Sex in public, or why I read my erotica to live audiences


by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Writing is a lonely act, and while I wouldn’t trade my writing time for anything, ever since I was first published in the erotica genre in 2000, I’ve sought to take that act out into the world and make it interactive with live readings. Because my stories and books veer toward the sexier side of things, I’ve found that audiences are incredibly hungry to hear people talk about sex in public in an honest, open, unashamed way. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, or what the exact details are: if you stand up in front of a crowd of people and are talking about getting naked, people will listen.

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Me with burlesque performer Gigi La Femme at In The Flesh

For five incredible years of my life, from 2005-2010, I took that spirit and ran a reading series in New York called In The Flesh. In that time period, I hosted over 300 readers covering a range of genres, from erotic romance to memoir and poetry. While these days it’s but a fond memory, running In The Flesh remains one of the highlights of my career because it taught me an incredible amount about getting out of my shell and connecting readers with authors.

Yes, it was exciting when the events were covered on Gawker and Flavorwire, but what warmed my heart was walking into the relatively small bar where the readings were held and seeing both familiar and new faces each month. The people who showed up valued the community that formed sitting around tables before the readings just as much as what was said into the microphone. They valued the openness about all kinds of sexual interests that were presented with complete honesty, whether they were sex confessions or love stories, fetishes or fears, tender moments or raucous ones.

What thrilled me was when authors who made the erotica genre what it is today, like Susie Bright and Zane, deigned to grace my stage. If you want to make friends with writers, my advice is to start a reading series. Writers want to bring their words directly to people, want to find out which lines sizzle and which ones fizzle. They want to have a give and take with an audience, to share a part of themselves and have listeners share right back.

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Zane reading at In The Flesh; photo by Stacie Joy

One piece of advice I give my writing students, but don’t always take myself, is to read your work out loud. Yes, it’s time consuming, yet I’ve never regretted doing it, because I always find elements that work differently when voiced. Well, live readings take that sensation and amplify it. If you’re reading from an already published work, sure, you can’t change the text on the page (unless you’ve self-published in ebook form), but you can learn how to phrase things differently next time. You simply hear yourself in an entirely new way.

That’s why, even though I now live in suburbia and don’t have access to many literary events, for my newest anthology, Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 1, I’ve made it a point to travel and bring these stories to life live. It also gives me the chance to get to know my authors in person and introduce their work not just on the page, but in front of actual people.

That’s an important part of my value system as a writer and editor, because I know that those who come out to hear a reading, given the myriad other options for how they could spend their evening, will remember the little things. They’ll remember the funny behind the scenes story or bit of local inspiration a writer shares. They’ll remember the way someone’s voice drops or how they shift or blush. They’ll remember the sound and texture and rhythm and energy when they’re at home, rereading those same words. I know I certainly do, and once I’ve heard an author read their work out loud, that forever changes the way I approach it when I return to it on my own.

For all that, though, readings are not easy. You are competing with the weather, with other events, with TV and every other form of entertainment out there. You never know how many people will show up, or how much they will pay attention once they do. You don’t know if someone will ask a question during a Q&A that is utterly inappropriate. There’s no guarantees and room for any and all surprises, which is part of the magic and the horror of doing live readings. There’s no delete button, only spur-of-the-moment decisions.

Then there’s the actual opening your mouth and sharing your words part. The truth is, for me, even reading my work out loud is incredibly scary. No matter how many readings I’ve done, I still shake and get nervous and want to duck and hide whenever I step in front of a mic, or look up and see eyes eagerly expecting me to entertain them. It’s a far cry from staring at a blank screen, which, while demanding in its own way, is not one I will ever disappoint.

I don’t know if something that was a breeze to write will suddenly remind me of an intimate part of myself I didn’t realize I’d revealed in print. I often cringe as I mentally go back and try to re-edit my words, inserting a more charming phrase rather than a clunker that now seems totally wrong.

But what I’ve learned from sharing my stories everywhere from famed lesbian bar Meow Mix (RIP) to London sex toy store Sh! and countless places in between is that it’s worth getting over those nerves. Why? Because readings bring out our humanity. While words on a page (or screen) remain the same, we will never speak them aloud again in the exact same way. I learn more about myself and my work every time I read it aloud, and as an anthology editor, I treasure being able to hear my authors voice their work and bring out nuances I never would have gotten if I hadn’t heard them.

If I were rich, I would find a way to do readings with every author in my anthologies, because while I’m infinitely grateful that my books are on bookstore shelves, in ebook formats and out as audiobooks, it makes me fee like I’ve come full circle as an editor to get to smile and look directly into my authors’ eyes, to get to know the person behind the story, to take a tale I’ve come to think I know and add even more depth to it.

I also want to help create public spaces where listeners can hear writers, especially women, sharing stories about love, sex, romance that come from the heart. When my voice drops as I read, or I stammer, or I make a last minute decision to skip a part that no matter how many dirty words I’ve written, suddenly seems “too embarrassing” to say in front of people who I’ll be mingling with in an hour, I’m being human. I’m not three names in a fancy font on the cover of a book or a Twitter handle, but a person revealing my flaws and insecurities.

That human element is one that can’t be replicated. As I said at the beginning, writing is lonely, but when you hear someone chuckle or exclaim or gasp or whisper, it’s an incredible feeling, one that, for me, is worth all the nerves. It means that my words, the ones I often struggle over, the ones that seem distant because they were written one or two or ten years ago, are suddenly vivid and alive.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is that audiences don’t expect me to be perfect (I do enough of that on my own). They’re okay if I trip and stumble over a word, if I suddenly get shy, if my persona on the page doesn’t quite match up to who I am in a room full of strangers. They aren’t looking for a false version of perfection, but for genuineness, and that I can amply provide.

So if you’re in Chicago, or know anyone else who might be and would like to hear some sexy stories about everything from a woman used as a lover’s canvas to a couple and a tentacle dildo to a woman whose erotic airplane adventures are reported back in breathless detail to her husband, I hope you’ll join me and my authors Tara Betts and Rose P. Lethe on March 31st. I promise we’ll give you an event to remember.

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5 Comments

  • Madeline Iva
    March 18, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I found the benefit from starting Love Fest at Virginia Festival of the Book was much the same. I met so many writers and readers this way. I’ll treasure the memories.

  • romancenovelsforfeminists
    March 18, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Will you be taking this show on the road, RKB?

  • F Dot Leonora
    March 19, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Rachel, this is such a good post, and has made me see reading aloud in a completely different way. i miss your readings at happy ending so much too…xxx

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