topics gently. If you character is blunt and direct, then something more edgy (or dirty) will be necessary. It can be a great opportunity to show another side to your characters. Perhaps your quiet protagonist likes to f&@*! (This brings The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to mind.)

    Work them in there so that they merge seamlessly with everything else. Don’t let these scenes become awkward, throbbing bulges on the page. 😉

    • Gill

      Thanks for this practical advice, Torre. I have been studying a few Henry Millers books and your suggestions fit with his his work. His sex scenes flow in and out of his work, never jarring, always fitting the tone of his plots and characters. Obviously this doesn’t mean the same tone will work for my characters. You have given me a few ideas to work with…

  6. wild colonial girl

    ‘But whiskey, promiscuity and police tape doesn’t gel well with the life of a part-time working, mother of two children under five.’ Love this line! Yes, in my fiction writing, I am continually drawn to sex and death. I find sex scenes the most challenging to write. I’m more interested in what happens when characters get close, and then it doesn’t happen: the anti-climax. I like using blunt language, no throbbing manhoods for me either!

    • rhythm & method

      This is my favourite line too. And I agree, it’s all about the intimate space between characters rather than the final release of connecting. Jane Austin does this for me.

    • Gill

      Yes, for sure! I think the real interest in sex and death has a lot to do with human relationships. How we interact, how we see life, what goes on behind closed doors so to speak. That’s what Austen approached so well.

      I’m rethinking the whisky part of my statement. A glass or two can only help tackle these subjects. Right?

    • rhythm & method

      Sometimes it’s the things we avoid that must be said Kelly! Not necessarily in public mind you … I’m a little wary of fiction for the same reason.
      Non-fiction is like swimming really close to the lane rope, you always know there’s something there to grab if you feel yourself sinking.

    • Gill

      I understand Kelly. I guess these topics are challenging because they are some of our most private, personal moments? Even the veil of fiction can not protect us from it!

  7. Deb @ Bright and Precious

    Gill, this fantastic post confirms why I have missed reading your writing so much! I’m too scared to get too dirty. Big stuff DOES breath life into writing, but are death and sex the only ingredients? I struggle with bringing these in when my own life doesn’t reflect it (like you – it doesn’t gel with the mother lives we have!). There’s also the advice that you have to write about what you know… your passions. Authentic is important. But not tackling big subjects when they arise would be remiss too. Great advice about reading/doing what is scary. You’ve made me think about facing some fears of my own.

    • Gill

      Deb, authenticity is super important and you do it so well.

      Tackling such subjects requires personal time and space. Writing about sex/death while my children sing along to Play School is bizarre. Writing is such a solitary business. Writing retreat anyone?

  8. maxabella

    I often think that blogging is not the right medium for sex and death topics. I don’t know, might be just me, but there is too much poetry involved in both. x


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