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Fifty shades of meh

“What are you doing here?” Marlena followed him to the kitchen, not at all paying attention to his well-sculpted shoulders or the identical tattoos of a marine compass on each shoulder blade. Water dripped down his back and Marlena averted her eyes to keep the image of her tongue licking off the drops from ruining her resolve not to do anything so stupid.

The day I learned I couldn’t write erotica was the day the world stood still. My world, anyway. This discovery shocked me into hours of quivering contemplation. You see,  as a published author, I am a goal-setter and a goal-getter. It’s a mantra I’ve practiced since a very early age with a nearly perfect track record.

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Granted, erotica wasn’t much of a “goal.” I thought it would be easy — and, of course, profitable. I’d been seduced by the promise of easy cash, an unfortunate reaction to a market flooded by Fifty Shades of Grey and its countless knockoffs. But my intentions were noble. Wanting to make millions of women, and some men, swoon over my steamy content by bringing them immeasurable pleasure, was a worthy aspiration. After all, back when I first emigrated to America from Russia, romance novels taught me how to speak English. I knew firsthand that everything went better with a bit of sexual tension.

Dorian’s hands chased goose bumps up her skin. He had tilted her head and caressed her upper lip with his thumb as if he’d done it thousands of times before. His touch was so untrained and sensual that it hypnotized her into compliance. In the past, she’d always considered him Will’s hot-headed teen brother, even if she knew his thoughts in regard to her veered into the more carnal territory. With Dorian, there was always a hint of sexual spark Marlena tried to not recognize. A need she masterfully attributed to her effect on him. Never the other way around. But on that riverbank, he’d undone her. When he laid her on the sand, he had unraveled her.


It all started one Thanksgiving dinner when a friend delivered a monologue expressing his adoration of a certain book he had recently devoured, claiming it was the best he’d ever read (and in 50-plus years, that’s an achievement not to be taken lightly). The book happened to be the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey. He vehemently declared that, despite the novel’s gauche sex and tortured language, the story touched upon the very essence of what every loving relationship requires: Trust. And that was why — he exclaimed with a fist in the air — the book made bank! The author bestowed a gift upon her readers in the form of a fantasy every one of us, man and woman, secretly yearns to coax into reality.

The next day, I emailed my agent, asking what she thought about this whole coaxing deal. Would she be interested in seeing some erotica? Together, we’d worked through my first book, a memoir, and I trusted her opinion. Memoirs aren’t for the faint of heart. They wring out every bit of your soul and leave you exhausted. Battle-scarred, my agent and I were both keen on the idea of working with something lighter. I dove into the project, whipping up a synopsis about a clandestine “sex education” school in Florence. The setup afforded endless possibilities!

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Marlena Bell stood naked on the river bank, facing away from Dorian. A large blanket was spread on the sand next to her with a lit candle candelabra perched in one corner next to a bottle of wine and two half-filled glasses. In orange candle glow, Marlena’s skin was pale like a painted sea shell. The shadows danced across her ass and Dorian looked away to stop the crazy effect watching her was already having on him. But before he even knew it, he was back to admiring her assets.

As my pages filled and swelled with sexy sex, I thought about the house I once saw on the “International House Hunters: Greece” episode, crumbling but gorgeous, overlooking the silky waters of the Aegean. Surely I’ll soon possess it, I mused. In awe of the effortlessness with which my words spilled onto the page, I was certain that in fact I could write the book with my eyes not only closed, but in deep REM.

This elation didn’t linger. Rather quickly, I found myself forcing my mind into the story the way one would squeeze a car through a doorway. Doing my best to relate to the characters and their bustling, bursting libidos, I hovered above this erotic landscape in a limbo. I attributed the new development to over-excitement, and carried on all the way into 50 pages, which I then promptly sent away to my agent, just to make sure I was on the right track. Beneath my self-assurance, a small voice spoke up. Something isn’t right, it said. It feels too easy and you don’t care enough for it. But I muted it.

Three weeks went by. My agent replied.

[HEAR MORE: Oksana Marafioti discusses her memoir American Gypsy on " KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

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Oksana, Sorry for the delay … I suppose I haven’t been looking forward to this email.

You see, for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with this plotline. I thought the plot might work because the idea of a sex school was so unusual, but it doesn’t.

I also found the treatment a little, well, purple. Are you sure erotica is the way to go?

It took me a good week to come to terms with the fact that my agent was right. I’d been looking for simplicity in a tough business, but forgot that, as in life, in publishing there are no sure wins.

Everything considered, I got off easy, no pun intended. Life chose a rather gentle scenario for my reality check. The experience of coming to terms with the fact that perhaps producing material for material’s sake might not be within my creative fibers got me thinking about two things: work ethic and authenticity. What does a writer need in order to prove her worth, and how far must a writer go to feel like she’s done her best? And what does “her best” mean, really? Is the accomplishment measured by someone else’s standards crammed down our throat as we seek their approval, or does it demand we reach that raw, unguarded universe inside us, the trajectory of which can never be guided, predicted, dictated by what sells?

It’s understandable why we seek promptness in everything we touch. Today’s culture is a boiling pot of quick fixes and overnight successes. Bravo to us! We’ve come a long way from the row houses and the work houses. But at what point did we begin to think that uniformity is applaudable, that color-coded and easy are the new synonyms of the next hit, the latest best-seller? How did we grow so contented with painting success by numbers, pursuing ordinariness over originality?

No doubt we’re experts at imitation. But what’s unsettling is that we seek it out, expect it and approve of it. And though I don’t dispute that great effort and dedication sometimes go into doing well what others have executed with brilliance, I do believe that when we work within the perimeters of uniformity, we reduce ourselves to lab rats restricted to their cages. Nowhere else is this trend more evident than in pop culture, where any artist too unorthodox, too old, too ugly, too thin or fat, too outspoken is bashed by the media, drowned by waves of unconstructive comments from those who might do better by society to stop living inside their computers and look outside the window once in a while.

Faced with this new, technologically driven, social media-engorged reality, with built-in judges and jury, we have learned that homogeny is safer. And in the process, something terrible has happened — we have forgotten not only our intrinsic hunger for limitless creativity, but also something less flashy and yet as fundamental as strong knees to take the brunt of our body weight: authenticity — absent of mimicry and abundant in flair distinctly ours.

Authenticity is the lifeblood of art. Authenticity is what people mean when they say, “There’s something about it that touches me, though I can’t quite put my finger on it.” It hums a tune, moves the fingers holding the brush, designs brilliant stories, jolts you out of deep slumber and forces you to zombie-walk to your desk where you jot that story down before it vanishes. You can never fake authenticity for long. At some point, you or others discover its absence, and no matter how you try to conceal it, the finale remains the same. Truth is illuminated.

I feel lucky that my erotica never exposed itself before large audiences, for I’d never want to be responsible for anyone’s urge to wash their eyes with bleach after reading, but I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my characters a public apology for stunting their … erm, emotional growth, for insisting they avert their eyes from naked buttocks when what they yearned to do was bite them (and spank them lightly, perhaps). Their climax never came. They never got their kink on: another writer, another story. Nevertheless, thanks to them, I plunged, explored, devoured, writhed, surrendered — and came away sated, my sense of truth expanded. Radiant.

Oksana Marafioti is the author of American Gypsy: A memoir.