Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
“I was possibly more honest than I needed to be. It’s really hard trying to scrutinize your own motives and your own limitations as a human being while also banging your head against your limitations as a writer.”
During a work trip to Manhattan one afternoon a few years ago, book critic Hephzibah Anderson found herself doing a double-take on Fifth Avenue: was that her college ex-boyfriend walking into DeBeers, next to a fetching blonde—presumably to buy an engagement ring? A guy she’d only seen once—an ocean away, in their native London—since their breakup ten years earlier? The only guy who’d said the words “I love you” to Anderson?
When she returned to England, she discovered through a mutual acquaintance that it most likely was her ex. This jolting coincidence marked a turning point for Anderson: She was about to turn 30 with a string of short-lived, unsuccessful relationships behind her, and while she’d never wanted to marry her college boyfriend, she did want to be in love again.
So in a world of hook-ups, confessional sex blogs, celebrity sex tapes and the cultural shorthand of Sex and The City, Anderson decided to embark on a purposeful dry spell—for a year. Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex is her thoughtful and surprisingly romantic–although not in the way a reader might expect–story of that year.
Over the phone from her home in London, SMITH spoke to Anderson about Chastened, what she learned during her sexless year, what she would have done differently had she planned to write a book from the start, and why it’s never a good idea to journal in turquoise ink.Why did you decide to purposefully go without sex for a year? You talk about seeing your ex—but what was the emotional context of your decision?
Seeing my ex-boyfriend really got me thinking, but the ground was primed by the looming fact that I was about to turn 30. I did a lot of looking back over relationships past. I was trying to figure out how I could avoid making a mess of the pursuit of love in my thirties. My relationships were not only short-lived, but I had this incredible feeling of emotional frustration. In looking back over those relationships, the one good relationship had been with this guy in college, who I’d just seen at DeBeers.
Armed with this fresh insight, I embarked upon another relationship, which turned out to be worse than all the others. I really fell for this guy. Not only did he not say “I love you,” but actually said, “I don’t love you.” And in the middle of all of this a good male friend told me how he finally won the heart of his girlfriend. They’d been just friends for several years; he was deeply smitten and prepared to put up with the torture just to be around her. He said, “I don’t care if I never get to sleep with you.” Such a romantic thing to hear, and that won her over.
Hearing him tell me that encapsulated what was missing from those 20-something experiences. It seemed to me that the moment I went to bed with a guy I lost any common sense.
So the idea is that you give up sex for a year with the ultimate goal being to fall in love.
My ultimate goal was to find a way of pursuing love in my thirties that was a bit more graceful, and hopefully more successful. I may read a lot of fiction for my job, but I didn’t really expect to find Mr. Whatever You Want To Call Him during the course of those months.
But there was a lot of romance that year. One of the many things it taught me was how to fall back in love with romance rather than eyeing it mistrustfully as a prelude to a breakup.
Dry spells aren’t uncommon, and a year isn’t that long—what’s the difference between your celibate year and a dry spell?
I was in charge: I owned it. Since it was this self-contained year, while I was interrogating myself about how I was feeling, I wasn’t looking to get out of it the whole time, in the way we’re expected to–even if we don’t necessarily want to.
There’s a very long history of the upside of celibacy, of course—spiritual growth, creative growth. In the book, you say that the lack of the physical gave more room for the emotional/psychological.
One of the things I realized about myself was the extent to which I’d become very guarded emotionally during ten years of dating. We all build these barricades around our hearts, and I’d argue that they’re harder to take down than put up. It was a lot easier to open up emotionally if I’d drawn some lines physically. The stakes weren’t as high.
What were the big revelations from your year?
I figured out what I needed from physical intimacy—for me, that comes with emotional intimacy. Great if it doesn’t for you, but the idea that the ultimate act of feminist defiance is to be able to repress your own feelings as a woman—it’s not a very helpful idea, and that seems to be what passes for feminism in mainstream women’s magazines. My girlfriends and I came of age at a time when we were told that feminism’s battles were all won, so we took it all for granted. We didn’t think about how we might use those liberties intelligently rather than just run with it.
During the course of that year, I learned to feel much more secure in asking for that right to be romanced. Had I known I was going to write a book about this, there were lots of things I would’ve done differently from the start. I certainly would’ve had a “Eureka!” moment.
What would you have done differently?
I might’ve tried really, really hard to find that special person, or at least the illusion of a classically tidy, if not happy, ending.
I liked that it’s not a classical “happy” ending.
I do, too. I felt quite defiant about this. The number of times I pick up a book that’s supposedly about single women, but they end up un-single–life’s not like that. I’m still out there, putting to good use all these lessons I’ve learned.
