The Long Hard Look

“…at the core of human being is an exhibitionistic impulse: in order for us to see ourselves we must be seen.”
Alessandra Lemma on Lacan*

Whether you believe in universal truths or you acknowledge that they are negotiated and constructed within cultures, it matters not. It is useful to entertain their existence. Being an atheist, I don’t think truths come from outside ourselves, nor do I believe most of them are timeless and unchanging. That being said, I still hold them in great regard. Especially when writing fiction.

When I read new writers of erotic fiction, one of the things I have most often felt the need to say is – you need to be honest. You are protecting your character because there is too much of you invested in there. As writers, we all write a little of ourselves into our stories, and we all have a tendency to protect ourselves. This is especially true, I think, with erotic fiction. Our understanding of what is erotic, how to be erotic, how to ‘see’ pleasure, use pleasure, give pleasure seems to reflect so strongly back on ourselves, it is hard to conceive of new eroticisms, because we fear that people will judge us if we veer too far away from the accepted (I don’t mean kink. We accept kink fine. FSOG sold 50 millions copies, so don’t fool yourself). Intuitively, it would make sense that the more secret and private and personal our acts, the less society would have to say about what is or isn’t recognizable or acceptable as proper erotic pursuits. But this is, in fact, exactly the opposite. Society offers us very rigid ideals of the right and wrong way to experience, pursue and satisfy desire. My last short story could easily be viewed as an anti-erotica piece. It is a portrait of the sort of person we most revile in our society: she fails in every way to be what society tells us a sexual person should be. Her desire is unrequited, she continually deludes herself about the outcome of her situation, she doesn’t even have the excuse of being unaware of what she’s doing or deriving some masochistic pleasure from her failure. She’s a loser and, more offensive yet, she’s not an unwitting one. She’s too weak to stop being one.

Hollywood has bred expectations that characters like this, in the course of the story, grow from ugly ducklings into swans. Either Emily should realize she’s pounding on the wrong door and find a better one to pound on, or Gabriel will suddenly realize what an idiot he’s been and finally reciprocate her feelings.

I wrote this story as an experiment in two things: in destabilizing expected narrative structures and in writing a consciously subjective character.

I’ve been taking a lot of photographic self-portraits this week and looking at them closely, attempting to ‘read’ myself honestly, to see if I could glean any truths. I have always had an uneasy relationship with my own visual image. Even from a very young age, someone would show me a picture of myself and I would have difficulty recognizing it as me. Of course, I believed that it WAS a picture of me – it’s hard to explain – but when I looked at the picture, the me I felt inside and the image of the person in the photograph seemed to be vastly different people. So I go through these phases of refusing to look at pictures of myself, and then taking a lot of them, as if I might cure myself of the disconnect by sheer, bloody-minded repetition. It scared me to think that, if I couldn’t authentically acknowledge myself in a photograph, how would I ever recognize myself in a story I was writing? Most writers assiduously avoid ‘Mary Sueing’ (take the test here to see if you do –  bit of a joke, but fun) but in this story, I set out to do exactly that. When I killed her, I cried. Then I laughed. Then I took the test above and realized I hadn’t Mary Sue’d at all.

So I’m back at the drawing board, trying to maintain a level of honesty in my writing. I’m back to taking pictures of myself and hoping the picture to give me some clue as to who this person is.


What I see, when I look at this picture, is a woman who both wants desperately to be loved and yet is already wearing the resignation of that scenario’s impossibility on her face. She wants to be genuine, but she cannot give up the control that being genuine entails. So she constructs truths for herself, and rules of superficial politeness, and she clings to those doggedly because, without them, she feels the whole of her existence will collapse in chaos.

I’ve always thought of myself as a person who deals with chaos rather happily, but apparently not.

*From the book “Under the Skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification


  12 comments for “The Long Hard Look

  1. January 26, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    “This touched me where I live” to quote a phrase. Thank you for that.

  2. January 27, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Emily may be the sort of woman we revile – yet she’s EXACTLY the sort of woman I meet time and time again. In love with the possibility of love, unable to move forward, unwilling to let go. Unlikeable only because so many of us have been in that spot at one time or another, although, hopefully, not for quite as long.

    As for pictures, I’ve actively avoided being photographed for most of my life, and I don’t look in mirrors – the only me I’m concerned with is the one in my head. I fear falling into the trap of working my outward appearance to conform to norms I don’t believe in, just to try and fit in. So I don’t look at myself and don’t worry about it.

    • January 27, 2014 at 1:24 am

      From an ideological perspective, I would agree with you. But this denies the reality that when other people look at you, they see your exterior. So, my question is what do they see? It’s a little like writing. You can say you only give a damn about how you feel about your work, but that ignores the fact that the reader is part of the writing process. All views are subjective, of course, but I find it useful to know what other people see, and what, perhaps, they read. My inner view isn’t all that objective anyway, so it’s not like knowledge of that outer view takes precedence or counts for more. It’s simply another perspective.

