After a twenty year hiatus from writing, the very first online magazine that accepted a piece of my fiction was The Square Table. Like most literary magazines, The Square Table was a labor of love for someone dedicated to the promotion of contemporary literature who who had a day job. In this case, the editor and publisher was a law student at NYU Law School. The story, “Absolutely Fourth Street,” was one that I had written before my long sabbatical from writing that I reclaimed from the dusty old box of manuscripts that my wife hauled out of the basement when I began writing again. I transcribed the Courier 10 typescript (the Smith-Corona that produced it was left in the basement) into my computer and did revisions – some to clean up the writing, others to update the timeframe. I look at it now and realize that while it’s not bad, it’s not great either, but it was very evocative of the Village and I guess this is what appealed to the editor of The Square Table.
In the years since then, two more of my stories were published there as well. These were new stories and I think they were much better than the first one. “Brothers” was the next one and it turned out to be the first of a cycle of stories that I’ve been working on over the past few years. The third, “Truths,” was a short fictional vignette about tryst that I composed from several fragments of stories that by themselves had fizzled out and were never completed. I never throw anything out. The writing challenge that I gave myself was to write an explicit bedroom scene to help tie the pieces together. It’s the kind of writing that I’d always avoided doing in the past, even when a story obviously needed it. A friend who read an early draft of “A Couple” remarked, “Fred, the best parts of this story happen in the white space between the scenes.”
It was true. In my stories, three asterisks (“***”) could mean a movement in time, or a movement in space, or it could mean that somebody’s getting laid. Given the nature of some of the stories I write – exploring intimate psychological and emotional relationships – the absence of these scenes is noticeable, kind of like Lucy and Ricky sleeping in twin beds.
Writing sex scenes in literary fiction is fraught with danger. Somewhere between vulgar and clinical is a place where eroticism and sensuality and metaphor intertwine. That place is very elusive. Finding it is extremely difficult. All that is certain is that when it’s bad, it’s really bad. There’s even an annual award for bad literary sex that’s been won by some very respected writers and the offending passages cited are always cringe-worthy.
Novelist Elizabeth Benedict has written a book specifically about this challenge for writers called The Joy of Writing Sex. It was this book and studying with Benedict at The New York State Summer Writer’s Institute that encouraged me to take this on. To face the music. To open the kimono. To put it out there. After all, if John Updike could make a fool of himself and win several bad sex awards, what was I so afraid of?
I didn’t quite get there in actually depicting specific act or technique, but I did at least try to deal with the challenge of anatomy. As these things go, it’s still fairly timid but I was nonetheless nervous when I sent the story out.
I had always been impressed by the high quality of writing in The Square Table, excluding my own contributions, so I assumed they wouldn’t accept anything that would end up being embarrassing to them or me. Surprisingly, it was accepted and published.
Last year, after many years of publication, The Square Table shut down. I’m not sure, but the editor and publisher, having completed law school, was now consumed by a career that leaves no time for labors of love. Because my stories there were effectively “unpublished” I began looking for new homes for them, or at least two of them (“Absolutely Fourth Street” can safely fade away). I sent “Truths” to the Loch Raven Review, an online journal that had previously published one of my rare poems. I don’t write much poetry, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, but occasionally something strikes me. I’m never sure of the result, so submitting them to journals is always frightening for me. This was definitely the case with the poem that they published, so when it came time to find a place to republish this story that made me nervous I thought of them.
I am pleased that they have confirmed what The Square Table had told me. The story is valid.
“Truths” is appearing in the winter issue of Loch Raven Review.
In the meantime, here’s a link to the poem they published a few years ago: “A Victorian in 1990“
Elizabeth Benedict’s inimitable guide:
She practices what she preaches:
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