So you didn’t go into this project with a book in mind.
The idea for the book came over the last couple of months of the year. It was very hazy; I certainly didn’t start with an outline until a month or two afterwards.
It took me a while to begin talking about it to anyone. But once I did, I had really interesting conversations. One of the things I’d felt from the beginning was a weird sense of taboo surrounding the idea of choosing not to have sex. For me, those 12 months were anything but arid; they were so fertile in many ways. I wanted to remind people that it’s an option and bring it back into the mainstream.
It’s markedly different from the writing around sex that we’ve seen over the past couple of years.
Right, I’d felt like a lot of “Memoirs of a Call Girl”-type of books had come my way. I felt like we’d all been so overexposed to those memoirs; less was certainly more. There was so much about that memoir trend that I just got so weary of, and it seemed to present a sort of one-dimensional take on sex and human relationships. And the men were so flimsy as characters, never mind the women.
Did you keep a journal?
I had a journal, some of which I’d written in turquoise ink. Midway through, I finally realized that since this journal was all hand-written, what if I lost it? I tried to photocopy it, but it turns out that turquoise ink doesn’t photocopy. It was a horror. My advice: Don’t write in turquoise ink. Even pencil photocopies better than that.
So I had that to work from; it gave it the bare bones.
You’re a writer, but you’re a book critic and a journalist. You weren’t writing personal pieces.
Getting the voice was difficult. The thing I found ridiculously hard was grappling with the sheer length of it. As a journalist, I’d written some personal pieces, but certainly nothing longer than 2,500 words.
There was a point where I was halfway through the word count, and I’d yet to complete a single chapter. I ran into my editor at a party and confessed this to her, and she did her very best not to look panicked. I had 35,000 to 40,000 words—but I’d written half of every chapter in the book. I just physically couldn’t make it to the end of the chapter.
Finally, I just had to. The deadline was looming into view. I wasn’t asked to submit a sample chapter with the outline, but I think it would have saved us all a little heartache if I had. It was just a psychological block in the end.
What other emotional negotiations did you go through in order to write such a personal book? You’ve must’ve worried about opening yourself up in this way.
The year of writing the book almost shadowed, month to month, the year I was writing about. The year of writing was infinitely harder, and far less fun, and far more solitary. I’d just moved out of London, so I was sort of in exile from my old life. And every morning it felt like I was on a psychiatrist’s couch.
In hindsight, I was possibly more honest than I needed to be. It’s really hard trying to scrutinize your own motives and your own limitations as a human being while also banging your head against your limitations as a writer–especially for people who do literary criticism, it’s so humbling.
But you get to a point when the book has become what it’s going to be. I was surprised at how quickly that happened: it assumed its own voice, its own momentum. If that wasn’t the kind of literature I liked, then too bad, that’s what it was going to be. As a critic, I had to stand back from it; as a writer, I was immersed in it. It was gagging the critic’s voice long enough to get something on the page.
Also, I changed a lot during the course of that year–more than I’d anticipated from the start. So in a way, it made it easier to write openly because already I felt like the person I was writing about wasn’t the person I was now. There were moments where the Me sitting at my desk, writing, had very little sympathy for the person she was writing about.
How have the paramours you describe in Chastened reacted?
They were incredibly disguised in the book, but they’ve all been pretty good about it. Some of them haven’t read it, which I think is quite nice of them. Rather than destroy a friendship, it’s like, let’s tiptoe around it. An author once told me that people only ever recognize themselves in the dashing, handsome, smart, kind characters–they never recognize themselves in the villains.
Chastened was released in the UK and Europe some time ago. How has its publication changed how you are seen as a feminine, sexual being?
I did a panel event and the chair said to me, “Didn’t you worry about being pegged as the girl who doesn’t have sex?” I didn’t. It has had an interesting and naively unforeseen, I suppose, impact on dating and relationships. It’s come up in a good way—it can catapult you into an incredibly candid conversation. Suddenly it’s abundantly clear that you and this attractive guy are not on the same page. Once that’s out in the open there’s no going back. It’s a good thing, but it just makes everything a little fraught; everything’s a bit more charged.
Do you have new book projects in mind?
I do have a couple of fiction projects, but nothing yet has come to me for a book in the same vein. I think the combination of the subject matter and the genre made it a double-dose of me, me, me-ness. By the end of last summer, I was certainly ready not to write the word “I” in a long time.
Finally, Hephzibah Anderson, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
I’d say it’s the same as the book’s subtitle in the French edition: “Modern adventure in old-fashioned romance.”
BUY Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year without Sex.
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VISIT Anderson’s website.