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Q and A

Jun 05, 2012; Michael Asks:

Hello Stacey, I am thirty and am having some emotional problems. For starters, I have never been on a date with a woman and have never kissed anyone romantically. In the past, I paid for prostitutes, but it only resulted in hand jobs or talking or a combination of both. I am attracted to men but am not gay. I am more attracted to women and vastly prefer their company.

Lately, I've been watching more porn on the Internet. A lot more. I masturbate about twice a day on average, and I'm afraid I might be addicted to porn, or I might be close. This costs a lot of money. In the past two or three years, I've spend a great deal of my income at strip clubs, because I feel like I have to. It staves off the loneliness and oblivion. I think in the past ten years I've asked maybe six girls out. Only one (maybe two) said yes. I don't like being rejected. Plus most girls already have a boyfriend, or at least they say they do. I don't like talking to girls unless it's going to go somewhere, but since it so rarely does, I find it next to impossible to carry on a conversation with a woman. Actually gender might be not important. I'm probably too anti-social. There is nothing wrong with me. No deformities or handicaps. Do you have any advice? I know there are no easy solutions here, no potted answers. This is so hard. I would like to have a girlfriend, but at the pace I'm going, that's never going to happen. I look forward to hearing from you and hope you are having a great summer. Thank you, Michael

Stacey answers:

First of all, don’t worry about the porn/masturbation thing. Looking at porn is normal, feeling guilty for looking at porn is normal (as is not feeling guilty), and two is an entirely reasonable number of times to masturbate a day. You’re not addicted to porn. To be addicted, you'd have to do all the things addicts do: miss work, get sores, choose porn over all other activities, and generally warp your entire life around porn. Strip clubs don’t count! They're nightclubs. So what? At least you're getting out!

But you need a little more human contact in your life, I understand. Here’s what you need to do: work on your social skills (not with girls—with old people—volunteer!), work on your grooming (bathe daily, brush daily, floss daily, and remember it is deadly to have any hair showing in your nose), don't just talk, listen, give up your idealized vision of love and the notion that you should only date pretty girls, and dedicate yourself to being totally, honestly yourself, all the time, without pretense. Got that? Everyone has a façade they show the world, a social face, and it’s never the same as their “real” inner self. But some people end up with a façade that’s wildly different from their private, inner self, for whatever reason—these people are shy or antisocial or even friendly folks who get exhausted by socializing, because the disjunction between the two selves is stressful. They have to tamp down the inner self, and this requires constant self-policing, self-chiding, and name-calling. It’s arduous. After a while, it seems better to go home and be alone no matter how lonely you are, because it’s so draining to be the criminal and policeman of yourself both, if that makes sense. Also, it's incredibly common.

I think this is what’s going on with you, Michael. Your inner self is radically different from your outer one, and you end up spending a lot of energy trying to make your outer self seem a certain way. These kinds of tasks are always half-invisible but they still feel very important—it’s like anti-virus software, always running in the background, scanning for bad things. Somehow you’ve decided or learned that there’s a narrow limit of acceptable thought, behavior, affect, dance steps, tone of voice, partners, and hand gestures for you. But you know what? It’s not true. It’s all culture, it’s all just made up by humans as we go along, and it changes all the time. There’s truly a wide range of acceptable behavior, and there’s absolutely an unlimited arena of acceptable thought. Sure, there are boundaries. We’re not supposed to shit in the grass, but there’s nothing wrong with about thinking it. Or saying it: “Wouldn’t it be nice to take a big dump on that beautiful lawn court the day before the Open?”

So try, practice with the old people (they can’t hear you anyway), be yourself when you can, experiment a little, demote your inner policeman, and see what happens. Try to replace the shame in your life with embarrassment and sadness. Everyone hates rejection! Be sad about it! Sadness feels really bad! But it’s better than shame, which is like dying. You’re not dying! And if you’re attracted to boys, you can go to a gay bar—why not? If you’re groomed and letting your inner self guide your outer self and manage to tell a boy that one interesting thing about you is that you’ve never had sex or kissed anyone, believe me you are going to get taken home before the end of the night. Besides, boys are easier than girls. You don’t have to talk to them as much. In fact, if you can look in their eyes for three seconds, you don't have to talk to them at all: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. And you’re set. Try this for a while and get back to me if you want more advice.

May 29, 2012; Sleuths Magoo Asks:

Are you engaged? There's a rumor that you might be. If so, and even if not, what's your dream, theme wedding?

Stacey answers:

Hi Sleuths Magoo. I'm not engaged. I have had the same boyfriend for many years but once I got a diamond ring out of him I realized I was done. My bourgeois longings were fulfilled and I lost interest in getting married. Still, if I had to do it, my dream wedding would take place in Hole in the Rock in Moab, Utah (gts) and be officiated by Nile Rodgers. The theme would be Disco Underground. The colors would be denim and gold chains. There would be a reception in the petting zoo and champagne-drunk bunnies, and a string quartet playing "I Want Your Love" with abundant pizzicato. Wanna come?

May 11, 2012; Tom Asks:

Hi Stacey, what works of fiction are you currently reading? Are you familiar with any of the authors published by Two Dollar Radio?

Stacey answers:

I just finished Nile Rodgers's autobiography Le Freak, which is a great music bio (if you like those) which will renew your appreciation of disco, baby. I also just finished Edmund White's Jack Holmes & His Friend. That one's also really good, especially if you like penises (and who doesn't?). It might have the most penises in it of any novel that is not porn. Though not a lot of different penises--many aspects of one penis, more like.

I've never even heard of the Two Dollar Radio! It sounds small.

