Review of ECSTASY IS NECESSARY

Originally posted on Blogger in 2012:

Yes, Ecstasy Is Necessary by Barbara Carrellas might seem like a strange first review. "How is reading a sex book going to help with my writing?" you might ask. Well, if you've seen how Fifty Shades of Grey has sold, you might rethink your take on sexywritings. But I digress...

This book is primarily about sex as a transcendent (hence, ecstatic) experience--but the ecstasy doesn't have to be sexual. I remember reading Misery by Stephen King when I was about 14. I remember Paul describing writing as finding the hole in the page. Even (especially!) then, I knew the phenomenon King meant. Back when I didn't have bills or kids or a social life to speak of, I could spend a Friday night listening to music, lighting candles, and writing while I sipped ice water from a wine glass. Yeah, I flared dramatic at 14...

It's that flow experience that Carrellas is talking about in this book, and it's the moment when we feel the words slipping out as if from another source.

Often, now, since I have bills and kids and worries and attempt to have a social life, I forget what it feels like to write ecstatically. I write for money. I write comments on students' papers. I write my goals, shopping lists, performance evaluations, syllabi. Writing has become a tool, and when something is a tool, or worse, a chore, we lose the ecstasy. Those perfunctory writings are necessary for my life, but I don't want to lose sight of the pleasures of the page, or the pure joy of finding the hole in the page.

Chapter 4, "Good Boundaries Make Good Lovers" resonated with me. As writers (or any sort of artist) we need to create boundaries. Many of us enjoy living life and feel a lot, and as a result we don't always draw enough lines to keep a space for our art. Amanda Palmer just wrote in a kick-ass blog about having space/time to be an artist, including taking time off from her friendships and even her marriage. Although not always an option for all of us, I think most of us would benefit from remembering some of Carrellas's guidelines for setting boundaries, including

  • Just say no: how often does acquiescence to some obligation, real or imagined, cut into your writing time?
  • Get some physical distance: how often do you find an answer when you get some distance?
  • Take a break: work on the writing, and then come back to it with fresh eyes later...

Later in this chapter, she discusses inner guidance versus judgment and the importance of listening to your intuition. We often let the judgments of others and our own inner critics shut down creativity before it starts. Why not be more open to what feels right on the page? Maybe you intended to write a story, but a poem keeps coming out... Why not go with whichever genre feels right, rather than judging that a story is superior to a poem and forcing a genre on the work?

The chapter on erotic risk-taking offers similarly transferable advice. For example, Carrellas suggests

  • Find your turn-on. What subjects fascinate you? What image can't you get out of your head? Why not write that?
  • Make a commitment. Set a word goal, a page goal, a long-term goal. Even if it's small, committing to put words on the page moves you forward.
  • Find support. Do you have a writing group or a reader (or group of readers)? If not, have you considered creating one? Online groups can be formed if you can't physically get out to meet with people. But finding like-minded community can keep you on track to meet your goals.

Finally, the chapter "The Language of Ecstasy" reminds us what most writers already know: words are powerful. She discusses conscious naming of relationships, but we can apply that same idea to ourselves. Are you reluctant to call yourself a writer? A poet? A novelist? Think about the names you would like to claim for your writer-self.

It took a colleague whose opinions I greatly respect to call me a poet before I could call myself "poet." But you don't need anyone's permission but your own.

In this chapter, Carrellas also discusses active listening, which is probably one of the most important ideas she addresses. Many writers love to talk: about their ideas, experience, problems, and their work. Why not stop talking and LISTEN for a change? Listen actively to other writers and to other people in general. Ask questions that deepen your understanding. Then shut up and take it in. If nothing else, you'll have lots of material you can use as inspiration later.

Although a lot of the book is dedicated to sexual ecstasy--which of course is its own reward!--I found this book a powerful reminder of the joy and pleasure that is possible when we open ourselves to any experience and shake things up a bit.