      • January 27, 2014 at 1:51 am

        I know what people see when they look at me – but if I allowed myself to BE that person then I’d never leave the house. Sometimes we need to transcend the physical, or try to. No matter how many pictures you peruse or mirrors you peer into you can never see yourself as others do, you have the benefit (or curse) of knowing yourself too well.

        • January 27, 2014 at 2:45 am

          I don’t think it is possible to ever ‘be’ the person others see. It’s not possible to translate the interior to the exterior or vice versa. It’s two different planes of reality. But every so often, I like to peek in and see, at least as far as I can, what other people are seeing on that ‘other’ channel. Of course it doesn’t fully translate, but it can inform me. It can give me a little more data than I have at my disposal if I don’t look at all.

          I don’t think I know myself any better than most people know themselves. I’m simply one of those people who rather have more info rather than less. That’s all. And I’d rather have the bad news, than none at all.

  3. January 27, 2014 at 3:37 am

    Everything that you said has resonance. A world of strangers has found a nest in your prose. What you write is an aspect of the feminine, and you always have. There is nothing hidden, and so there is an unheard transparency to it.

    The world has not heard this narrative yet, RG.

    I’m going to say “unheard music” and leave it at that. But that is what you write?

    from me

  4. TFP
    January 28, 2014 at 7:30 am


    When I read your work I tend to comment right away and often do. Then after a few days I reread what I wrote and think, “No.” This particular piece is (In my opinion) is one of your most honest and raw writings, thus I read it and reread it a few times, thought a bit before commenting. Yes, I would write a comment because I know you enjoy feedback. There is a truth, I believe in that one must give, in return for what one receives.

    Emily is so real it is frightening to me, she is obsessive, yet not to the delusional degree. Emily wasn’t sending Gabriel crazy love letters or pictures of herself, she had a reason to see him. The book, there was method to her madness. Often love struck individuals will act unreasonably in the emotional sense and remain high functioning, like Emily. After a time, perhaps even ten years, something will strike them into reality. Perhaps in a metaphorical sense the four wheel drive was the element that killed the obsession and Emily lives. The optimist could see her falling in love with her new client, living happily ever after. The experienced knows shes died on that street

    Lovely photograph-btw.


  5. Korhomme
    January 28, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I see several areas of difficulty with (self) portraits.

    Firstly, we usually see ourselves as laterally reversed images in a mirror. Most of us don’t have very symmetrical faces, so seeing a portrait as others see us is disconcerting, because the person in the picture doesn’t look like the one in the mirror. (To emphasize this, try a full face on portrait; then divided it vertically in half. Make a copy of the left half, flip it horizontally, and join it to the original left side. Do this for the right side as well. You now have three portraits, or four if you mirror-image the original. They will all be different, the two composites will look like strangers.)

    Your selfie is in black and white, or greyscale. That means that it’s converted from a colour original—there are only two digital cameras that are b/w only. How you convert can subtly (or grossly) change the appearance. Here, for example, your lipstick is quite dark, like an orthochromatic representation. You could equally well make it so the hair remains dark, and the lips are light. So, that can be taken as a choice on your part as to how you represent yourself. It’s also slightly defocussed. Say that this is deliberate; it could be taken to mean some uncertainty, some ambiguity of meaning. You, and therefore us, don’t want to be seen “warts and all”, you want to be rather mysterious. And what’s that in the background?

    “The camera doesn’t lie”. It may not lie, but it doesn’t always (or ever?) tell the truth. It’s a two dimensional representation of an (external) three dimensional reality. It captures only an instant, not a continuity; it can show only one emotion, no matter how fleeting. It’s transient, it may even be a “decisive moment”. Can you see inside the whole person in an instant? I certainly can’t. So, can you see yourself properly in a series of photographs? Again, not really; are we combinations of parts or a seamless whole? Some people try to see themselves through multiple daily photos, doing all their activities. Others try continuous videos of their lives—or even Google Glass them. But, at the end, it’s all representations, not reality.

    I’d say that the best you can do is present yourself (in a selfie) in ways that you wish to see yourself; perhaps it’s subconscious. It’s a choice that you make. If another photographs you, either he/she has an idea of how you should be represented, or you make your wishes known. (Do you remember Polyphoto? A contact sheet with 48 (rather stilted) images; choose the best.)

  6. February 3, 2014 at 7:15 am

    I love this post, thank you. Great information and I will certainly be looking back at my characters to see if they can be improved upon. Thank you again for bringing this up.

  7. February 4, 2014 at 12:00 am

    Since you can’t “see” what/who you’re really projecting, you might as well tell the truth and let _that_ be the message out to the world.

    Along with “tell the truth” someone also told me “don’t be afraid.” Fearless writing is almost true by default. Great post. Thanks.


  8. Scotlyn
    March 9, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    I’ve been lucky… the gaze of those who look at me with love & acceptance has ever been friendlier & more steadying than the gaze of my own eyes reflected in a mirror, tempered by exposure to compelling body image norms.

    In the photo above, I (also) see a woman who looks out… How would she see/write me? Shivers.

    A very lovely site & wonderful stories. Thank you.

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