May 03, 2012; Hannah Asks:

HI Stacey, I was wondering, what are three books that where influential in your decision to become a writer? I really love Twin Studies and hope to read more soon.

Stacey answers:

Hi Hannah. I'm sorry I've let your question languish for so long. I don't know! I don't have an answer! Have I decide to be a writer? I thought I'd leave it up in the air for a little while longer.

Apr 19, 2012; William Asks:

Hi Stacey. What advice can you give for writing dialogue and for writing in first person.

Stacey answers:

Good question, William. Dialogue is strangely hard to write, especially considering that we speak and listen to each other all day and often continue into our dreams. Most of this talk isn't memorable, but occasionally it is, and these locutions are the ones worthy of dialogue. You can probably remember three or four things your father once said to you, or your ex-girlfriend or history teacher, and the reason you remember is because these utterances were shocking, funny, unexpected, or puzzling. Some were probably lies; others were revelations; probably none were exposition (unless it was of the barest, most life-changing kind: "Your mother and I are getting divorced, sugarpie").

Here are some rules (which you can break, but they're good to know): in literary fiction, dialogue should reveal character, not forward the plot. The exposition goes in the narration (a little can go in the dialogue, but just a smidge). No planning! There's nothing worse than suffering through a discussion of what to have for dinner. Also: do not make your characters endlessly address each other by name. (In real life, people only call each other by name when they're echolocating or want something). Don't put in introductory clauses: "Oh, I was just thinking that maybe it would be a good idea if..." Or: "Hello. How are you? Gee, really?" Don't put that stuff in. In fact, you can usually take off the first four words of each sentence of dialogue and it will still make sense, but it can get a bit Hemingway-macho if you do a lot of that. "Said" is a good word. Use it a lot. Hardly ever use competing words like "replied," "interjected," "exclaimed," or "repeated." If this drives you crazy, an alternate way of attributing dialogue to a character is to precede or follow it with a physical description. This works better in the middle of a run of dialogue than at the beginning: Sheila stanched the wound with a tea towel. "I've always hated that damn cutlass." I know, it seems like a "said" would be nice, but in the middle of a conversation, you won't miss it.

You can listen to how people actually talk in order to get a lifelike feel to you dialogue, but you still have to try to make it interesting. What people actually say is boring unto death; a little exaggeration and a sense of drama is better than authenticity. John Cheever was a master at this, though part of what he was doing was contrasting his beautiful, mellifluous, erudite narration with blunt, exaggerated dialogue--not a bad strategy. Read authors you like and see if you can figure out their strategy, their pattern of attribution, all that.

First-person narration can get a little talky too, so many of the rules above also apply. The trick is to inhabit your first-person narrator like an actor, but don't get so into her head that you let every stupid thing she thinks flow straight into your prose (or even every quirky, smart, interesting thing). Not enough is always better than too much. Ha ha ha ha. Ha. That's what I say.

Another literary convention (usually dispensed with in genre fiction) is to NOT include a physical description of a first-person narrator. I like this convention and command you to use it. That means no mirror passages, you know, where the character looks at himself in the hall mirror and riffs about his hair, etc. No passages where the narrator studies/describes his graduation photo, musing on the passage of time. (This is because it's artificial and therefore distracting and also, the more genre conventions you put in your work, the harder it is to get a Guggenheim, even though it may not necessarily make your work any better or worse. Also, no happy endings. Sad and ambiguous is the name of the game.) You have to be a psychologist, or at least a student of human nature and your own inner dialogue. People think about how they look a lot; they just don't think, of themselves: "I am a portly fellow with a belly like a half-inflated beach ball." Rather, they think: "I feel fat."

Traditionally, first-person narrators are liars, half-crazy (Eli Sisters), demented/sick(Humbert Humbert), or articulate observers who are almost entirely separate from the action of the story (Ishmael). Either that or else they are really nice ladies. Or flawed teenagers. Food for thought.

Apr 12, 2012; Kayla Barbour Asks:

Hi Stacey, I'm a freshman at the College of Charleston, currently majoring in Theatre and I was just wondering if you had ever read any plays that you found interesting? Do you happen to have a favorite play/playwright?

Stacey answers:

Hi Kayla. I'm ashamed to say that I hardly ever read plays. You've probably heard of the ones I've read, like No Exit and Hamlet. I'm so retarded that it's never even occurred to me to read any. Do they have a special section in the book store? I bet they do. Sorry.

Apr 09, 2012; Tom Asks:

Even though you have mentioned in the past that you don't really enjoy music, have you ever been inspired by a song or a lyric to write a story?

Stacey answers:

No Tom, I don't think I have, though I often want to put song lyrics in stories. (This is a bad idea, since song lyrics are copyrighted and you have to get permission to use them). Song lyrics have a way of lodging in people's minds, whether you like music or not. I'm struck by how they sometimes serve as weird harbingers of the unconscious: I can't tell you how often I've found that the song going through my head reflects on what's happening at the moment. More like texture within a story than inspiration for the whole thing.

Apr 07, 2012; Tom Hancock Asks:

Happy Birthday!

Apr 04, 2012; Pickles Asks:

Did you see that news item about the house cat who went feral and tried to snuff it's owner? Does that scenario make you feel more horror, or elation?

Stacey answers:

Elation! Pickles, you're fantastic. That's the best news report ever. My favorite part is when she says, "My husband ripped off his C-pap machine..."

Here's the URL: http://abcnews.go.com/US/video/pet-house-cat-attacks-owner-10543505

Apr 02, 2012; Liam Liam Liam Asks:

What are you doing for your birthday, muffin?

Stacey answers:

Hi Liam! It's been so long! I was sick for my birthday and watched birds and ate food. Are you in France?

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