I still remember the night my novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, took a slightly erotic turn. It was winter, and late, and I was writing in a converted closet in my bedroom, the lamplight low, the wind howling against the side of the house. One cat was on my lap, the other at my feet, and I was hunched over my laptop, writing merrily and cozily away.
And then it happened. I began writing, not about sex exactly, but about topics that titillated. Topics that had to do with Barbie dolls in, shall we say, compromising positions.
I hesitated for a moment, my hands poised over the keyboard. It was almost as if I knew that once I began, I wouldn’t be able to stop. One part of me (the part that had been raised a good Catholic girl) inwardly cringed while another part (my inner bad girl) gleefully welcomed this foray into the unfamiliar.
Still, I fought it. I hadn’t set out to write a book with erotic themes or scenes. I envisioned a women’s contemporary novel, maybe a few racy phrases but certainly not anything as blatantly sexy or ridiculous as dolls with (how shall I say this?) anatomically correct parts poised in ways that easily displayed those same anatomically correct parts.
As the darkness lengthened and the Alaska winter raged around me, I escaped to my writing closet and took chances I may have not taken in the light of day, I gave my mind freedom to roam as it desired. Much of what I wrote those nights was unusable, and some of it caused me to blush, but I kept going. I blindly trusted that I was leading my book where it needed to go.
Of course, it’s impossible to carve “lady” parts on a Barbie doll (my character used pieces of Nerf football for the soft, outer lips), and I suppose this is what gave the writing an edge. It felt deliciously naughty and slightly rebellious, as if I were sitting in church in a tight dress and high heels.
Yet for all of the thrills, Dolls Behaving Badly is richer and deeper because I chose to include an erotic doll theme. Pushing the boundaries and introducing a ludicrous yet sexy subplot enabled me to push in other directions, too, which eventually resulted in opening up my characters up to vulnerabilities and choices that wouldn’t have existed in another context.
In a way, this makes perfect sense. We write to discover the unexpected, to dig deep into our psyches, to open ourselves to a vaster and richer existence. And by writing what makes us slightly uncomfortable, by putting our fantasies and desires on the page, in stark black type, we are allowing the hidden, shameful parts of ourselves to emerge.
We should all do this, at least as a writing exercise: Sit down and write about the things that embarrass or shame us, the things we’re afraid of, the things we’d be afraid for people to know about us. Think of what we could accomplish if we stopped worrying about convention or whether this works or that has a serious enough plot, and spent our time writing and embracing the unexpected instead.
Because if I can sit down in a closet in Anchorage, Alaska, and write about erotic dolls that run the Iditarod Sled Dog Race then you, my dear readers and fellow writers, can do anything.
Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist and Pushcart Prize nominee who lives and runs mountains in Alaska. She’s a recipient of two Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards, a Connie Boocheever Fellowship, residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Hidden River Arts, the Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Memoir Prose Award, Sport Literate Essay Award, Northwest PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award, Drexel Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award and Once Written Grand Prize Award.
Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, Literary Mama, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Breadcrumbs and Scabs, Third Wednesday, Writer’s Digest, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Cactus Heart Press and over 30 other literary magazines and small presses.
Her debut novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.